Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

The Ethical Web

by Brett Humphreys

Five years ago (G&LH, Summer 1997), I was able to summarise the websites of the national UK secular organisations in less than 100 words. Some didn’t even exist. Since then there have been substantial developments, especially over the last couple of years, although we still have nothing on the grand scale of the larger American sites such as the Internet Infidels’ Secular Web.

Measured by number of pages, the largest of the UK sites remains the combined site of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) and Pink Triangle Trust, with over 400 pages and a quarter of a million words, many of them drawn from the pages of this magazine, and a growing number of photographs. However, as the developer and administrator of the site, I’m not in a position to review it impartially.

Measured by volume of text, on the other hand, the National Secular Society has now moved into the lead, thanks to the developments I described in the last issue, particularly the burgeoning collection of Newsline bulletins. One valuable feature of the enhanced site that I omitted to mention last time is the extensive and fast-growing chronological series of annotated links to relevant online articles published in the media since last October. Most are drawn from the British national press, notably the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and Times, but there are also many from a wide variety of other UK and overseas publications.

After a late start, the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) site has blossomed splendidly over the last year or so and would most likely have outgrown the others by now but for the departure of its editor, Shirley Dent. The RPA has taken the welcome step of making substantially all the feature items from its quarterly journal New Humanist freely available online from the Spring 2001 issue onwards (with the odd exception of the Autumn 2001 issue). This provides a fine collection of serious articles written from a humanist or rationalist standpoint. Each issue of the magazine is based on a theme: the most recent one online as I write (Spring 2002), for example, focuses on ethics and morality. Naturally, Dan Bye’s regular high-quality web review The Humanist Web is always among the online material, in this latest issue looking at several ethics-related pages and sites.

An innovative feature of the RPA’s site is 5th Column, billed as “the E-zine for Freethinkers everywhere”, a sort of online supplement to New Humanist. It flourished during April and May of this year, adding some 50 items – a mixture of the serious and the whimsical – to the site before its early demise.

A third potentially important feature of the site is the Thinker’s Library. The aim is to provide free access to works from the Thinker’s Library series of publications originally issued between 1929 and 1950 – along with other classic texts – including writings by authors such as Aldous and Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell and HG. Wells. But at present only extracts from Carl Lofmark’s What is the Bible? have been placed online. Let’s hope that development of this excellent site will resume soon.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has a site considerably smaller than the Big Three – unless most of it is concealed in the private members-only area – but it maintains a distinctive professional appearance. The home page confesses that the site is “currently being redeveloped” and that parts may be out of date, but this doesn’t really affect the main content, which is grouped under the headings of “Humanism Explained”, “Ethical Issues” and “Guide for Teachers & Students”. A thoughtful essay entitled “What on earth is spirituality?” by BHA Education Officer Marilyn Mason may be of particular interest to those who have followed discussion on this topic on the GALHA discussion list.

The remaining “kindred organisation”, the South Place Ethical Society, has had a small site for some time now. It includes a short history of the Society, which claims to be “the oldest freethought community in the world” (although it became an ethical society only in 1888). No material from the Society’s monthly journal The Ethical Record appears on the site yet, although there is a hint that samples from recent issues might be made available “soon”.

The only site to have stagnated over the last five years is that of The Freethinker. Tactfully described by Dan Bye last year as a “taster site”, it remains, as it was in 1997, a plainly-presented sample of just three items taken from a single issue – currently December 2001. Sadly it does no justice to the rich heritage of published material the magazine has to draw on.

Other UK-based secularist websites are now too numerous to detail here – a directory is available on the GALHA site – but one of the longest-running deserves a special mention in the light of recently renewed controversy over the longstanding ban on non-religious contributors to Thought for the Day – the daily prime-time 3-minute homily embedded in BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – which subliminally reinforces the old myth that ethics is a branch of religion. Launching his Atheist Thought website in April 1996, the veteran Orcadian sceptic Eric Stockton characterised the broadcasts as being “of variable quality, ranging from the truly wise and stimulating to the banal and the bigoted”. As a regular albeit unwilling listener I can endorse that; but judge for yourself – the scripts of all Thoughts broadcast since 6 February 2001 are on the BBC’s website. [1]

A new edition of Atheist Thought, now in its seventh year, has appeared every month except three since it started. Eric Stockton’s essays are consistently clearly argued and thought-provoking. They not only deal logically with the shortcomings of theism, but also cover a wide range of other issues in ethics and philosophy from the non-religious perspective denied by the BBC’s Thought for the Day with its often woolly contributions and tendency to gnaw over old bones like the problem of suffering.

[1] Only recent scripts are accessible directly from the referenced page. For older scripts, amend the URL to reflect the desired date. Note that Thought for the Day is not broadcast on Sundays.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2002-09-01 / Last updated : Monday, 2008-03-31
Brett Humphreys :