Our group was pleased to accept an invitation to speak at this important virtual event in London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 25.2.21 alongside many community and faith leaders.
Other speakers included the local MP, Rushanara Ali, the High Commissioner for Bangladesh, the Mayor and several councillors, and representatives of local faith communities.
The stated aim was to provide support and comfort to the community which has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. It was also used to encourage the community to participate in the vaccination programme.
Speakers paid tribute to the work carried out by faith communities during what has been a very difficult year. A number of faith leaders described Covid as a divine test for humanity, and expressed thanks for what they believe was divine inspiration behind creation of vaccines. The contribution, by our group’s chair Paul Kaufman, provided a humanist perspective:
Thank you for inviting me to speak today. Humanists don’t have any religious belief or belief in an afterlife. But I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with faith leaders in giving this message. We are all united in our belief in the importance of compassion, mutual respect and hope.
The 2021 census takes place next month. The last census in 2011 showed that those of us with no religious belief make up the third largest belief group in the Borough. The non-religious don’t get comfort or hope from prayer or from belief in an afterlife. However, many of us as Humanists do get comfort and hope from other things which, for us, are more meaningful and real.
Pandemics are not new. Disease is one of many horrible natural phenomena that humans have always had to contend with. The earliest recorded pandemic in this country caused devastation at Barking Abbey in 664 AD. The plague of 1665 took the lives of a quarter of London’s population, and 100 years ago a flu pandemic killed around 50 million world-wide.
Covid has been dreadful and our hearts go out to every single victim. But at least we now understand what causes pandemics and how they can be dealt with. We don’t have to endure the blind panic, quack remedies and superstition of the past.
So hope for us lies in all the things we know can be done and which have helped to reduce the devastation caused by Covid. While the toll has been dreadful we know from past pandemics that without the measures taken the outcome would have been many times worse. We should celebrate the advances in human knowledge which make this possible.
We can take much comfort from the way the response to Covid has brought out the best in people – the importance of fellowship, and what we can achieve when we all work together. We of course pay tribute to all those working on the front line – the NHS and shop staff, delivery drivers and cleaners, police officers, care workers and so many others.
We should also recognise the sacrifice of the majority who have followed the guidelines as part of the collective effort to avoid spreading the disease, and everyone who has reached out to those less fortunate, in food-banks and elsewhere. I should add that the non-religious have, as well as those of faith, played an important part in this.
Finally, we can take both hope and comfort from the fact that science and massive collective effort has led to the vaccination programme which casts a bright light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. We owe it to each other, and to those who have made so much sacrifice, to all take part in the programme.
Humans have survived many pandemics and have gone on to thrive. Let us emerge from this suffering with greater appreciation of each other, of our natural world, of science, and of the importance of making the most of this life. Last but not least, let us all vow to do more to address the inequalities which have caused some communities to suffer so much more than others.
Holocaust Memorial Day in Waltham Forest included a contribution from local humanist member Ruth Kaufman who provided a non-religious perspective on this solemn occasion. Ruth spoke as follows:
“I am speaking as a non-religious person, because people with no belief in God also were murdered in the Holocaust, also mourn, and also must do all we can to prevent more of man’s inhumanity to man, during this one life we believe we have.
I will read excerpts from the writings of Primo Levi. Primo Levi was Italian, ethnically Jewish, and a non-believer. He was captured while fighting with the Italian Resistance, and spent 11 months in Auschwitz.
His book If this is a Man, beginswith this poem
“You who live safe In your warm houses, You who find warm food And friendly faces when you return home. Consider if this is a man Who works in mud, Who knows no peace, Who fights for a crust of bread, Who dies by a yes or no. Consider if this is a woman Without hair, without name, Without the strength to remember, Empty are her eyes, cold her womb, Like a frog in winter. Never forget that this has happened. Remember these words. Engrave them in your hearts, When at home or in the street, When lying down, when getting up. Repeat them to your children. Or may your houses be destroyed, May illness strike you down, May your offspring turn their faces from you.” ― Primo Levi, If this is a man
He also wrote
“Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.” ― Primo Levi, If This Is a Man • The Truce
“We must be listened to: … It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”
Barry Duke is the speaker for our first virtual event of 2021.
Barry has had a fascinating and varied life journey. Born in apartheid South Africa, he came to the UK as a refugee in 1973 and now lives in Spain. He was for many years active in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1979 Barry helped to found the Gay Humanist Group (now LGBT Humanists) after Mary Whitehouse began a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against Gay News.
Since 1997 Barry has edited The Freethinker. Founded in 1881, The Freethinker continues to be a much-needed beacon for rational thought.
There will be time for questions and answers.
The event is free and open to all, but pre-registration on Meetup is required. The Zoom link will be sent to all those who have registered.
The main event will begin at 19.30. Access to the Zoom room will commence at 19.10 for a chance to socialise and will continue for further socialising when the meeting ends.
A cartoon from the ‘Comic Bible Sketches’ which featured in early editions of The Freethinker. Following the publication of such cartoons in the May and Christmas 1882 editions of The Freethinker, George William Foote, the editor, was prosecuted for blasphemy, and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment with hard labour. On receiving his sentence from Mr Justice North (a devout Catholic), Foote said “with great deliberation” to the Judge “My Lord, I thank you; it is worthy of your creed”. William Ramsay (the shop manager) was sentenced to 9 months, and William Kemp (the printer) was sentenced to three months imprisonment.
The April 2014 edition of The Freethinker announced that the May issue would be the last to appear in print; publication has since continued online.