Our last human right

Reform is badly needed to give the terminally ill their last human right – freedom to choose how and where to die. Opinion piece Barking & Dagenham Post 11.1.24 (below). Also for publication Romford Recorder, Ilford Recorder, Docklands and East London Advertiser, Newham Recorder.

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Nature’s collapse, and an inspiring story

Opinion piece published Barking & Dagenham Post, Romford Recorder, Docklands & East London Advertiser November/December 2023, transcribed below

These are grim times, but reading about a star birdwatcher cheered me up! The story of David Lindo, recently appointed a patron of Humanists UK, challenges stereotypes. It inspires at a time when action is urgently needed to save our natural world.

David was brought up in West London, the son of Jamaican immigrants. In his autobiography, The Urban Birder, David describes his fascination with nature as a child, particularly birds. He honed his skills and knowledge in London’s urban wastelands and parks. He mentions ‘bunking off’ to East London to expand his birdwatching horizons. David is now a TV presenter and international authority on ornithology. He has written extensively on urban birdwatching around the world.

During his journey David encountered ridicule and dismissiveness from people on all sides who didn’t think birdwatching was a black person’s thing. Thankfully, he enjoyed the support of many others. Identifying as a Humanist also counters any lazy assumption that being black means you are likely to be religious.

The ‘State of Nature Report,’ published on 28 September, charts the catastrophic decline in biodiversity across the UK. For example, of 293 bird species assessed, 43% are threatened with extinction from the UK. 60 nature organisations collaborated on this authoritative annual survey. War has understandably been dominating the news, along with the Covid enquiry and other stories of dysfunction in our world. But this should not eclipse coverage of the natural world’s collapse and the threats to all life as we know it.

David’s work, like that of David Attenborough, incidentally also a humanist, highlights how humans are part of nature’s web. All lives and fates are intertwined. Projects at, for example, Canary Wharf and the square mile’s Tower 42, have identified an astonishing variety of birds, from honey buzzards to wrynecks. Literally hundreds of species fly over and live in London, if only you know where and how to look for them. And why wouldn’t they?

It’s hard to be cheerful when so much depressing news abounds. But inspirational lives help keep hope alive. Much bad news, such as war, poverty, species loss and climate change, is down to human action or inaction. The positive is that humans have the power to turn things around if the will is there.

Paul Kaufman
Chairperson, East London Humanists

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Remembering the key message of Remembrance Day

Opinion piece Ilford Recorder 16 November 2023

Ilford Recorder opinion page 16.11.23

I took the decision to wear a white poppy alongside my red poppy when I took part in Sunday’s Remembrance Day service at Ilford War Memorial.

A red poppy shows respect for the Royal British Legion and those who have given their lives in war.  But many may not appreciate that wearing a white poppy is a proud tradition going back 90 years.

The first white poppies were produced in 1933 by members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild. Many had lost family and friends in World War l. They wanted to hold onto the key message of Remembrance Day: ‘Never again.’ This goes beyond mere commemoration. It aims to ensure those who made such sacrifices did not do so in vain.

White poppies stand for three things:

Remembrance of all victims, including civilians, people of every stripe, refugees, and those killed in wars happening now as well as in the past; Emphasising the importance of resisting war and its causes and questioning its justification; Highlighting the devastating human cost of war and the urgency of finding non-violent solutions.

My contribution, as the Humanist representative, was spoken alongside contributions from local religious and political leaders, and the Christian chaplain who leads the service. I was given the privilege of writing the words I use when I took part in my first Redbridge Remembrance Day service as humanist chaplain to the then mayor in 2021: “Every human life is precious, whatever our religion or belief. Let us use this day to remind ourselves of our common humanity, and pledge to do all we can to live alongside each other in peace and to avoid the scourge of war.”

The ‘elephant in the room’ at this year’s services was the Gaza conflict. Our political leaders have rightly condemned the Hamas atrocities. Their vicious Charter targets me both because I’m a Jew and because I’m an atheist.  I am equally horrified by the killing and maiming of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure inflicted by Israel. It pains me that the same leaders have, at the time of writing this piece, failed to put any limit on the number of civilians, children, UN staff, charity workers and journalists they are prepared to see killed in the onslaught.

I question whether they have grasped the key message of Remembrance Day.

Paul Kaufman
Chairperson East London H

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Gaza. Religious zealotry v Reason and compassion

Opinion piece published in Barking & Dagenham Post, Docklands and East London Advertiser and Ilford Recorder November 2023.

Barking and Dagenham Post 8.11.2023.

Where do you stand on the ghastly Gaza war? As a Humanist I am on the side of peace. And I will always side with the children and all the other innocent victims of war.

Every Humanist will have their own journey to nailing the colours of this non-religious ethical worldview to their mast. My ‘epiphany’ was the invasion of Iraq in 2001. In my early life I laboured under the false assumption that, however slowly and fitfully, progress towards a world based on compassion, fairness and rational beliefs was somehow inevitable. The sight of President Bush and PM Blair praying together for guidance brought me up with a start. Apparently, their decision to start that war, without UN approval, was part-founded on their belief that it had God’s blessing. For some of us their catastrophic decision was an important milestone in the breakdown of a rule-based world order.

Religious zealotry plays an important role in the Gaza conflict. The Hamas Charter is a long antisemitic diatribe and assertion that it’s God’s will that the land be ruled under Islamic law. On the other hand, there are those in Israel who rely on ancient scriptures to justify seizing land from Palestinians who have lived there for centuries. I’m an East End born Jew, albeit not religious. My grandparents obtained refuge here from pogroms in Eastern Europe. It strikes me as anomalous that I am automatically entitled to settle in Israel, despite my lack of connection for two millennia, whereas dispossessed Palestinians are not. Some 700,000 Palestinian refugees were created by the 1948 war alone.

This is not an anti-religious rant. Rabbi Hillel, who lived 2000 years ago, when asked to explain the Jewish holy book famously replied “That which is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary.”  It’s what Humanists call the Golden Rule. It’s also a central tenet of Islam. My fervent hope is that all religious leaders assert the importance of this value.

War crimes have been committed on both sides and all must be condemned. There are no easy solutions. However, for me the war underlines the importance of working for a world based on both compassion and reason.

Paul Kaufman
Chairperson, East London Humanists

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Standing up for Science!

Barking and Dagenham Post 4 October 2023

It is good to see that Humanists UK feature among the eighty plus exhibitors at this year’s New Scientist Live festival at East London’s Excel Centre.

Billed as ‘The world’s greatest festival of ideas and discoveries,’ it takes place over the weekend of 7/8 October with a special Schools Day on Monday 9th. Headline speakers include brilliant communicators Jim Al Khalili and Professor Alice Roberts, both Patrons and former Presidents of Humanists UK.

It’s good to be taking part because the importance of standing up for science has never been greater. The ‘scientific method’ – gathering and weighing evidence then testing conclusions – is the bedrock of progress and our understanding of the universe and our place in it. It is tragic to hear irrational conspiracy theorists rejecting, say, life-saving vaccines, or Michael Gove, a senior politician, declaring “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts….’

As Jim Al Khalili points out, “…the modern world is complex and unpredictable. Much of the information we are bombarded with can be confusing and designed to appeal to our pre-existing beliefs, values, and ideologies, so it is hard to be objective about what to believe and whom to trust. But we can borrow what is best about the scientific method and apply it to our daily lives to help navigate modern life more confidently.”

Navigating life and working out what to believe is particularly challenging for youngsters. As an accredited school speaker for Humanists UK I explain to students how reason – working out what we believe through scientific method rather than faith – is central to a humanist outlook, along with compassion and fairness.  There is much for example that we don’t understand about the universe and its origins, but science and the amazing technology now at our disposal is for me the most trustworthy method of getting closer to the truth.

Science doesn’t always get things right. Decent scientists will be open to new evidence which may change a conclusion. But it largely gets things right and is responsible for instance for jumps in life expectancy. It is a truism that, thanks to science, human knowledge is greater than at any previous time in history.

Now that is something to celebrate!

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The scandal of illegal schools

The problem of crumbling schools has hit the headlines. Government inaction over illegal schools is another scandal which deserves equal attention.

(Humanist opinion piece published on various dates in September 2023 in the following newspapers: The Barking and Dagenham Post; The Romford Recorder; The Docklands & East London Advertiser; The Newham Recorder. This version was published in the Newham Recorder).

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History’s verdict on effective disruptive environmental protest

Reflections on the 40th anniversary of a successful environmental protest reviled at the time. (Published on various dates in August 2023 in the following Humanist opinion columns: Barking & Dagenham Post, Ilford Recorder; Romford Recorder; Docklands & East London Advertiser).

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UN calls out UK for education bias

East London Humanists opinion piece spotlights UK Government’s dismal response to a UN Human Rights Committees concerns over our children’s freedom of religion and belief. Published Ilford Recorder 29.6.23, Romford Recorder 4.7.23.

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Charles’s coronation. Another first for Humanists!

Humanists UK hasn’t adopted a policy on whether the UK should have an elected head of state. In the meantime, an invitation to participate in the recent ceremonial installation of our latest Head of State is welcome recognition of the importance of the non-religious. Opinion piece Barking and Dagenham Post 17.5.23 and Romford Recorder 24.5.23.

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Our new head of state – a champion of pseudo-science

A sobering reflection on the beliefs of King Charles published during the week of his coronation in the East London and Docklands Advertiser (4.5.23).

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