Since our last newsletter of October 2009 our activities have included various stimulating talks: Alec Leggatt on Construction Projects and the Hindhead Tunnel, Liz Lang ex Chaplain Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice on Chaplaincy, Canon Derek Holbird Director of Education Diocese of Guildford on Faith-based Schools, and Michael Irwin on “Old age rational suicide” at our February AGM (see below). We’ve also treated ourselves to a delicious annual dinner, discussed fascinating “moral maze” dilemmas and hosted a public debate on the motion “Britain should become a secular state”.

The debate in November attracted over 140 people and raised £420 shared between Disability Challengers and WaterAid.

Lord Meghnad Desai Emeritus Professor of LSE, Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and Carla Revere Barrister, Chair of the Lawyers Secular Society argued that a Secular State is not against religion or belief but is for human rights, equality and inclusion for all.

Faith groups continue to work against equal rights and gain exemptions from European Directives. Britain has never had a non-Protestant Prime Minister; Tony Blair could only convert to Catholicism after office. If even a potential King cannot choose which religion then what hope for the rest of us?

Bishop Dr Chris Herbert former Bishop of St Albans and Dame Elizabeth Anson Retired Barrister speaking against the motion emphasised the importance of church community work and church schools and how reforms have mostly been led by the church.

In the Bishop’s view for equality to happen religious belief must be taken seriously institutionally, as well as individually, and this is best achieved with the established church.

The motion “Britain should become a secular state” was narrowly carried by 12 votes with 3 abstentions.

Michael Irwin gave a most sensitive and honest talk talked to a packed Hop Blossom Pub on Old Age Rational Suicide at our AGM on 21st February. He campaigns for voluntary euthanasia and is former chair of ‘the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society’ which, he told us, was set up in 1935 by a group of doctors, clergy and lawyers. In 2005 the society became known as ‘Dignity in Dying’. Michael was also former President of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies and medical director of the United Nations.

He informed us that there are four ways to die by euthanasia:

To withhold or withdraw medical treatment. Pneumonia used to be the old person’s friend but now medical treatment prolongs life. Only 8% of us have a Living Will in which the medical care we would like to receive is stated in advance of illness or disease. A power of Attorney cannot over rule a Living Will. Living Wills can also benefit our cash strapped NHS! After all, our biggest medical expenses are in later life.

Double effect or terminal sedation, for example diamorphine. George V was given generous doses of morphine and cocaine.

Doctor assisted suicide; the doctor giving a lethal substance to end life. This is only legal in Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Oregon and Washington in the USA. He said 130 people from the U.K. have travelled to Dignitas. 85% were terminally ill; the others had disabilities. Only 3 companions have been arrested. Michael Irwin was himself arrested and is currently on bail.

Voluntary euthanasia by lethal injection. This is legal only in Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Michael feels we should change the law to regularise not legalise.

An ICM poll found 76% in favour of a mentally competent adult, suffering unbearably from a terminal illness, being legally allowed to receive a doctor’s assistance to die. In the same poll, a surprising, 67% were in agreement with doctor’s assistance to die if they were suffering unbearably from non terminal health problems.

Interesting questions from the floor included: Why should doctors take the responsibility? Terry Pratchett’s preference for an independent tribunal.

Michael encouraged us to consider making a Living Will (now known as an Advanced Decision). It entitles us to refuse medical treatment and it avoids emotional arguments in the family. It is a pro-choice document, which can be downloaded from ‘Dignity in Dying’ or the sister site ‘Compassion in Dying’.

As his talk drew to a close he enlightened us that there is nothing in the Bible that condemns suicide. It was St Augustine who declared suicide a sin. The drama of the evening was added to by the lights suddenly going out (possible divine wrath due to the topic under debate?!!). However the resulting ensuing darkness did not deter the lively discussion which was completed in candlelight.

Finally, a thought provoking statistic; by 2020 there will be 2 million people in the U.K. over 80.

Other current and recent activities are updated as follows:

Schools – Alan Montgomery writes “In February Farnham Humanists were approached by Moira Johnson the Librarian at Treloar College who were looking at short notice for someone to give an introductory talk and discussion on Humanism.

“Treloar is a specialist college for young people, aged 16 or over, with physical disabilities from all over the UK and overseas. Based in Holybourne, near Alton in Hampshire, we have all the expertise and facilities that young people need to learn and develop as adults, in a really positive, supportive environment.” A student quote “Being treated as a young adult and receiving encouragement to speak up for what you believe is what Treloar’s is all about”; sounded to me like humanism in action.

The group comprised 12 to 15 students, almost all in wheelchairs, wheelchairs of all shapes, sizes, and levels of technical gadgetry, and several with personal carers. Many suffered from uncontrollable spasms in limbs and face, and one or two had difficulty speaking, but all were alert, and clearly happy, laughing and smiling much of the time. It is a humbling and inspiring experience to meet such children and their carers and helpers, and it certainly made me “count my own health blessings”.

The session was one in a series about religions and beliefs. I shared a platform, actually a circle of wheelchairs, with an atheist and a Quaker (both teachers in the college), and spoke after the atheist. As he’d covered most of the rational stuff and was also clearly a caring atheist (a Humanist I’d say), I concentrated on my own conversion to Humanism. The Quaker spoke of the virtues of group silence, and the inspiration that can come from it. I felt a duty to be rather mild as these children deserve any solace they might get from religion, but in the event the questions and views expressed were quite robust and sensible.

I recommend the experience to anyone. Perhaps Farnham Humanists could support Treloar College as one of our charities.”

Religious Education (SACRE) – Jennie Johnson writes “RE is the only subject that does not have a national curriculum. Each Local Education Authority has a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) which is responsible for providing the RE syllabus for local community and voluntary controlled faith schools.

