Thursday, 4 April 2013

AHS Convention Round-Up 2013

This post was delayed by an incredibly busy month. Now I have a little breathing space to write again! This post will round-up everything everyone else said about the convention and I'll add my own observations on-top.

The AHS Convention is the annual event where student atheists, humanists and secularists from across the UK and Ireland come together for a weekend in London. There are two days of talks and workshops intended to inspire, equip students with the skills they need to make their student societies even better and to act as a forum for everyone to exchange ideas.

Robin Ince and his Sponge Crab

Day 1

The first day is the speaker day and the AHS team did not disappoint us featuring a line-up which mixed activists and campaigners with TV and radio favourites including Jim Al-Khalili (The Life Scientific, Jim Meets ...), Robin Ince (The Infinite Monkey Cage, 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People) and Natalie Haynes (The Ancient Guide To Modern Life, Armando Iannucci's Charm Offensive). Jessica V, President of the AHS, was our host, introducing speakers and setting out why the AHS is important. The full AHS review of the day is here and the BHA Storified all the tweets here!

There were some notable highlights during the speeches, which started with Andrew Copson showing us his sexy nuns. Gita Sahgal (Centre for Secular Space) gave a moving speech about the effects of political Islam across the world and chastised those human rights organisations which had colluded with Islamists.

Robin Ince was his usual ebullient self, speaking with infectious enthusiasm about the things which fascinate him. He was particularly excited about the sponge crab which "when it is frightened, picks up a sponge and puts it on its head." We've all been there!

Jim Al-Khalili gave his inaugural speech as new President of the British Humanist association whilst wearing an awesomely bright shirt. He spoke about the particular difficulties specific to being an atheist from a Muslim background and was keen that all religions be debunked, not just Christianity. He also stressed that Humanism must say what it is for and what it has to offer as well as the superstition that it rejects.

Polly Toynbee spoke about the influence religious organisations have in our lives (and deaths) intervening in government policy with respect to assisted dying, education about sex and the continuing religious segregation resulting from faith schools. She had assumed everyone in the audience would be left-leaning and was rebuked in the Q&A by a small but loud group of libertarians! "Does Humanism have a leftist bias and does that narrow the membership?" they wondered. A blogger took up their question after the event.

Rounding off the day were the BHA choir, covering Tim Minchin's "Woody Allen Jesus" and a genetic reworking of Eric Idle's Galaxy Song by Professor Brian Cox!

Day 2

The second day of the convention is all about students, with workshops, discussions and prizes for those societies which have  had the best year!

I started off the day giving my workshop, a modified version of the one facilitated at Southampton, streamlined and given the catchier title of "Taking the Fear out of Big Events". Once again there were two teams and they both came up with interesting, attention-grabbing, risky events. Team A decided they were going to have a panel discussion with Robin Ince, Evan Harris and, the bĂȘte noire of right and left alike, Nadine Dorries! Team B decided on a panel format too, but with speakers who had renounced their religion and discussion would focus on what had lead them to decided that they no longer believed. We then addressed the risks associated with both events, with similar concerns arising around security and opposition from religious societies. Finally we looked at some solutions including how to get extra security for events and managing conflict with student unions and other societies by keeping everyone well informed about what would be happening.

After a nice cup of tea and some biscuits I joined NUS Activist Development Officer Dani Beckett's workshop on "Encouraging Participation". Oozing enthusiam, Dani started off by challenging everyone to consider their own "lollipop moments", experiences which are not big in the grand scale of things, but had a profound impact on you at the time. After a few minutes of embarrassed deliberation, people started revealing their own reasons for joining their societies and it was interesting to hear these stories. Finally Dani drew a workshop favourite, the tiered triangle, with a small, highly active leadership at the top, working down towards a wider base of people with minimal society interaction. Dani stressed that is was important to make sure that everyone at every level had something they could get involved in, with more responsibility and reward at higher levels of interaction.

