Sunday, 1 April 2018


In March Peter Baimbridge spoke to us about Autism. Autism is a Condition not a Disorder, a Disability, or a Disease. It is an observable state in which autistic people are different. They are Apple Macs in a PC world.

An MRI scan shows much more activity than a “normal” brain leading to some of the problems faced including a greater incidence of nightmares.

Peter described his own position. He has an IQ measured at 150 and has a degree and Chartered Status in Marketing and Sales Management and managed to trash a number of careers and businesses. He spent 30 years in and out of Mental Health Services before being diagnosed with Autism at the age of 56. He is now off medication and is self-managing his condition. He is using his experience and expertise to support, advocate for and to train others.

He has given presentations to various University Departments such as Clinical Psychology (University of Manchester) and Nursing (University of Salford). 

Peter created the charity Salford Autism which is run by autistic professionals. It provides support for everyone who is, cares for, or is affected by someone with an ASC and has a 24 hour emergency phone line.

Ordinary people seem nuts to autistic people, who do not do innuendo but work on precise information. The UK prevalence rate of autism is 1-1.5% but as it is thought that as many people go undiagnosed it could be as high as 5-6%. There is an impact on the health and benefit bill as most workers in the field do not understand the problems. Most children with autism look normal but with some abnormal attributes. Women are just as likely to be autistic as men but are better at “fitting in”.

Work is a big problem as 75% of autistic people are able and willing to work but only 15% have a job. 

When stressed autistic people, particularly children, can go into meltdown. Many people think they are tantrums but they are quite different. Tantrums are controlled, targeted, manipulative and stop when successful, leading to a happy aftermath. A meltdown is spontaneous, involuntary, random and unstoppable, leading to an emotional wipeout. It is similar in nature to an epileptic fit. To help someone in meltdown it is essential that one person only helps and keeps everyone else away. They should not tell the person to calm down but they should speak softly and reassuringly and wait it out. They should be ready to deal with the total emotional wipe-out the follows.

Autism is neither a learning disability nor a mental health problem, although mental health problems can be more common among people with autism and it is estimated that one in three of adults with learning disability also have autism. It is a life-long, pervasive, developmental spectrum condition with many facets, any of which may be present (or not) to a greater or lesser degree. 

Autism is an 'abstract diagnosis' arrived at with difficulty by assessment of reported behaviour. In communications and social behaviour visible indicators include: non-verbal to highly articulate communications, problems with unwritten rules of conversation & social interaction, difficulties with non-verbal communication, poor attention, single-channel processing, using and interpreting language literally, processing delay, and receptive language problems. Autistic people have different communication motivations, they find social interactions stressful and draining rather than energising and need lots of 'alone time' to 'recover' after socialising. They struggle with “rules” of social interaction and often “get it wrong”.

Autistic people have inflexible thinking and rigid repetitive interests. They struggle with imposed, unexpected or unexplained change, struggle to see another's point of view, and struggle to plan and organise. They are often focused on detail, missing the context, and struggle with imprecise or incomplete information. They struggle to generalise skills and learning, needing rules and clarity. They are often oblivious to common dangers (including danger from others). They need routine, ritual and structure for reassurance and often have obsessive special interests. 

Relevant legislation and guidelines include the Mental Health Act (1983), the Mental Capacity Act (2005), the Autism Act 2009, the Equality Act (2012), the Care Act 2014, Think Autism: updated strategy for adults with Autism in England (2014), Autism in adults: diagnosis and management (2012), Challenging behaviour and learning disabilities: prevention and interventions for people with learning disabilities whose behaviour challenges (2015).

Further Information:
National Autistic Society (

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Prisons - A Broken System?

In January Alan Brine spoke to us in Stockport on "Prisons - A Broken System?" Alan has been working as the humanist Chaplain for one day a week in Manchester prison for two years. Prisons are not the holiday camps so beloved of the Daily Mail. They are overcrowded with many prisoners sharing cells for up to 23 hours a day, eating their meals there and with a toilet in the same room. Every day prisoners are bussed around the country to extraordinary locations to make sure every last bed space is filled.  Prison reform is desperately needed and historically Humanists have been at the forefront of this cause.  Many prisoners are victims – of their upbringing or drugs. They are our prisons and we are all responsible.

England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe and the prison population has risen 80% in the last 30 years although there has been no significant increase in crime. Why?

