Graham Pierce is the Secretary for the Oxford Humanists. The United Kingdom is one of the hearts of humanism in the world. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, education, and religion or lack thereof?
Graham Pierce: I was born on Merseyside and come from a working-class background. Neither of my parents were religious. Both had experienced distressing deaths in their families. ‘Praying’ had done nothing, so I guess that caused them to let go of what little religion they had. Also my father had been in the army, seen the army chaplains spouting platitudes and felt the church was there as an arm of the Establishment and no friend of the working classes.
Jacobsen: What is personal background including the discovery or development of a humanistic outlook on life and philosophy?
Pierce: The only religious education/indoctrination I had came from school. The grammar school I attended paid the usual lip service to religion. It was an age when people would ask for your ‘Christian name’ and you would automatically write ‘C of E’ in the ‘religion’ box on forms.
I was more concerned about the concept of infinity. The paradox of infinity seeming to be an impossibility. Nothing could be infinite, but if you put a boundary to it there had to be something beyond the boundary; which brought you right back to infinity again. In a similar vein, if there were a god then what came before god? Who made god and what made that? None of this god-stuff impressed me.
When I was in the sixth form we took turns reading the lesson in morning assembly. One day when it was my turn the Head was standing at the lectern announcing that today’s hymn would be ‘God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform’, at which the deputy head who was standing alongside me whispered ‘Too darn right He does’. It summed up the spirit of those times: It’s ok to be a non-believer, but whisper it quietly and don’t rock the boat.
Jacobsen: The milieu of Oxford and the United Kingdom seems more conducive to the population accepting humanist values. Both hold a special valence in the minds of the West.
Pierce: I had lived all my life in the North West of England until, at 57, I came down to Oxford to work at Sir Michael Sobell House, a hospice with an international reputation. Oxford is a city which draws in people keen to work in world-class facilities, whatever their area of work. That’s one thing that makes the city special.
From an incomer’s perspective I notice the vast wealth the Oxford colleges have. Old buildings are maintained seemingly regardless of cost and when new buildings go up only the best will do. This makes it a joyous city to be in if you have a love of great buildings and the built environment.
In amongst that there are reminders that the university’s roots are in a Christian past and to some degree a Christian present. The city’s cathedral after all does double duty as Christ Church College chapel. Thus whilst it is the city of Dawkins it is also a city of church functionaries and even of brown robed monks. I’m told that evensong in the various chapels is well attended, with even non-believers drawn to attending for the beauty of the music and the rhythm of the occasion. It’s ok to be a non-believer, but whisper it quietly and don’t rock the boat.
Jacobsen: What are the demographics of the Oxford Humanists?
Pierce: As a formal group our numbers are falling. Our membership gets older but younger people are not interested in joining a local group. Nevertheless there is a lively humanist presence in the county. For example there is a humanist member of the local hospital chaplaincy and there are several Humanist UK trained school speakers and ceremonies officiants working locally.
Times are changing. Many of our members, being of an older generation, were brought up with religion and found comfort in joining a local group as they grew beyond that and discovered humanism. Younger people seem to be drawn more to joining national groups, which the internet very much facilitates. How we move with the times in order to stay relevant is something our committee has been giving a lot of thought to this past year. Watch this space!
Jacobsen: What is the best short-form description of humanism ever encountered by you? What is the best long-form description of humanism ever found by you?
Pierce: The definition which Oxford Humanists is adopting is one taken from the Humanists UK web-site:
A Humanist is someone who…
- trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
- makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for others
- believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.
The shortest definition of humanism I can think of is “A non-religious philosophy, based on liberal human values”, though there’s a risk of opening up an endless debate about what ‘liberal’ means.
As a strap line I really like “For the one life we have”. My personal pet hate: “Living without religion”. I don’t like being defined by what I’m not.
Jacobsen: What humanists truly impress you? Why? What books or audiovisual materials have been impactful within the humanist community?