We broke up for lunch and returned for the prizes. Scotland featured particularly strongly this year, with Edinburgh Humanists winning Best Society. I imagine most societies were highly envious of St Andrews Atheists who pocketed £350 for events and campaigns, receiving both the Student Humanist Award and the runner-up Student Secularist Award! Having organised these prizes whilst running the AHS with Jenny B last year, I was particularly pleased to see well-run societies getting recognition for their efforts, backed-up with cash to encourage even more ambitious activities. A full list of the winners is here.

The final workshop of the day was Ethical Juries with AHS Treasurer Matthew Power and West London Humanist Philip Veasey. These are an attempt to define an ethical system based on a combination of principles and personal experience. Matt and Philip took us through an example questions, accompanied by a series of flow charts and a "triax" of axioms (Kindness, Courage, Integrity). Whilst an interesting proposition, I'm not sure to what extent I thought the process would be useful. Whilst making a decision on what to do can be usefully informed by others and the boundaries of those decisions constrained by their effects on others, any specific action should also depend on a person's attitudes and what they think most appropriate in the moment. Perhaps I need to attend more juries to understand better! More information here:

Overall, it was an excellent event well attended by student atheists, humanists and secularists. The talks and workshops were inspiring and it was good to see societies being recognised for the work they had done, especially the great number of "Awareness Week" events, boosting the profile of societies by focusing their activities into a single week. Even better was going down the pub with everyone afterwards to discuss everything that had happened recently and socialise. Chris R from Bath AHS has challendged Bristol AASS to a laser-quest battle soon, which I'm sure fits into the AHS aim to "encourage joint actions between societies" ;-).

The next big AHS event is the AGM 2013, the annual democratic extravaganza where the new executive will be elected and motions can be brought forward and debated. It is a fantastic opportunity for any host society to galvanize their leadership team, bringing prestige to the society and giving the event organisers that all important boost to their CV having run a national event. See here for more details!

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Bristol CU Discrimination Investigation

The Report

Last week, the University of Bristol Student Union (UBU) released the report into discrimination against female speakers by the University of Bristol Christian Union (BUCU), widely reported at the end of last year. This discrimination was revealed in an e-mail to CU members stating that the executive had decided women may not speak at some high-profile BUCU events unless accompanied by their husband. BUCU was found to have broken the UBU Equality Policy and will be monitored by UBU until July to ensure they comply. If they fail to do this, further sanctions may be imposed, including disaffiliation.

The report gives a fairly damning insight into the organisation where a culture of "different but equal" had informed what roles were suitable and not suitable for men and women. That some BUCU students thought that this was appropriate policy for a student society is shocking and perhaps explains why this didn't come to light earlier.

Some Concerns

Whilst the report is thorough, explains clearly what happened and the sanctions seem proportionate, there were two aspects which were disappointing.

1) The recommended sanctions have no detail. Close monitoring of the CU until July seems a reasonable sanction, but details of how this will be implemented are needed. Will the CU be required to minute all meetings and submit these minutes to UBU officers? What will the timetable of interactions between UBU officials and the CU exec be? How often will UBU officials meet with the CU exec? At Student Council, Berti assured me that a schedule of meetings and milestones to be reached will be established, but that it would not have been appropriate to include them in this report. At the time of writing, it had not been confirmed when this would be finalised.

The sanctions should also require the CU to release a final statement committing to the Equality Policy in full and explicitly removing the barrier to women speaking unaccompanied at high-profile BUCU events. At Student Council, Matt Oliver, President of BUCU, said that their last statement had done this, but this is clearly not the case. It was a business-as-usual statement which committed to "biblical equality" (different but equal) and to inviting women speakers to all events, but not explicitly as keynote, unaccompanied speakers.
In line with our basic position throughout that process, which has not been widely publicised, the Executive Committee now wish to make clear that we will extend speaker invitations to both women and men, to all BUCU events, without exception. BUCU is utterly committed to reflecting the core biblical truth of the fundamental equality of women and men.
- BUCU Statement, 05/Dec/2012

One member of the student council, clearly frustrated by the idea of more empty words, asked whether the CU should demonstrate their commitment to equality by inviting female speakers. Oliver responded that they now had a female speaker in their schedule, though, at the the time of writing, you'd be hard-pressed to find her on their website.