There has been an increase in sentencing and there are new offences. We use prison for petty and persistent crime. In 2016 68,000 people were sent to prison, 71% of whom had committed non-violent offences, and 47% were sentenced to six months or less. The use of Community Sentencing has nearly halved since 2006 in spite of the fact that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentencing; and the numbers released on temporary licence (ROTL) have been dramatically reduced (40% in the last three years) in spite of the consistently high success rate.

Current challenges include: aging estate and overcrowding; recruitment, retention and training of staff; drugs and their associated problems; rise in violence against staff and prisoners; self-harm, suicide and mental health problems; and boredom and lack of purposeful activity. Young inexperience officers suffer and many older ones have old-fashioned attitudes. Poor health care in prisons puts further strain on the NHS. In the year to March 2017 344 people died in prison. A third were self-inflicted and nearly three in five were due to natural causes. Only 5% of the prison population are women but they contribute half of all self-harming cases. Serious assaults on staff have more than doubled over the last three years.

A wide variety of prisoners are in the same prison. Manchester prison has a large number of remand also has Category A offenders, kept in isolation, sex offenders and those with a price on their heads due to gang activity. First time offenders struggle to make sense of the system and many recidivists fear freedom. IPP (Imprisoned for public protection) prisoners are considered so dangerous that they cannot be allowed out until they demonstrate they are fit to be released – something that is difficult to do. The parole board system is broken, and even if released a minor offence results in immediate recall.

10% of people sent to prison are women even though only 5% of the prison population are women, so most must serve sentences of less than twelve months. 50% have experience domestic abuse and 30% were in care as children. 60% leave without a home and only 10% have a job to go to. 90% of the children leaving the family home are as a result of the mother’s imprisonment. Because there are few women’s prisons many are far away from home making visiting difficult or impossible.

Alan’s personal view of prison culture is: there is no such thing as a typical prison; the regime is confused and contradictory, unsafe and unstable; an alien environment for most - harsh, tense and raw; a place of hierarchy power and authority in which security comes first.

There are statutory obligations on the prison service regarding the provision of Chaplains. All prisoners must be able to practice their religion, have religious artifacts, celebrate festivals, have the opportunity for weekly religious services or meditation and request a Chaplain. A Chaplain from each denomination must be provided on request and the Chaplaincy Team have a duty to provide pastoral support for all prisoners in times of bereavement, serious illness, self-harm or suicide intent, or following a death in custody.

Humanist Chaplains are popular because they get things done. However there is some resistance to non-religious Chaplains and being a part-timer can be problematic when there are serious on-going situations.

Many prisoners find comfort in religion and there are advantages for some in being religious e.g. being allowed out of one’s cell to attend prayer meetings.

There is a need to work out protocols for Humanists working with religious colleagues.

Humanists UK trains and accredits humanist Pastoral Support Volunteers to work in hospitals, prisons, schools and the armed forces. Humanist PSV’s come from all walks of life, but share these qualities in common: a personable disposition, a profound sense of empathy, a non-judgmental attitude, a keen commitment to helping others, patience and a strenuous ethic of professionalism.

If you are interested in becoming a humanist pastoral care volunteer please contact:
Simon O’Donoghue 
Useful links: 
Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile Autumn 2017 
Howard League for Penal Reform: 
Prison Reform Trust 
The Bromley Trust 
Clinks – support for offenders and families 
Prisoners Education Trust 
Grendon Prison 
Prison UK: an insider's view 
@PrisonUK – Twitter page for Alex Cavendish – excellent

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Britain's Religion and Belief Landscape

In November Jeremy Rodell spoke to us in Stockport on the topic - The Big Change in Religion and Belief: How Might a Humanist Respond? Jeremy took the inspiration for his talk from the book - A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead.

We are undergoing some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation as traditional religious authority, doctrine and practice have given way to a much wider and more diverse range of religious and non-religious commitments.

Nationalities whose populations think religion is most important range from Ethiopia (98%) to China (3%). The UK is low down with 21% who think religion is very important in their lives. It is projected that over the next 45 years Islam will grow faster than any other religion to rival Christianity in numbers. In the same period it is expected that the religiously unaffiliated will decline as a share of the global population.

 Belief is only one dimension along with Belonging and Behaviour. For Example of British people “Uncertain or with no belief in God” there are 40% of Jews, 35% of Anglicans, 18% Catholics, and 8% of Muslims. Amongst British Catholics 14% of under 40s support a ban on abortion more than 50% of under 50s say same-sex marriage is right, and 58% support a change in the law to permit assisted dying for the terminally ill.