Pierce: Well Richard Dawkins has to be at the top of the list. I’m not sure of the tone of some parts of his latest “Outgrowing God” book (a little too acerbic for me), but the ‘Magic of Reality’ is superb. I’ve just given a copy to my grandson for his thirteenth birthday.
I think in general people impress me first and it’s later I find they are humanists. Stephen Fry and Sandy Toksvig spring to mind. Other people I admire, such as comedian and Marxist curmudgeon Alexei Sayle, strike me as humanists but whether it’s a label they’d want to own I don’t know.
Regarding educational materials for adults, I always point people towards the excellent on-line ‘Futurelearn’ courses devised by Humanists UK. https://humanism.org.uk/education/courses/
Jacobsen: What non-humanist organizations seem like natural allies, as in non-humanist but humanistic organizations?
Pierce: We have a lively local ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ group. I believe there is a group called Cafe Scientifique, though I’ve no personal experience of that. We had a Sunday Assembly in Oxford but that flowered only briefly (Getting the non-religious organised can be a bit like herding cats).
Jacobsen: What are some of the more important secular and humanist projects of Oxford Humanists for community-building and community maintenance?
Pierce: Each year we have a summer party and a winter solstice party for members and friends. Each month we have a Friday evening event where we have some very high quality speakers. We have stands at local community events and university events such as freshers’ week and interfaith fairs.
Over the last decade, we’ve also regularly had an open air stand out on the main pedestrianised shopping street. This is very much welcomed by many people, having run the gauntlet of proselytising Christian and Muslim groups along the street. And it gives us a chance to have interesting conversations with international students and visitors, some of whom welcome talking more freely about atheism and secularism than they would dare to do in their home country. Sadly our ageing members are finding it ever more difficult to erect the gazebo which is an essential part of our street stand, so its continuance is currently under review.
Another sign of the times: as recently as six or seven years ago both our universities (Oxford and Oxford Brookes) had thriving ASH societies [Atheist, Secularist & Humanist]. We were very involved in supporting them and for three years helped organise major “Think Week” events. Sadly neither university currently has an ASH, and Humanists UK tells us this is part of a national trend.
I’d also like to mention the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust, a national charity which Oxford Humanists supports, as do many of our individual members. http://www.ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/
Jacobsen: What have been important means by which to build bridges rather than burn them, and to set a tone of rational self-defence of self-respect and organizational standing at the right times?
Pierce: We have a presence on the local SACRE [Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education], a peculiarly English institution designed to oversee local RE (Not all SACREs welcome non-religious representatives). [The presence of organised religion as part of our national education system is a major issue too big to pursue here]. We also have a representative on the local interfaith forum and thanks to the persistence of our former Chair we now have official representation at the commemoration ceremony at Oxford’s war memorial each November.
Jacobsen: What will be the next steps for Oxford Humanists?
Pierce: Interesting you should ask that! Our committee’s been thinking long and hard. Local groups with fixed membership structures seem to be having a hard time attracting new members. And as the existing membership grows older it gets more difficult to find active committee members, and to find fit members able to perform what used to be simple tasks such as erecting gazebos or moving furniture prior to meetings.
So where do we fit in to what definitely continues to be a lively humanist/atheist local scene? To that end, we’re looking at how other groups work. Skeptics in the Pub, for example, is thriving despite no formal membership structure, successfully relying on people throwing donations into a bucket on the night. I can’t say any more at this point; we are looking at creative answers to these questions but obviously we need to discuss and get approval from our membership before ‘going public’.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Pierce: I think these are challenging times for locally based organisations of any kind. It is much easier now to feel part of a national group or even, via the internet, to get involved internationally. I also get the impression that life is getting more demanding and all-consuming both for those in work and for students. One of our members queried whether Oxford Humanists has “done it’s job”, as a haven for the generations brought up on religion and who welcomed support and companionship when moving toward humanism. I’m not so sure. Hopefully there will always be a place for a local group reminding people that it’s ok to be a non-believer, and you don’t need any longer to whisper it quietly and not rock the boat.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Graham.
Pierce: You’re welcome.
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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