Interview with Paul Kaufman – Chair, East London Humanists

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Paul Kaufman is the Chair of East London Humanists.

Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Paul Kaufman: My grandparents, who I barely knew, were strictly orthodox Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. My parents rejected religious belief at an early age, although my Dad was bar mitzvahed and was exceptionally well-versed in Hebrew and religious texts. My parents left school at 14. My two sisters and I were brought up in East London without any religious faith. We all absorbed our parents’ strong ethical values, including belief in the importance of social justice, and the importance of actively campaigning for it, and the importance of learning and critical questioning.  

In short, my parents were Humanists, although it was not a term they would have used. I only came to adopt the term Humanist for myself in middle age when it first appeared on my radar.  I often refer to my upbringing and my family when giving school talks to illustrate the simple truth that you do not have to be religious to be good, or to lead a good and meaningful life.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Kaufman: My sisters and I were the first generation in the family to have the benefit of a university education. We have all enjoyed professional careers. I qualified as a lawyer, and still practice as a criminal trial advocate in the higher courts in and around London. We all strongly believe in the importance of self-education and life-long learning, and have wide-ranging and eclectic interests. 

Following in my dad’s footsteps, I think it’s important to be familiar with religious texts from all the principal religions in order to have insight into the beliefs of others and to be able to engage in dialogue from a position of knowledge.

Self-education for me takes many forms – reading books and journals, watching TV, attending talks and lectures, visiting museums and galleries, etc. etc. I have become increasingly aware of the importance of stepping outside my ‘bubble.’ I, therefore, spend time exploring the internet and the views of conspiracy theorists, racists, anti-scientists etc.  to gain insight into the extraordinary range of alternative, and often abhorrent, world views. Similarly, I try to read news and commentary from across the political spectrum. I also strongly believe in the value of face to face dialogue. Much can be learnt through talking to as wide a range of people as possible, and not just one’s own social cohort.

Jacobsen: As the Chair of East London Humanists, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Kaufman: Our group was founded in 2012 and now has over 750 supporters. The intention from the outset was to keep arrangements as informal as possible.  There is a small committee which meets quarterly, but admin is kept to a minimum and we simply aim to do what we can do without ‘beating ourselves up’ if we don\t manage to do everything we would like. My responsibilities include keeping our website up to date, assisting the organisation of our regular meetings, and posting them on the group’s Meetup website, and co-ordinating the work of the group generally. 

Having a locally-based group creates a ‘go to’ focal point for a range of local interests. These include local media, local government, schools etc. My responsibilities include fielding a wide range of enquiries and requests. For example, I write a regular opinion column on behalf of the group for newspapers in three East London Boroughs (each Borough has a population of approx 1/4 million plus). I  speak regularly to schools around East London, participate in various multi-‘faith’ forums, and have spoken at armistice day commemorations as the non-religious representative.

I do of course chair meetings if required from time to time, but it is important as an egalitarian organisation that other committee members take turns at this, so it is perhaps the least important of my roles.

Jacobsen: Who has been opposition to the secular and human rights interests of the East London Humanists?

Kaufman: I would say that the biggest challenges are around education. There has been a proliferation of what are usually referred to here as faith schools, or religious schools as some of us prefer to call them. These are divisive and discriminatory. The Government recently announced plans for two new such schools (one Hindu, one Muslim) in the London Borough or Redbridge, which is where our group meets. Our group is spearheading a campaign against these proposals. There are also issues around the teaching of sex education and equality in some schools where religious views hold sway.

There has been much controversy in other parts of the UK, particularly Birmingham, over the teaching of a new curriculum called ‘No outsiders in our school.’ Conservative religious groups object to the content on homosexuality and transgender issues, notwithstanding it is age-appropriate. East London has a high concentration of religious conservatives, and our group has taken steps to address the likelihood of similar problems arising here.

There is generally resistance in many schools to teaching about non-religious belief. There have been important breakthroughs in this area, particularly in the last year. I have led several school assemblies each with several hundred children in the last few months. However, this represents a small minority of schools and has depended upon invitations from enlightened staff. There is a  very long way to go before the teaching of non-religious beliefs becomes part of every school’s normal curriculum.