The number of British people identifying as non-religious depends on how the Question is asked. When the 2011 Census asked ‘What is your religion?’ 59% said Christian and 25% said no religion. When the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey asked ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to a particular religion?’ 6.5% said Christian and 46.2% said no religion. Over the period 2012-14 these changed to 44% Christian and 50% No Religion. According to Local Census Data Stockport is close to the average for the UK.

According to the BSA survey the trend for the non-religious is going up, with a big decline in C of E but  an increase in non-denominational Christians and Muslims. Romans Catholics stay the same as immigration from Catholic countries offsets the decline in indigenous believers. Younger people tend to be less religious; more than 60% of 15-24 year olds professed no religion in 2015 compared with 24% of 75 and over.

The non-religious are not all atheists. About 64% do not believe in a god, 18% think there must be something, 14% do not know and 4% believe there is a god. Around half with no religion have a broadly Humanist worldview.

The future looks as if there will be Cultural super diversity with substantial religious minority and a non-religious majority. The religious minority will have diverse religious identities, diverse views within each identity and a higher average commitment and seriousness. The non-religious will have diverse beliefs and practices (including don’t care); around half will have a broadly humanistic worldview, many will be from faith backgrounds, and the situation will be evolving.

Challenges ahead include: polarisation and lack of social cohesion; uninformed generalisations about “the other”; faith-based and race based prejudice; declining institutions defending privileges; and conflicting values. 

Humanists UK says “We want a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values, respect for human rights, and concern for future generations. Of importance are: Secularism; Education; Dialogue and Participation

Secularism means the separation of religious institutions from the institutions of state; freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all; and no state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious worldview. It does not mean Atheism or Humanism; denying the role of Christianity in our history and culture; or denying the right of religious individuals to express their views (providing no special weight is given simply because they are faith-based).

In Education there needs to be high quality education about religious and non-religious beliefs and ethics. This can be achieved with a positive contribution to curriculum development and by providing Humanist speakers for schools. We need to end faith-based admissions to state-funded schools, compulsory collective worship, and state funding for faith schools. Children need a broad preparation for life in a plural society. This means: sex and relationships education; curiosity, thinking skills and creativity; and values & citizenship. We need institutions where the core values are defended.

In Dialogue and Participation we first have to view others primarily as fellow humans; religion and belief are only one dimension of personal identity. Dialogue is preferred to Debate. We need to beware assumptions and generalisations, but recognise areas of disagreement and also common ground. There are some limits to Dialogue. There should be no tolerance of bigotry and no succour for terrorism. Humanist engagement in dialogue has two objectives: Making a positive humanist contribution to building a peaceful plural secular society, and improving others’ understanding of Humanism. Three broad types of dialogue are: Interfaith Dialogue and participative action via established organisations; public events; and private bilateral dialogue series and actions.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Dementia Research

In October, Dr Sarah Ryan talked to the Stockport Group about dementia research.

Dr Sarah Ryan began her talk with some biographical details about her career and how she became a Research Associate in the Division of Neuroscience and Experimental Psychology at the University of Manchester, specialising in Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration.

According to  there are about 850,000 people suffering from dementia in the UK. One is more likely to get it as one gets older. Notable people with dementia include Terry Pratchet and Robbie Williams. Dementia is an umbrella term covering a number of different diseases: Alzheimer’s accounts for 50-75% of sufferers, Vascular Dementia 20-30%, Lewy Body Dementia 10-25% and Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) 10-15%.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include memory problems, getting lost in familiar places, and difficulty recognising people and things. Vascular Dementia sufferers have problems with planning /organising, making decisions or solving problems. In Lewy Body Dementia patients may have movement difficulties, problems with attention/alertness, hallucinations and Sleep disturbance. Frontotemporal dementia is characterised by personality changes and difficulties in communicating. 

The differences are because different parts of the brain are affected. In Alzheimer’s one of the first parts of the brain to be affected is the hippocampus but it is a progressive condition that gradually destroys connections between cells in the brain. In Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) damage to the frontal lobe will show up on an MRI scan and the sufferer will suffer personality changes possibly becoming, rude or lazy or naughty. Some patients have FTD with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and this is usually fatal in 2 to 5 years. There are no good treatments for either FTD or MND.

Working at the microscopic level researchers in the laboratory investigate how the proteins are different in a Dementia brain from a normal one. This can only be done after death. Brains are sectioned and slides prepared. Sarah showed pictures of a section of brain with FTD and one without, showing TDP -43, the major disease protein FTD.

