Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Birmingham has a great tradition of free thought. It has always had a certain anarchic quality. Spilling over three counties for much of its history, it was free from any coherent local government. Until the mid 1800s Birmingham made do with statutory "Street Commissioners". And when it was granted borough status, the townspeople were less than enthusiastic. Indeed, the local council met most regularly not at some grand public building, but at a local public house.
Such nonchalance was not really sustainable as Birmingham grew into the second city of the United Kingdom, and in the 1870s Joseph Chamberlain's flair for self-promotion meant that Birmingham appeared to suddenly be the best governed town in the country. In fact, it was only catching up with other industrial towns.
But Birmingham was always more of market town than an industrial town, though it was one where small businesses could easily set up. Before the Cadburys there was really little large scale factory production. And matched with this commercial freedom was intellectual freedom. The local Anglican church was weak. The town attracted freethinkers and non-conformists. Most notably, it was the home of the Lunar Society, a group of the pre-eminent intellectuals of the day. They met once a month, and were known to some as the Lunatics.
Now there are the Birmingham Skeptics. They too meet once a month, like the Lunar Society; and they also meet in a pub, like those sensible mid-Victorian councillors. So in these ways, at least, they are fully within the liberal and libertine traditions of Britain's greatest city.
But they are more than a parochial discussion group. Birmingham Skeptics are part of a worldwide movement of skeptics groups, from Perth to Boston. For Skepticism is effortlessly internationalist. And so is Birmingham. It manufactured goods for the world for nearly two hundred years, and over the last fifty years it has in turn thrived because of immigration and cultural diversity. Birmingham Skeptics will have a natural role in the forward movement of the city.
So the foundation of Birmingham Skeptics is a welcome move. Skepticism is coming home.
David Allen Green was born and brought up in Birmingham. He writes the Jack of Kent blog, which is shortlisted for the 2010 George Orwell Prize for blogging, and he is convenor of Westminster Skeptics.