Jacobsen: In the public, social and political, arena, what have been real successes and honest failures of the East London Humanists? How can other groups learn from the failures and build on the successes?

Kaufman: Our group ‘punches above its weight’ and has definitely raised the profile of Humanism and the importance of secularism and the values of the non-religious in this area of London. A lot of activity has been undertaken over a wide range of areas in the seven years since we were founded. But we are under no illusions about how much further there is to go. The catchment area consists of several million people, and we are but a drop in the ocean. 

There have been no spectacular failures. Of course, there have been disappointments, for example lack of turn-out for certain events or requests for support. But this should not be viewed negatively.  A meeting with a small turn-out can be seen as an opportunity for a more in-depth discussion with greater participation. The ‘virtual’ footprint is at least as important, so details of any event and the outcome should be published through social media.

Perhaps the two biggest failings so far, which are perhaps linked, has been attracting, and then retaining, younger supporters, and raising the group’s profile on certain social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. This remains work in progress.

Jacobsen: Any recommended authors, speakers, or organizations?

Kaufman: The group holds meetings on a very wide range of subjects. Different topics attract different audiences.  Some of the most interesting and popular we have held in the recent past include: Helen Pankhurst, a member of the famous Pankhurst dynasty (her grandmother Sylvia lived in East London), and a prominent activist in today’s struggle for female equality, talking about her book ‘Deeds not words;’ Dr Anthony Lempert, from the Medical Secular Forum, talking about ritual (ie religious non-therapeutic) genital cutting; Dr Giovanni Gaetani, Growth and Development Officer for Humanists International, reporting back from the Humanists International Congress in Reykavik in June.

Jacobsen: What are some important developments of the East London Humanists into the rest of 2019 and 2020?

Kaufman: The group has a fascinating and diverse programme of events for the rest of this year. Topics include: A meeting to celebrate London Pride, and to support a local Pride event; A talk and discussion on the definition of Anti-Semitism and the risk of conflation with Anti-Zionism; A lecture  ‘How to be an atheist in Medieval Europe’ which looks at the long and often overlooked history of ‘non-believers.’

The group will continue with campaigning work in several areas, including faith schools and inclusive education and against anti-science and human-caused climate change denial. In the longer run, the group aspires to do more to contribute towards the development of pastoral care for the non-religious in local hospitals and other institutions.

Jacobsen: What have been the single most important pivotal moments in the history of the growth of the East London Humanists?

Kaufman: Perhaps to state the obvious, the most important moment was acting on the decision to start a group where none had existed before. A small handful of us decided to grasp the nettle. I regard the very fact of our existence a major win, and the fact we have continued to grow an added bonus. We are in competition with a huge number of different groups which are attractive to the socially aware, from choirs to book clubs, political parties to campaigning groups of all types.  Landmarks have included developing our website, then a Facebook page and Twitter, building a presence on Meetup,  being invited to write for the local press, and winning participation in all the SACRES (Standing Advisory Committees for Religious Education) in East London, the local authority groups responsible for the religious curriculum in state schools.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Kaufman: As I’ve said, the group strives to be as informal and as welcoming as possible. Anyone who wishes to join us is welcome to do so, provided they live locally and share our ethos. There are many ways any individual can contribute. This includes writing articles, supporting our campaigns, joining us on marches and social events, supporting our stalls at local fairs, and helping with our meetings. We are self-funding (we describe ourselves as a non-prophet organisation!) and any financial contribution is always welcome.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Kaufman: I am a child of the fifties and sixties, and grew up in a time of optimism and belief the world was moving slowly but surely towards a more rational and a fairer society. I no longer regard that as a given. I decided a few years to ‘nail my colours to the mast’ and joined the growing movement of organised Humanists and freethinkers.  I am reminded each day just how important it is to be proactive and just how easily our long fought-for values and freedoms can be reversed.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Paul.

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.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Gleren Meneghin on Unsplash

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