Saturday, 22 September 2012

Secularist stars at the NSS conference

As I mentioned earlier, I went to London today for the National Secular Society's conference.  I'll probably write more about it another day, but here's a little comment about each of the speakers.  I should say that the event was attended by nearly 800 people from a range of backgrounds - including at least one gentleman wearing a clerical collar.

Professor Ted Cantle - business-like and well informed.  Being English and male might lead some to wonder how he is qualified to comment about people who are in neither category but I found him convincing.  Multiculturalism is to be replaced by 'interculturalism'. 

Nia Griffith (Member of Parliament), neither English nor male - was an entertaining and informative speaker.  Her best anecdote (of many) was about the Human Embryology and Fertilsation Act.  Constituents were worried that "there'll be centaurs running in the streets".  [Its odd that they will not be cantering or galloping.]

Pragna Patel was more successful than I expected at involving those of us who were not 'Southall Black Sisters'.  [I suppose I'm a little wary of positive discrimination or something - but being white, English and male, I hope you might make allowances for that . . . please?]  Speaking of minority groups who seek favours from the state she said "They use the language of human rights but actually seek to suppress it."  This was echoed by most of the following speakers.  Excellent points throughout the speech and good answers to questions.

Nick Cohen's brilliant speech was one of the highlights of the day.  He acknowledged that journalists and broadcasters were afraid to admit that self-censorship exists.  All like to pose as dissidents in a dictatorship, challenging establishments, transgressing boundaries, but they can't acknowledge that certain topics are just off limits.  He added that 200 years ago you would know that the finest minds in the world also had supernatural beliefs as a broad explanation of the world. Now that is no longer possible.  As soon as you reach some level of knowledge you will know that the greatest minds in the world do not hold supernatural beliefs now.  Religion is no longer able to be involved in high culture.  This makes people defensive and wary of learning.  Religion now knows itself to be intellectually on the back foot.

Maryam Namazie was next but I'll come back to her later.

Peter Tatchell delivered a fine speech as usual.  He emphasised that the enemy was organised faith itself, not necessarily the faithful people.  The clerics are the main threat and it is time we said so.  Afterwards someone commented that he had foundered a little when questioned about the ordinary faithful essentially lending support to the religious leaders, and about funding for improvements to human rights.  I think that was a reasonable assessment.

Richard Dawkins came last - I can listen to him any time.  He was advertised as the keynote speaker for very obvious reasons.  The first half of his talk was excellent, with comments on dealing with potentially violent people "I fear you because you are mad but don't confuse fear with respect.Actually telling people that they are "behaving like a spoilt brat having a temper tantrum" might not be the best advice.  He spent some time on American politics, obviously with the impending election in mind.  Christian scriptures are genuinely ancient. The Book of Mormon is not ancient but ludicrously anachronistic [and he explained why, in some detail, and with great wit]. Many of the core beliefs are measurably more preposterous than claims of Christianity.  At least it is arguable that Jesus existed. All of that was delivered with his usual verbal dexterity.  The less I say about the second half of the speech, his confusing satire about Tony Blair, the better, but Richard is not a stand-up comedian by profession.

Now back to the real star of the show.  It is clear why Dawkins was the keynote speaker, but the only one of the day to get a standing ovation, along with the longest applause, was Maryam Namazie.  Her speech was exactly what you would expect from her, and on the basis of the four times that I have heard her, she delivers it to the same high standard every time she speaks.  She combines a passion for justice with a deep understanding and knowledge of the subject.  It will be hard to do justice to her but in a few days I will write more about what she said.

Aside from that - it was a great day out and I met a lot of very interesting people who had travelled much further than I had to attend.  Hello to anyone among them who is reading this.  I expect all my readers to try to attend next year if geographically feasible.  Thanks to Terry Sanderson and crew for organising it all at a very reasonable price and reaching out to so many people.

Small note: published hurriedly on the day of the event.  Please forgive the larger number of typos than usual.

Update!  Most of the talks have now appeared on the Pod Delusion Extra site - although at the time of writing (2012-09-30) the best one is still awaiting permission.  Hopefully we can all hear the words of Maryam Namazie soon.


Rosa Rubicondior said...

Sounds great.

Was it filmed for YouTube?

Karen said...

It sounds as if you had a marvellous day. I wish I had been there.