Sarah has a special interest in FTD caused by genetic mutation transcription, in particular C9orf72 found in frontal cortex brain tissue in sufferers. Human cells are grown in a dish and experiments carried out such as the effects of drug treatments.  Experiments can also be carried out on mice or Fruit flies.

Sarah supports Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK) and a small fee for the talk was donated directly to ARUK.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Utilitarians

In September Robin Grinter talked on the Utilitarians

Utilitarianism is the philosophy developed by the British thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It lies at the centre of Western Humanist thinking and is a basis for knowing what it right and what is wrong. Humanism is a development of Utilitarianism that keeps it relevant to the changing and challenging human situation in which we live.

Some of the key elements of Utilitarianism are: a belief that everything must make a useful contribution towards that outcome to be of value; Utilitarianism is a rational philosophy of action, whose usefulness lies in calculating consequences in terms of human happiness or unhappiness; It is also secular because it  makes no reference to any supernatural considerations.  Utilitarianism is not a rigid and absolute morality, and it is not just a ‘natural’ philosophy that makes right and wrong the outcome of humanity’s ‘better nature’.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is the major thinker figure in Utilitarianism. Both happiness and utility were philosophical concepts in common use in his day: indeed Francis Hutcheson coined the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ sixty years before Bentham. But it was Bentham who almost single-handedly wove happiness and utility together to make philosophy a force for action in the world in his ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’  (1789).

Bentham was a lawyer concerned to improve laws to create a better society. His one simple question for any action, law or custom was ‘what use is it?’, and the only criterion in answering that was to look at its consequences for the happiness and well-being of human beings. He didn’t personally influence any reforms because he died in 1832, the year when the first act of parliamentary reform was passed. But his thinking inspired the social reforms of Victorian England and the creation of our welfare state. He is the inspiration for the campaigning work of the Humanists UK.

However, not all reforms were kind. The poor law reform of 1834 stopped the wasteful handouts of basic food to the destitute, and set up workhouses so that  basic necessities were only available for useful work by “the undeserving poor”. Workhouses were pretty dreadful places in terms of human happiness.  Bentham’s own plans for prison reform were also pretty harsh: his ‘Panopticon’ would have removed all privacy by constructing prisons so that every prisoner’s actions were visible to those who governed them.

Morality for Bentham isn’t just a question of being good and virtuous individuals: actions have to have measurable, tangible benefits for society. To avoid time-consuming and complicated assessments for every action, we use ‘rules of thumb’, general guidance based on experience. This has led to arguments on the need to have general rules rather than calculations of outcomes. Bentham argued that if we suspect that these rules of thumb do more harm than good we should override them. His approach made Bentham very tolerant of private actions, for example homosexuality. 

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) a declared agnostic, was a major political philosopher and author of ‘On Liberty’ (1859) and ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861). He shared Bentham’s commitment to reforms and improvement. He condemned slavery in America and as an MP, became a strong advocate of labour unions and farm cooperatives. He supported the second Act of Parliamentary Reform passed in 1867. In ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ (1869) Mill called for further reforms of Parliament and voting His most celebrated campaign was for women’s rights.  Mill disagreed with Bentham on the nature of happiness, intellectual pleasures being more valuable than sensual pleasures.

Robin used some scenarios for discussion in small groups. 

1. Aren’t pleasure and happiness fundamentally egoistic, which rules out seeking the well-being of others?  
2. Can you predict the consequences of actions well enough to be sure you’re doing the right thing? 
3. Have we got time to calculate all the likely effects of an action? 
4. Isn’t it better to make it a priority to minimise pain and suffering than increase pleasure? 
5. Isn’t Utilitarianism too demanding, seeking the maximum happiness which logically involves all human welfare?
6. Don’t motives and intentions matter when it comes to doing what is right? 
7. Can Utilitarianism permit wrong actions and lead to injustice?
8. This reflection illustrates a final issue: should we decide each action on its own merits or live by general rules?

Each group selected their own topic and share their deliberations with the rest.
Robin ended by asking “Is Utilitarianism, and therefore Utilitarian Humanism universally valid – as you’d expect a philosophy to be?” He himself doubted this because of the diversity of societies around the world and different attitudes to Human rights in some countries. Utilitarianism may be simple, but it raises complex issues.

Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation

16th August: Derek McComiskey asked "Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation?"  It is 500 years since one of the pivotal events of the Protestant Reformation - when Martin Luther produced his "95 Theses" in 1517. 

