UK Humanists’ Convention in Belfast

Belfast is an attractive venue for a convention. When I realised that the 2022 Humanists UK Convention was being held here, after some delay, I decided to attend. Booking early is efficient but does not allow for a sudden war followed by a cost of living crisis and a train strike. Somehow, I made it and had a rather smooth transition from one part of the UK to another very self-consciously different part.

A good place for a convention

Belfast is not too large. It is a city, manageable with a simple paper map, easy to walk and is full of interest. Friendly people abound and, despite the very hit-and-miss collection of architectural styles, it is delightful. A lot of people with an idiosyncratic sense of dress seem to be enjoying themselves in the many attractive bars and cafés.

One is never away from a musical rendition; smoking is everywhere to be seen. There are a fair number of rough sleepers. The mood is of a place going in a positive direction in the sure and certain knowledge of a traumatic recent past and of presently being a political peculiarity.

Daily I walked safely and happily a mile each way through the centre of the city to the MAC. This is a large cultural facility and rendezvous behind St Anne’s Cathedral and opening onto the attractive St Anne’s Square. The coffee is good there and the food uncomplicated by the neurosis that affects the South of England regarding healthy offerings. It is more like Scotland where sweet is sweet, portions are considerable and it is altogether pleasing to the eye of a cheerfully greedy person.

The Humanists’ annual get-together is very enjoyable. A couple of hundred, mostly male, participants and many of a certain age, get together to listen to speakers on important contemporary topics. The mood is intellectual and interactive, there is comedy and goodwill, warm friendships are made and renewed. It is inclusive, somewhat rational, largely atheist and, one guesses, has a high proportion of academics from the sciences, IT persons as well as many from medicine and the law.

Interfaith afternoon

On Friday 24th there was an Interfaith afternoon filled with the good intentions of a largely post Christian group of participants with a token Muslim, Baha’i and/or representative of a non-Christian faith. Unusually, though not surprisingly, this year was dominated by one or two Northern Irish Catholic and Protestant members. The points made were interesting and instructive but there was, as always, a polite restraint rather than a roaring debate.

Philosophy and AI

Of the talks I remember, the first one was by Professor A C Grayling who is fluent and serious. He lucidly described some of the disasters befalling mankind, leaving one with a feeling of pessimism and a slight sense of panic. The talk on Artificial Intelligence by Dr Kate Devlin of King’s College London was informative and reassuring. The more informal panel sessions that followed were not entirely satisfactory, being a bit chatty, with confused themes and generally unstructured.

Mars and eugenics

Prof. Adam Rutherford
Professor Adam Rutherford speaking at the Humanists Convention in Belfast. Photo, Neil Camp used with permission

On Sunday the Convention returned to its best standard with talks by Dr Adam Rutherford, the new President of HUK on Eugenics, and by astrophysicists Dr Meg Schwamb and Professor Stephen Smartt from Queen’s University about the exploration of Mars. The ice cap at the Pole there is superficially like our own, but on Mars is actually composed entirely of frozen carbon dioxide.

Elon Musk is to be disappointed, it seems, as no matter how severe the problems of climate change on Earth are for the coming generations, they will be easier to solve than those of living on the Red Planet, like Musk proposes to do before he dies.

Dr Rutherford showed us how popular eugenics had been in many countries at the beginning of the twentieth century and it is clear that all sorts of thoughts – thoughts that we might now rather like to disown – were active in the UK and the US contemporaneously with any of those developing in Germany.

Indeed, the German plans that led to them being a nation ostracised for decades and marked forever with pain in history were based on a law composed in the US. It was shocking to learn these facts but confirmed to me that, while mankind of whatever nation will experiment with new ideas, sometimes disastrously, that they then, fortunately, learn a lesson that moves humanity forward in moral sensitivity. 

Integration of education in NI

Learning about the work being done to integrate education in Northern Ireland was instructive. There are 70 integrated schools there of about a thousand schools in total. It seems that a million pounds a week is spent maintaining segregated educational bureaucracies, one Catholic, one Protestant.

The vested interest in this outdated set-up goes against the wishes of the majority of parents who would prefer an inclusive and universal system of education. One could not but admire the work of MLA Kellie Armstrong and others in combating this with increasing success.

Walking on the moon and stand-up comedy

Prof. Richard Wiseman
Professor Richard Wiseman, speaking at the Humanists Convention. Photo, Neil Camp, used with permission

During the afternoon, Professor Richard Wiseman entertained us with the history of the Moon Landings as well as depicting hilarious moments from his adventurous and experimental career that began with conjuring. He is a wonderful speaker: clever, scholarly and with impeccable comic timing. He was first amongst equals for the comedy, of which this Convention provides plenty. We were also treated to stand up comedians including well known Irish actor, Tim McGarry.

Stalwarts of HUK were present with their welcoming warmth including CEO Andrew Copson, a man of great energy and talent, Trustee Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, one of the HUK projects, Tamar Gupta, the Chair of Trustees and outgoing Treasurer Professor John Adams. Other main areas for the Humanists are support for Assisted Dying and action against state funding of Faith Schools. Patron Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Ancient Religion at Exeter was there reminding us of her fine work on the textual origins of religion, as was Madeleine Goodall, a fine historian of secular groups associated with Humanism.

Belfast Agreement

The Belfast setting of this Convention meant that we learned a lot about this progressive and positive area of the UK. The population is fully conscious of its unique position in contemporary politics and filled with the energy of a forward moving society imbued with the energy of positive change.

The experience of Belfast was unexpectedly encouraging. There was no obvious sign of anxiety concerning the Protocol that troubles the Westminster Parliament in their negotiations, not to say quarrels, with the European Union. On the contrary, the economy of Northern Ireland is booming and the privilege of having dual nationality and the best of both worlds seems to be widely appreciated.