Keith Pennington is the Chair of Lancashire Humanists. His daughter’s interview was published here, recently, too. Here we talk about his background, views, and work.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Your daughter, Heather Pentler, provided a wonderful interview earlier. How does secular parenting differ from religious parenting, typically?
As a secular parent, what do you try to keep in mind about the nature of evangelistic efforts aimed at the young and adolescents in most countries of the world?
Pennington: I was impressed with Heather’s answers and it was interesting to see how much she has matured. I saw in her younger days much that was similar to my attitudes in my late teens and early twenties – I think many pass through a kind of aggressive atheism, but with experience this usually moderates.
In school years (especially with the very young) we know that in the UK they are usually presented with Christianity as a “fact” and everything is talked about in terms of absolutes.
I experienced this myself and found that back in the 60/70s I felt very isolated in my views and was given the impression that I was “not the norm”. I think these days, with the internet, it is easier to find like minds and support that you are not strange.
So, conscious of my own experiences, I was always aiming to create a safe environment at home where all topics could be discussed. My wife was Catholic and so between us we would give differing views, but never forced our opinions on the children.
We made time to talk about various issues as they arose but we were always of a view that the children would be free to make their own informed choices about faith.
Jacobsen: How can you best serve children through the provision of critical thinking tools to combat the darkness of ignorance, superstition, and unquestionable dogma?
Pennington: I think some of the most important things to focus on are, not to be judgmental of others and to look at the facts or history behind situations. I am still learning but am certainly of the opinion that dialogue with others is very useful.
When I have been presented with something that comes from a particular view, I always find that I question it and I suppose this has rubbed off on my own children.
It has not been a conscious decision on my part, but I suppose if you grow up around that then there is a reasonable chance that you will pick up some aspects of this way of thinking.
Jacobsen: What was the religious context, for you, while growing up?
Pennington: I was brought up in the Church of England and was even an alter-boy until the age of about 12. I remember that I was not happy with the idea of “Sunday School” and so did not attend, which led me down a different path than many of my school friends.
It was probably when I was about 9-10 that I started reading Science Fiction, which through the likes of Asimov and Clarke started me to question things and think about things in a new way.
My father died when I was 11 and perhaps this accelerated my thinking and questioning of everything. So by the time I was 12-13 I had developed to the point that I walked away from the Church and declared that I was an atheist.
As I have said before, at this point of time in the early 70s it was not possible to easily find others who shared my views. So I simply read what I could and often had to explain my viewpoint to others around me.
For many years I certainly felt like I was one of a very small minority, even if this was not the reality.
Jacobsen: When did you first come into contact with a formal secular community?
Pennington: I think the first time I discovered a formal secular community was only about 5 years ago. After a little internet research on a subject i came across the BHA (British Humanist Association, as it was known then).
Shortly after that I found links to a local group in Lancashire and made initial contact. For some time though I was too busy with other voluntary commitments and was only able to attend the odd one or two sessions.
Eventually, the situation changed and I made a conscious decision to part-take more in their meetings.
Jacobsen: How did you come into a leadership position, as you’re the Chair of the Lancashire Humanists group now?
Pennington: Once I started attending the meetings regularly of our local Humanist group, I found myself increasingly contributing to the discussions.
Within our meetings it is clear that we cover a wide range of people, but we do have a core group who have the same ambitions about what our path forward might be.
When our last Chair stood down at the end of his term, I felt that the time was right to offer myself for the role and the attendees of the AGM were happy to elect me to the position.
Now I am trying to see how I can help us have a more prominent profile in the region and work with other groups. Our numbers are small and the region we cover is quite large, so we have many challenges ahead of us to enable us to be more accessible to future Humanists who are reaching out to find a group (as I did only a few years ago).
We have put out contact details to local media, which has initially given us a bit of publicity and given us the chance to let a wider audience have some understanding of what we are about. I hope that this can continue and that others find a home with us.
Jacobsen: How has this more than half-of-a-century atheist journey changed with the alterations in the culture and the distinguishing characteristics of mind at middle age and later age?
Pennington: It has been an interesting journey and one that is still developing. When I look back on who I was at certain times in my younger life, I find that I am not happy with that person.
As already indicated, in my late teens and early 20s I was probably quite aggressive and arrogant about my atheism – sometimes strongly challenging others who expressed a different view.
I suppose this was a reaction to the certainty with which many of faith put forward their position, which would imply it was stupid to have a different view.
Working in a science profession I was always working in a fact based environment but in my 30s I took an opportunity to start volunteering with an organisation that taught me a huge amount about people and helped me develop immensely as a person.
Looking back, I am sure that being a Samaritan volunteer was a very positive influence on me and taught we how to listen well to others. These skills are now part of who I am and I find they help me work better with others who do not share my beliefs.
Jacobsen: How can the atheists and the religious work together on common communal problems? What is an example from personal or professional life?
Pennington: Through my second wife (another Catholic) I have become involved with a Movement that has strong roots in its Catholic beginnings. I find that I am one of only a few in the UK involved with them, who is an atheist and consequently I am able to dialogue with them and we learn from each other over the years.
I aim to be a positive influence and hope that I can remove their fears that all atheists want to ban their beliefs.
Following on from the skills I have developed over the years, I had the opportunity in late 2017 to be part of a dialogue group with Humanists, Christians and Muslims.
This was a set of formal sessions that ran for 6 weeks and gave us some good opportunities to learn to understand each other better. It has taken some time for me to actively follow up on this, but I am in the process of trying to start a new dialogue group to meet informally on a monthly basis.
This will be open to all faiths and we already have commitments from Humanists, Christians and a Hindu. I will be working hard to see if we can encourage some Muslim involvement and then kick this off in the near future.
My hope is for this to be a positive group that may eventually gain some good publicity for all involved and may encourage others to follow the idea.
I will continue to look for opportunities to work with religious groups and show how we Humanists can contribute to our society. We are about being involved in a shared future, where all can be respected.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Keith.
Pennington: Thank you for this opportunity and I will be reading more from your website going forward.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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