Firstly - the Catholic Church had held sway over the rulers and people of Europe for over a thousand year providing a single orthodoxy, a way of answering all the substantial questions that people might ask.  Once Protestantism was established it soon multiplied into many variants.  This plurality of thought immediately promotes sceptical questioning - surely they can't all be right?  Maybe one is right and all the others wrong, or maybe they are all a bit right and a bit wrong?  Perhaps ... none of them are right?!

Secondly - it is just interesting.  It resulted in a shift in thinking as profound as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment but was a much more well-defined event occurring in a far more limited time.  Luther stood up to the two most powerful institutions in Europe (Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire) in jeopardy of his life and survived.  His is a very exciting story.

Thirdly - it was a profoundly anti-corruption movement.  Through much of the previous millennium the Catholic Church had been more or less corrupt.  It had been more concerned with empire building and suppressing dissent than the care of the people it supposedly served.  There was warmongering, factionalism and sexual hypocrisy at the highest level.  There had been many would-be reformers who ended up in flames or whose followers were terribly persecuted - Arnold of Brescia, Peter Waldo and Jan Hus amongst others.  The spark that really kindled Luther's anger was the sale of "indulgences" in his local area.  His parishioners were persuaded to part with their money to buy remission from sins for themselves or their relatives in purgatory.  Half the money was going to pay for the rebuilding (in grand Renaissance style) of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Fourth - the theological message of the reformers was more individual and democratic than the Catholic alternative.  In Catholicism priests are special and can really effect change in a person's "state of grace" by performing the rites correctly.  Luther argued strongly that this was wrong.  There was a "priesthood of all believers" - we each stand before God and are saved "by faith alone"; ordained priests are no different to anyone else.

Fifth - The reformer's Bibles in the vernacular languages, along with mass printing, was a real spur to literacy.  Catholic teaching was that only the Pope could interpret the Bible correctly so ordinary people were not encouraged to read it lest they develop wrong ideas.  Luther (and later Calvin) wanted everyone to read for themselves. However, he wasn't very happy when they came up with different ideas to him!  The newly invented printing press was invaluable to the reformation.

During the Q&A we touched on The Protestant Work Ethic, the possibility of an Islamic Reformation, what is the difference between Church of England and Anglican, why the Church of Scotland isn't Anglican and Luther's response to the Farmer's Revolt amongst other things.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous

At Stockport's July Meeting Stefan Cooper gave us a very interesting talk partly based on his own experiences.  Most of us have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous and maybe Narcotics Anonymous but I wonder how many of us have realised that there are more than 200 different Anonymous Groups.

The Anonymous philosophy is based on the 12 step principle  and was originally a model of seeking spiritual enlightenment. Groups are available not just for various addictions but also for bad habits such as overeating, for behavioural problems and involuntary problems such as diabetes.

Anonymous is Big Business. 90% of treatment centres in the US are 12 step based. There are no figures for the UK but it is a multimillion pound business using benefits, council tax etc. Some very well paid people are making a lot of money selling 12 steps to vulnerable people.

Many perceive AA groups to be a benign group of people and AA portrays itself as a self-help or mutual aid organisation. There is no mention of God on the web site but the message of the 12-steps is that you have to give yourself to God.  And 12-steps is the only way if you go to meetings.

Stefan met and worked with 1000s of addicts, some of the most vulnerable people in society. Detoxing only takes a couple of weeks but underneath is a lifetime of chaos. Sex abuse and crime also play a part in the equation.

If you open your door as a meeting and offer a solution this becomes the definitive solution. People can end up worse than they started. If the 12-steps don’t work for you it is your fault. This can create real fear in vulnerable people. Fear can work in rehab but not when you return to the real world. Therefore people become dependent on anonymous.

The anonymous movement developed from the Oxford Group, founded by the American Christian Missionary Frank Buchman, which later became known as Moral Rearmament.

One of the founders of AA, Bill Wilson, went through a number of courses of the Belladonna cure which was being used to treat alcoholism in the 1930s. He had a revelation whilst under treatment and believed that becoming a Christian would stop his drinking. He converted and never drank again but he was a chain smoker who died of emphysema. The 12-steps came to him whilst he was tripping in a hospital bed but people were told they were divinely inspired. The basic text for AA known as the Big Book mentions God 200 times in 167 pages.

Non-believers are pushed to believe in God and if they have a problem with this they are given a tract against agnosticism.

Anyone can set up an Anonymous meeting. All you need is a ring of chairs and a kettle. This is potentially dangerous as there is nothing to stop sexual predators forming groups under the guise of helping people, who are at their most vulnerable.