Dr Evan Harris and Lord Avebury awarded Secularist of the Year prize

Secularist of the Year 2009

Left to right: Dr Evan Harris MP, Lord Avebury, Richard Dawkins, Keith Porteous Wood.

This year’s Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year was won jointly by Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury for their success in abolishing the blasphemy law. At a packed lunch-time event on Saturday they were awarded the Golden Ammonite trophy by Professor Richard Dawkins.

Both winners declined to accept the cash prize and asked for it to be used to sponsor another winner in future.

Among those in the audience was Anna Ford, the ex-BBC newsreader, Martin Rowson, the award-winning cartoonist, Robin Ince, the comedian who had been responsible for the Nine Lesson and Carols for the Godless show last year in London, Professor Peter Atkins, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, Lord Taverne, Baroness Turner and many other celebrities from the world of science and politics.

The event, which also celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, was completely sold out and the 200 lucky attendees enjoyed a fine meal and a good-humoured afternoon of awards, speeches and a re-enactment of the famous debate in 1860 between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce.

As the unctuous Wilberforce (played with gusto by NSS president Terry Sanderson) tried to rubbish On the Origin of Species, Huxley (played by Derek Lennard) came in as Darwin’s Bulldog to make the case for evolution. There were spirited interventions from the audience.

After this, Ariane Sherine, the moving force behind the atheist bus campaign, was given a special award – a miniature bus with her slogan on it mounted on a plinth – and received an extended round of applause from the audience.

We honoured our valued volunteers Barry Thorpe and Stewart Ware, and then heard from Matthew LaClair, a young man of 19 who had joined us from New Jersey in the USA top tell of his experience in challenging a teacher in his school who had been preaching in the classroom. This, of course, is illegal in the USA.

Knowing that no-one would believe him if he reported the teacher, Matthew secretly recorded his teacher telling pupils that if they didn’t accept Jesus in their lives, they would burn in hell.

Matthew’s case became a cause celebre throughout America. The NSS is recording interviews with Matthew to put up on Youtube, so you will be able to see this impressive young man tell his story in person.

In their acceptance speeches, both Evan Harris and Lord Avebury told of their Parliamentary experiences in trying to get the abolition of blasphemy through.

For Lord Avebury it has been a long haul – he had made several attempts over the preceding decades to get the law abolished. He told how his grandfather, one of Darwin’s great supporters and a member of the ‘X Club’ with Huxley, was not actually an atheist: he was too ‘conventional’, Avebury said. His grandfather, he said, had been instrumental in having Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey.

Evan said that he had won fifth place in a ballot for a private members bill and he was hoping to amend the Act of Settlement, which bans a monarch or his or her heirs from marrying a Catholic. He also seeks to abolish primogeniture – which means that women cannot succeed to the throne if there is a male heir apparent, even if she is older. He had hoped that he would receive support from Catholics, many of whom consider the Act of Settlement to be crude and discriminatory. He rang the Catholic Herald to try to interest them in the story, but was sent away with a flea in his ear as the cranky editor, Damian Thompson, refused to speak to “that man”.

Thompson later wrote one of his crackpot blogs in the Daily Telegraph about the incident.

Evan is unfazed by all this – and cheekily apologised to Michael Irwin for usurping the “Doctor Death” title that is usually his for supporting the legalisation of assisted suicide.

A great time was had by all and there is much anticipation of next year’s event.

13 February 2009