Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2005

Sir Hermann Bondi (1 November 1919 – 10 September 2005)

by Andy Armitage

One of GALHA’s vice-presidents, Sir Hermann Bondi, world-class scientist, mathematician and humanist, has died. He was 85.

Vienna-born Bondi was a wartime alien internee. Through his genius in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, he eventually progressed to become a master of a college at Cambridge University, holding top scientific posts in two government departments.

During this time he worked with such luminaries as Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold on radar; and Bondi, Gold and Hoyle formulated the steady-state theory in 1948.

Sir Hermann was director general of the European Space Research Organisation (1967-71), chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence (1971-7) and the Department of Energy (1977-80), chairman of the Natural Environment Research Council (1980-4), and master of Churchill College, Cambridge (1983-90). He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1959 and a Knight Commander of the Bath in 1973. He received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2001. He was also a vice-president of the British Humanist Association.

Last autumn Sir Hermann wrote this tribute to GALHA on the occasion of its Silver Jubilee, and it was published in that quarter’s issue of Gay and Lesbian Humanist:

I want to give my personal congratulations to the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association for attaining its Silver Jubilee. Secondly, I want to congratulate all those whose courage, persistence and determination has led to the great achievement of changing our society as fundamentally in its attitude to the gamut of sexual orientation. The size of the wholly beneficial change is perhaps particularly apparent to those, like myself, who saw its success during the last half-century while we were adults. This gives me an appreciation of the size of what has been accomplished, but also of the force of those who want to reverse the great gains. The extension of human rights to all, of whatever sexual orientation, is a great achievement. The favours given to religious foundations with their entrenched views, both by the UK government and by the EU, are very worrying. It will need great vigilance to prevent backsliding and to fight for further extension of the gains made. In all this activity GALHA will be as much involved in its second quarter-century as in its first.

In 1995, Bondi spoke to the Humanist Congress in Madrid, saying he had no quarrel with humans’ awestricken wonderment at the cosmos. He would also not wish to contest those who say there could be a designer, or even those who have an ill-defined idea that this designer might have some regard for us.

However, he added, “Where I think the dividing line comes is with the fourth view, that there exists some special ‘revelation’, a particular form of firm and certain knowledge. ... Such a revelation is the basis of virtually every religion. In the name of such a superhuman (I would like to call it antihuman), certainly the most horrendous and repulsive deeds have been performed which stain human history.”

Bondi was also president of the British Humanist Association from 1982 to 1999, and then a vice-president till his death.

In 2002, Bondi spoke to the British Humanist Association’s journal, BHA News, at length about his life and his views; and on humanism, religion and ethics had this to say:

I think in this country we are too impressed by the concept of God. Many religions, like Buddhism and Confucianism, don’t have a God at all. On the other hand, Communism in its heyday had a “sacred text” which were the writings of Marx and Lenin, and you justified an argument by referring to these writings. So it seems to me that the important thing is not the concept of God – indeed we cannot quarrel with an undefined God, for how can we disagree with a concept that is undefined. No, what makes a religion is a “revelation”. And it is the belief in a revealed truth that is the source of religious problems – that the Koran is the word of God, or the Holy Bible is the judge of everything. So in arguments with Christians, when you come to the word God you have already lost the battle. ...

Indeed, one of the really irritating things about religion is that because it deals with certainties, humanists are accused of having no firm foundation for their ethics, which is utter nonsense. They accuse us of changing our ethical ideas – well they certainly have changed in my lifetime, for example our attitude towards other races – but Christian morals have changed also. For centuries they drowned witches and invented fiendish punishments like burning alive people accused of heresy. They don’t do that now, although I suspect many of them would like to. And so their attitude has changed too. And, incidentally, burning witches wasn’t something you were allowed to do, you were ordered to do it because in the Old Testament it said “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.

I think ethics must always be rooted in society and culture and change as it changes, and I really hope that we become more tolerant in our attitudes, towards homosexuality for example, which in virtually every religion is just foul. We should bear in mind that they form a permanent minority that is very easy to single out and maltreat – which suits the religious fraternity very well, because they need an enemy to divide the elect.

George Broadhead, secretary of GALHA, said, “Sir Hermann was invited to give us his moral support by becoming one of our vice-presidents some fifteen years ago, along with other prominent humanists like the novelists Brigid Brophy and Sir Angus Wilson, who predeceased him.

“I was not a personal friend of Sir Hermann, but I encountered him from time to time at humanist events, including the conferences of the British Humanist Association and the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the humanist lunches, and, despite holding him in some awe, given his status as a major scientist, I always found him very easygoing and friendly.

“He was very supportive of gay rights in general and GALHA in particular, being always eager to challenge homophobia from whatever source.”

GALHA has sent a sympathy card to Sir Hermann’s widow Christine on behalf of members.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-12-04 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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