The 1996 Education Act states that each SACRE should be made up of 4 groups: A=religions other than Church of England, B=Church of England, C=Teachers and D=elected local councillors. The Government’s 1994 guidance on RE explicitly stated that the inclusion of representatives of belief systems such as Humanism in Group A would be illegal.

The BHA campaigns for all pupils to study a reformed national curriculum subject of “Belief and Values Education, or Philosophy”. Whilst this is the long term aim, in the short term the BHA has been campaigning for Humanists to be included as full voting members of SACREs. The BHA argues that the 1998 Human Rights Act and the 2006 Equality Act requires that references to ‘religion’ in existing law should be read as references to ‘religion and belief’ and thus Humanists should be included on the same footing as religious members in Group A.

In February 2010 the Government issued new guidance on RE which removed the explicit bar in the 1994 guidance to Humanist membership and replaced it with a case study of a SACRE co-opting a Humanist representative in Group A “in the interests of inclusion”. The new guidance also re-affirmed that pupils should examine both religious and non-religious perspectives. The BHA is using the new guidance as an opportunity to encourage all SACREs in England and Wales to appoint a Humanist to their Group A.

The Surrey SACRE have allowed Farnham Humanists to provide a Humanist representative since 2006 as a temporary co-opted member with no voting rights, unlike the religious members who have full status. My temporary membership of Surrey SACRE formally expired in February 2007. The current position is that I have been recently informed verbally that I can continue to be a co-opted temporary member.

I attended a NASACRE (National Association of SACREs) training day in London in February for religious members of SACRE and was encouraged by the inclusivity of the example school assemblies given e.g. use of the words “And if you want to you can make your thoughts into a prayer…” rather than insisting the whole school recites a prayer together.

Local Development – Surrey – David Savage writes “We have continued to meet with Surrey County Council’s External Equality Advisory Group.

There has been some, but slow, progress in getting the Council to consider ‘religion and belief’ rather than ‘faith’. This difference is important. Ending discrimination based on ‘faith’ can mean ensuring organisations do not discriminate between religions but continue to discriminate between religious and non-religious people.

The Council have a very long way to go in order to get attitudes and behaviour fully consistent with equality and human rights. The Council have been using totally wrong and misleading data on religion or belief in its equality documents. It stated that ‘around 20% of the Surrey population do not see themselves as Christian, but as coming from other faith groups…’ It is difficult to understand how such misleading information could be approved by Council. Their own web site of Census data shows only 3.1% are other faiths. Census data is itself inaccurate because it asks the leading question ‘what is your religion’. The Council asks this leading question in asking Surrey residents about religion and belief. We have provided the Council with the BHA’s excellent ‘Guidance on Equality of Religion or Belief’. The BHA’s campaign to change the Census question is important in ensuring Council’s do not give undue emphasis to religious organisations and people. If you are not a member of the BHA please consider joining them to support such campaigns. This will be even more important with the developments in the provision of public services by religious groups.

We attended a Council sponsored religion and belief workshop. We requested that our humanist celebrants be allowed to place leaflets in Registry Offices. This request appeared to be well received but we have had no official response to date.

Local Development – Waverley – Alec Leggatt writes “Waverley B.C. have a “Faith Forum” and I have attended three of the meetings so far”. The forum is well supported with the Council leader and the CEO attending. Most faith communities attend and I have received a warm and respectful welcome.

The forum is fairly new and is taking time to find its identity and certainty of purpose. At the very least it enables the different faiths and Humanism to learn more about each other. Further than that it is intended to form a link between the Council and various belief communities in the Borough. My attempt to discard the term “Faith” from the title in favour of “Religion and Belief” – the wording now preferred in legislation. – has failed, but the Council use the better wording in their literature.

The forum was asked about prayers before Council meetings. It recommended a few moments silence for private reflection instead of open prayer and I agreed with this.”

Ceremonies – Alec Leggatt and Barbara Burfoot continue to provide officiant support for Funerals, Weddings and Baby Namings. On his retirement, Mike Adams intends to train as a celebrant and will sit in on some of Alec’s ceremonies.

Website – Further changes have been made to Farnham Humanists’ website Any comments for improvements or offers of help would be very welcome ,

Further Education Talks – Following a request from a tutor at Farnborough College of Technology to Farnham Humanists, Jim Herrick and Jennie Johnson gave two talks about Humanism in November to students taking a counselling course. Both were followed by a lively discussion with a wide range of viewpoints and people interested in finding out more about Humanism.

Membership – Just a reminder that at our AGM on February 21st we decided to keep the membership at £10 per year. Any membership fees/donations for 2009 can be sent to Mike Adams at 10 New House Farm Lane Wood Street Village Guildford GU3 3DD, cheques to be made payable to Farnham Humanists. Voluntary donations (e.g. £5) will of course also be gratefully received.

Programme for 2010

We meet in the middle of each month on a Sunday evening at 7.30 at the Hop Blossom Pub, Long Garden Walk, Farnham, Surrey, GU9 7HX just off Castle Street in Farnham. Enquiries to 01252 794021. (We use an attractive separate room on the ground floor which is suitable for wheelchair access.)

Also, on the first Wednesday of every month at 8.00, we have an informal gathering at The Fox, Lower Bourne, Farnham GU10 3PH. All are welcome at both events. Enquiries to 01252 794021.

Our programme for the rest of the year includes: rambles, paddle steamer trip, garden party, Christmas entertainment, together with talks given by invited speakers and group discussions on the following subjects: “What Humanism means to me”, “What is lost and gained by being non-religious”, “Language – humans vs. other animals”, “International Humanism”, “Bell’s Inequality – an argument for the existence of God?”