2) Ignorance of Human Rights was accepted as a mitigating factor. In mitigating factor "5.2.1 Visibility of Documents" the CU committee claimed "that they were not aware of the Equality Policy and claimed never to have seen the Code". Putting to one side the key legal principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse, this seems unlikely for two reasons:

- 2.1) In the text of the Initial Statement, Matt Oliver writes, "I encourage you to pray about this and to chat to any of the exec about it but also to guard the way we all talk about it in the coming weeks, making sure we’re not gossiping." There would be no need for this call for secrecy if the CU executive felt entirely comfortable with the decision they had taken and were willing to defend it in public.

- 2.2) Equality isn't an UBU-specific rule like subsidising broadsheet newspapers. UBU is required by UK law, in the Equality Act 2010, to ensure that no discrimination occurs in any of its subdivisions or member societies. 

Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits discrimination on grounds of certain protected characteristics including sex. Cases surrounding issues of equality and human rights are frequently reported in the media and it seems highly unlikely that students attending the University of Bristol would be ignorant of these. In January this year, four high profile cases were brought to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of "Christian persecution". In two of the cases, Christians had claimed the right to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, another protected characteristic, and both of them were rejected.

When deciding the reasonableness of ignorance of equality, it is important to generalise and keep in mind the average student society leader. Would an average student society leader be aware that equal treatment of people regardless of gender was required by law? Surely. Would the defence of ignorance mitigate discrimination on grounds of other protected characteristics such as sexual orientation or race? Surely not.


This report sets out the principles of equality and condemns "biblical concepts" of "equal but different" as unacceptable in a student society. It does, however, undermine this conviction by being too generous in mitigation. Students need to know that if they see discrimination occurring in a society then they can report it, it will be taken seriously by UBU and UBU will support them 100%. This is especially important for members of religious societies where a conservative culture can often lead to more liberal students feeling isolated. Hopefully more students will come forward in future to challenge inequality in their societies, report it to UBU and call it out.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Blasphemy By The Back Door: Andrew Copson speaks to Bristol AASS

Offensive or an expression of "if ice cream were a religion, it would be one of universal love, regardless of race, colour, creed or gender"?

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association,  was the main speaker for Bristol AASS' Reason Week and provided an entertaining and alarming insight into de facto blasphemy laws in advertising in the UK. Starting with a number of banned adverts for Antonio Federici ice cream (I'm not sure it exists, never seen it in shops!) Copson gave some examples of the Byzantine and often arbitrary ways in which the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) carry out their duty to take down any adverts "likely to cause serious and widespread offense". He highlighted the use of religious privilege by comparing two Phones4U adverts, one of which features Buddy Christ, which was banned, and the other a scary undead girl, which was not banned, despite the former receiving only 98 complaints whilst the latter attracted 525 complaints.

Andrew spoke about the BHA's experience trying to get the Atheist Bus Campaign off the ground. The now famous "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" had started life as "There isn't a God ..." A failure to get a positive ruling on the original text from the Committee of Advertising Practice (in no way related to the ASA...) lead to an effective ban on the original wording and so the "probably" was introduced. Copson said that this actually turned out to be beneficial, making the advert more lighthearted and playing on established advertising tropes such as the Carlsberg "probably the best lager" campaign (which I only realised when he pointed it out!)

He finished by speaking about how these sorts of regulations can privilege religions in the public space and lead to countervailing voices being silenced. As a consequence, the BHA will be starting a campaign to call out the chilling effect this can have on public discourse, so look out for that one soon!

The next Bristol AASS event is a Fishbowl Discussion in the Colston Arms on Tuesday at 8pm

Andrew Copson will be speaking at the AHS Convention in London on the 2nd March, so don't forget to book your tickets! Speakers also include Gita SahgalPolly Toynbee, Robin Ince, Jim Al-Khalili, Keith Porteus Wood and Natalie Haynes!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Atheism and Feminism: Bristol AASS Discussion

Last Tuesday, discussion writers Caitlin G and Olly M brought us a challenging discussion on atheism and feminism. It covered a broad span of topics including sex, gender differences, the ethics of equality, religious sexism and sexism in secular society too. We started with definitions: what is sexism? What is feminism? What is the patriarchy?

