Half a Century Later
By Melbourne SoFiA member Nigel Sinnott.
This article was first published in the Australian Humanist, no. 108,
Summer [November] 2012: 11 & 12.
I had been looking forward to 29 July 1962 for a very long time. It marked the end of ten years spent at two English private boarding schools with their ethos of ‘muscular Christianity’: a proto-fascist mix of semi-monastic living, lots of compulsory sport and relentless Anglican religious indoctrination. I had loathed almost every day I had spent at these schools, as I disliked ball games and strenuous exercise from the outset, and by the time I was ten, or maybe a few months older, I was a staunch atheist. I was by temperament a studious, imaginative and inquiring boy, but I loathed the formality, petty regimentation, narrow conservative mindset, intolerance and sometimes brutality of the school system in which I found myself. I had spent a decade feeling confined, frustrated, very bored, often cold and sometimes frightened. I resolved that, if I ever had children of my own, they would never be brought up and ‘educated’ like this.
And as I was driven away from boarding school for the last time, I vowed that throughout my life I would do what I could to counter religious indoctrination, privilege and triumphalism, particularly that of the Church of England, though at the age of eighteen I was not quite sure how I would go about it!
I did not have to wait very long. At a freshmen’s fair in October 1962 I spotted a stall promoting the Oxford University Humanist Group, founded in 1958. I skimmed a brochure setting out its aims and objects, and joined at once. I still have its programme for that term, which announces talks by John Gilmour, Robert Graves, Marghanita Laski, Bishop Ambrose Reeves, Sir Julian Huxley and Professors A. J. (later Sir Alfred) Ayer and Anthony Flew. A day or two later the O.U.H.G. achieved brief national publicity by becoming the university’s largest society other than the Oxford Union.
I had found my first niche in the organised freethought movement.
My involvement with the Oxford Humanists was, however, fleeting. On, I think, the day I joined the O.U.H.G. I started to develop severe depression, a mood disorder which has dogged me for numerous periods ever since. As a result, my time as a student at Oxford University was only about six weeks.
In 1963 I was living and working in Kew, Greater London, and during that year I joined the Ethical Union and Rationalist Press Association. These organisations had formed an umbrella body, the British Humanist Association. I then joined the National Secular Society and subscribed to its associated magazine, The Freethinker. And on 6 December 1963, after receiving a circular from Lindsay Burnet, group organiser of the Ethical Union, I became a founder member and first secretary of the Richmond and Twickenham Humanist Group.
I was involved with the Richmond and Twickenham Humanists for about three years, and later became an active and enthusiastic member of the London Young Humanists. I also served on the executive committee of the National Secular Society. For a few months in 1970 I was lettings secretary of Conway Hall, home of South Place Ethical Society. In 1970 and ‘71 I spent about nine months doing a language course at the New University of Ulster (which has since dropped the ‘New’) and helped set up a student humanist group there. And towards the end of 1971, when I had returned to the London area, I was delighted to be appointed full-time editor of The Freethinker. I served as editor from January 1972 to September 1973.
In March 1976 I left England for Victoria, Australia, where, other than for about three months, I have lived ever since. I have, however, maintained my links with British freethought. I am still a member of the National Secular Society and a reader of The Freethinker, a member of the Freethought History Research Group, and a life member of the Rationalist Association and South Place Ethical Society (both of which issue interesting magazines).
In Australia I have been a member for (in most cases) many years of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the Australian Skeptics, the Humanist Society of Victoria, the Rationalist Association of New South Wales, the SOFiA Network in Australia (SoFiA) and the Victorian Skeptics. In 2011 two friends – how shall I put it tactfully? – persuaded me to join the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church. I was a mite cautious about this membership, as I was and am still a sulphodorous atheist, but I was assured that this church accepted both Unitarians and Universalists, and I can pass though the eye, so to speak, of the Universalist needle.
Freethinkers in the Melbourne area are fortunate in having an exceptionally rich and wide choice of regular social and educational events. In addition to meetings of the Melbourne group of SoFiA, the Unitarians, the Victorian Humanists and the Victorian Skeptics, there are monthly meetings of the Atheist Society and the Existentialist Society, both of which are lecture series, rather than membership bodies, organised by the hard-working David Miller and held at the Unitarian Church. I attend a lot of these functions, and am occasionally asked to give a talk at one. I also contribute from time to time to the magazines. I have served for a few years as one of the regular proof readers for the Australian Atheist (the A.F.A.’s magazine). I am also a ‘consulting editor’ for the Australian Humanist, which is a euphemism for saying that the Editor occasionally asks me to scan and reformat typescripts to make electronic versions!
Some atheists and freethinkers are by temperament non-joiners. On the other hand, I am very much a ‘joiner’ because I maintain that only by collaborating with others and helping them can I work towards the sort of society I would like to live in and leave for my children. I am a staunch advocate of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, and I still remember with disgust and indignation ten years of religious schools, which is why I strongly champion a secular, co-educational state system. I hardly need to labour the point when I mention that secular education and freedom of conscience and expression are far from secure nowadays, although freedom of conscience is generally respected in Australia.
I have learnt many things during my involvement, an important one being that the movement’s diversity is, in almost all cases, a strength, not a weakness. It is important, however, that the various organisations avoid bickering and ‘sniping’, and collaborate on issues of common concern, particularly through international bodies such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
Furthermore, the people who matter in the organised movement are those who work, give and ‘put in’ for reasons other than just power seeking and kudos. If your own time and abilities are limited, the people to encourage, support and help are those who put in, not those who stand on the sidelines, finding petty faults and having plenty of facile reasons for not getting involved. The workers and ‘putters in’ are human, and will not get it right every time, but they are the people whose cumulative efforts achieve desirable results.
I have also learnt the worth of Rudyard Kipling’s words, spoken in October 1923:
To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it you’ll be lonely often and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
During much of my time at Christian schools I felt like a pariah; so I am grateful to the freethought movement for making me feel accepted and for encouraging me to use and give of my talents.
Do I have any regrets? Only two are worth mentioning here. I wish I had done more over the years to help the freethought and humanist movement, and had done what I did more effectively. I am also sorry that two old friends, Harry Hastings Pearce (d. 1984) and Christine Minton (nee Osborne, d. 2012) are not alive to read this article and accept my thanks.
I hope I may be regarded as having done a reasonable job of keeping the vow I made fifty years ago. I do not regret making it, and I hope to continue promoting the freethought cause for as long as I am mentally and physically capable of doing so.