Nick Cohen Delivers the Voltaire Lecture
Old boy Nick Cohen, who was at the school in the 1970s delivered the British Humanist
Association’s prestigious annual Voltaire lecture in May this year. Previous speakers
include Michael Foot, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, and Ludovic Kennedy.
Nick is a political journalist and author currently working primarily for The Observer.
His writing is often controversial but is always thought-provoking.
To a crowd of 400 mainly Humanists, Atheists and Secularists, Nick Cohen delivered a
masterful lecture entitled ‘Free Speech in an age of fanaticism’ at Conway Hall, London.
Nick argued that it was troubling for him to observe the current trend for free speech to be
stifled in many countries and cited the UK, USA, Hungary and Poland as examples.
He argued that in the UK the Brexiteers in particular had persistently lied to the British
public. He said that in the recent US elections too the public were persistently lied to by
the supporters of Donald Trump. Furthermore he believed in both countries that following
voting continuing debate of pertinent issues is being actively discouraged.
Nick believes that this stance is an affront to democracy and that there now exists only ‘a
very narrow form’ of democracy.
This restriction on free speech extended to other areas. For example he feels that
Western commentators no longer have the freedom to criticise brutal Islamic regimes
such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, since publishers ban such criticism for fear
As a result there appears an almost tacit acceptance of the brutality and extremism in
Nick argued it is becoming increasingly difficult for the views of the moderate liberal left
to be heard. (A show of hands indicated that the liberal left was well represented in the
Conway Hall audience.) Even the most extreme forms of religion, he said, were not being
taken to task.The liberal left is either too afraid to express itself or is completely ignored
as being weak and of no consequence.
In an era where ‘post-truth’ is the norm he urged the audience to speak out against unjust
thinking and practices, even if at times this might seem futile. Silence is not an option.
According to Nick we are in dark times but he suggested this is nothing new.There have
always been troublesome and difficult issues to confront. ‘They are eternal struggles’.
Nick argued that new ideas, be they bad or good, arise not from mainstream thinkers but
from those on the fringes of society.
He suggested that in Nazi Germany it was in the racist fringes of society that antisemitism
started.This gradually became mainstream thinking leading to the Holocaust.
Nick exhorted the audience to challenge bad ideas as early as possible when the ideas
are weak and held by a fringe minority before they become mainstream thinking and
become strong, widely held beliefs.
Larry was recently accepted as the first Humanist UK accredited volunteer Humanist
‘chaplain’/pastoral career at St Ann’s Hospice, Heald Green.
He also helped found and runs the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir