To Conway Hall for the National Secular Society Conference 2011

As pleasant as a vicarage garden party but without the bullshit and the hypocrisy.

The NSS put on a very good conference at Conway Hall, London on 10 September.  There were some great speakers from various organisations and plenty of thought-provoking discussions.

Despite arriving late and causing a minor reshuffle of speakers, former Liberal Democrat MP Dr. Evan Harris proved very popular.

I particularly liked the point he made about the constitutional right of twenty six bishops to sit in the House of Lords: there are enough old, white, ostensibly heterosexual males in that institution already; our constitution need not be obliged to reserve places for them.

And he told us his standard response when asked by religious people how he decides what is immoral or moral without religion or holy texts.  Answer: “I use my brain.”  Great one for dinner parties, I reckon.

He talked us through his secular manifesto and this triggered some healthy disagreement from the floor.  The manifesto is intended at this stage to simply kick off debate amongst various interested organisations and is well worth a read.

There are some good examples in the manifesto of how Secularism guards against genuine religious discrimination, such as amendment of the Act of Settlement which currently bars Catholics from becoming our Head of State or marrying our Head of State.  As Evan explained, our Head of State should be allowed to marry a Catholic if he or she so wishes but obviously doesn’t have to: he or she can of course still choose to inter-breed.

Dr. Antony Lempert from the Secular Medical Forum spoke to us about a number of issues, including non-therapeutic male and female genital mutilation and his depressing experiences with his local faith school.  He was an excellent speaker.

A while ago at work I referred to Jewish circumcision as male genital mutilation and a female colleague said to me, “I love you, you’re so un-PC.”  I disagreed with her: what was un-PC was slicing off a baby boy’s foreskin for absolutely no medical reason.  You run a greater risk of being shunned in your local community if you want to cut your Boxer dog’s tail off.  If children aren’t entitled to human rights then we should at least give them animal rights.

As Dr. Lempert explained to us, if you tattoo your child’s foreskin you will go to jail, but if you cut it off you won’t (so if you want to tattoo it, you should cut it off first).  This topic was well summarised in a leaflet handed out by mendocomplain: Children’s rights, not parents’ rites.

The thought of handing over my child – who is exactly 100% dependent on me and others to make decisions for him in his best interests – to a witch doctor to perform an unnecessary, irreversible, violent, criminal and immoral act on the most sensitive part of his body literally makes me shudder; handing him over to a proper doctor to perform a necessary and legal medical procedure is quite enough for me.

Baroness Mary Warnock performed the role of Curveball-Thrower-in-Chief when she said she didn’t have a problem with an established church.  Now, I’m all for healthy debate but I think there is already enough debate and difference within the NSS to make it a healthy organisation.  There are differences concerning objectives and how those objectives can be best achieved, and that’s all good in my book.  But I’m not sure we really need to discuss, internally, whether there should or should not be an established church; there is plenty of scope to have that debate externally.

Disestablishment is and should be a core objective of the NSS.  Baroness Warnock took questions from the floor and when it was my turn I said, “Not a question, a statement.  I think I’ve come to the wrong meeting.”

Dr. Edward Presswood was another popular speaker who told us about his campaign to Bring Back Bed 13 at the NHS.  Although this initially appeared to be a humorous or even trivial matter, it became clear that it wasn’t and Dr. Presswood put forward a very compelling case for removal of superstition and religion from our health service.

There were also excellent talks from One Law For All and Survivors’ Voice Europe.

In all, it was a very good day and I had some interesting chats with some of the speakers and other attendees, both at the conference and at the pub afterwards.

This post isn’t intended to be a full record of all the speakers so apologies to any I haven’t mentioned here.  Thanks to all the speakers and also to the NSS.

Post Script, 27 September 2011: The audio of the conference is on the Pod Delusion. You can hear my cheeky quip in Part 1, at 28min 50sec on Baroness Warnock’s section. Part 2 of the conference is here.

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