Comment piece in Western Morning News

Martin, Plymouth Humanists’ Chair, was invited to write a seasonal comment piece for the Western Morning News.  Here’s the text that appeared in the paper last week (unfortunately it’s not online).

In the dark days of winter many of us tend to think back to the year that has passed and make plans for the future. It is easy to be saddened by political events, by the cruelty and violence we see in the media due to war, greed and simple thoughtlessness, as well as the environmental damage which was so shockingly displayed in Blue Planet 2. Nevertheless, it is important to remember the many kindnesses we have experienced ourselves and the good things other people have experienced from us. Many of you will – like me – have seen the film “Paddington 2” and been touched by how much the lives of the people around Paddington were changed for the better simply through his honesty and genuine kindness. This film embodies, in my opinion, humanist ideals: be kind, thoughtful and don’t hurt others.

Humanists do not believe in the supernatural, but we do put our faith in improving everybody’s life through rational thought and in decency. I am glad to say that rational thought and common decency can celebrate many achievements in 2017. You may be astonished to read those words when you think back, for example, to the horrifying scale of sexual abuse and harassment that was revealed this year, but the positive development is that people now talk about it and are no longer prepared to simply accept it. As a consequence, several powerful people are now being called to account, and people may find it easier to protest against such behaviour, or to support its victims, in the future.

The situation of women has in some ways been improving, for example women in Northern Ireland are now allowed to have abortions on the NHS in Great Britain, making it no longer so much a privilege of the rich. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia women are now allowed to drive. These steps in the right direction, towards equal treatment independent of gender and equal opportunities for all, should be welcomed.

We may be intimidated or feel powerless, thinking that we as an individual cannot change things but I firmly believe that we can make a difference by looking out for people around us, whether it is by listening to them, being kind or standing up for people who are unable to do so themselves.

Similarly, we can see positive developments on the environmental front, where all but one country has signed up to the Paris agreement on climate change and the banning of microbeads has been proposed to cut marine pollution. Locally, it seems beaver releases will be extended into Cornwall and possibly the Forest of Dean. I think that we all can do something to support the environment, whether it is signing a petition so that politicians recognise the strength of public interest or taking part in one of the many activities going on locally to improve the environment. Plymouth Humanists, for example, runs regular litter picking and conservation walks in Warleigh Point Nature Reserve, which lies on the edge of the city.

Other positive developments include: Australia is to legalise same sex marriage; the UK government will consult over an opt out approach to organ donation, which is likely to save many lives; the Australian state of Victoria is to legalise assisted dying which the late Terry Pratchett so forcefully campaigned for over here; Jersey will introduce Humanist marriage, which is already more common in Scotland than Church of Scotland services; and some blasphemy laws are being abolished in Europe - for example in Denmark.

In medicine we can celebrate breakthroughs in the treatment of Huntington's disease and for haemophilia. In physics the Nobel prize was awarded for the detection of gravitational waves which offers us a brand-new way of seeing far into the universe.

Looking forward to 2018, what can we do? As mentioned above, showing kindness is fundamentally important. In order to be kind to others we need to understand where they are coming from and recognise that their different views can be honestly held. This is especially important in our society after the Brexit referendum, which has split the country because people are unwilling to listen to each other. If we want to understand this unwillingness, and find ways to overcome it, we need to realise that we are all biased to accept information that backs up our already existing opinions. Therefore, Plymouth Humanists will have a talk in January by the author of the Wikipedia page on this phenomenon, which is called confirmation bias. At the moment, with deep divisions between people in the UK according to wealth, religion and political views – to name just a few of the divides – honest and understanding discussions, based on knowledge and mutual respect, are urgently needed.

Most people want to be decent, but many of us can be persuaded to do bad things. Let us try in 2018 to listen to others, to treat them well, to fight for equal citizenship and universal rights for all and to try to reduce the damage to the planet that we live on together.