The subject of objectification brought about some debate, what it was and whether pornography and strip clubs were more or less responsible than Page 3 and the media fixation on what female public figures wear. One member of our group told us about how she had worked at an estate agent in Texas which required women staff to wear make-up and how she had been sent home when she refused to comply one day. She was also required to dye her hair red because they already had blonde and brunette staff and wanted clients to be able to pick whether they did business with “the blonde, the brunette or the redhead".

The most contentious topic of the evening (which continued later on Facebook) was sex and gender differences, what they are, whether they exist and whether they are determined by genetics, culture or chance. This is a topic which suffers from terrible reporting, where gender biases are framed as “men are like X, women are like Y, therefore unpleasant behaviour, Z, is somehow justified”. This sort of thinking falls into two traps. First, gender biases tell you nothing about individuals. If it is found that 75% of boys prefer playing with trucks rather than dolls (controlling for culture, etc) then what can you infer from this information? It doesn't say that boys should never play with dolls, it doesn't say that any boy who does so is somehow disingenuously male. This leads into the second problem;  this sort of logic tries to make a statement about how the world should be from observations about how it is, breaching the is-ought gap. It is only possible to justify biological determinism for behaviour which negatively affects others if you deny rational agency as well. A disposition towards certain behaviour does not absolve us of the responsibility to negotiate rights and get the consent of others whom those actions are likely to affect.

Finally we looked at how atheism, humanism and secularism intersect with feminism. The link with secularism, seeking equality for all regardless of religion, is the most obvious one with religious organisations granted privileged exceptions from equality law and allowed to exclude women from their higher ranks. This leads to the outrageous outcome that 26 seats in the House of Lords, those of the Bishops or “Lords Spiritual”, are reserved exclusively for men. The link with Humanism is strong too, with a commitment to equality and human rights for all.

The next event is "Evan Harris: Secularism in 2013" tonight (Tuesday) at 6:30pm in The Frank Lecture Theatre, Physics

Don't forget to book tickets for the AHS Convention in London from the 1st March. Speakers include Polly Toynbee, Natalie Haynes, Robin Ince, Jim Al-Khalili Andrew Copson and Keith Porteus Wood!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Ethics of Life and Death: Bristol AASS Discussion

Last Tuesday was a discussion with Bristol AASS on matters spanning from the very beginning to the very end of life. Covering abortion, euthanasia and everything in between it was an interesting discussion and some new members who were medics turned up too.

Starting at abortion we investigated our thoughts about where human life began and on what grounds abortion should be acceptable. The principles we discussed fell into 3 broad categories:

1) Sentience
2) Viability
3) Anthropocentrism

Level of sentience was an important concern, with the stage of development from which the foetus can feel pain as a key point. Whilst practical, some pointed out that the foetus could be anaesthetised so this should not be given as much weight as it is. The vegetarians also pointed out our anthropocentrism in matters of sentience, more willingly killing a cat than a human foetus, despite the former being much more neurologically complex at that state of development.

Viability, or the foetus' ability to survive outside the womb, is frequently used as another benchmark for the abortion limit. Recent attempts to restrict abortion have hinged upon new technological advances allowing foetuses to survive outside the womb from an earlier age. Again, this was another argument to which most could not give much weight because it is not inconceivable that technology could eventually make embryos viable from conception, yet few would have moral qualms about terminating a few cells.

Of the three, I think the consensus was that sentience was the strongest metric, with the other two feeding in to a lesser extent.

The "talented violinist" thought experiment filled a good portion of the debate, questioning whether anyone has the right to use another human's body, even if they are fully developed and have proven potential. This caused quite some controversy with people falling both sides of the fence. Those for it broadly followed a human rights approach (everyone has a right to life, but that does not entail the right to use another person's body) whilst those against took a utilitarian line (9 months of incapacitation will result in both you and another going on to lead full lives).

Moving onto the second part of the discussion which was about the end of life, death, suicide and euthanasia we began by assessing why it was fine to put an animal down "to put them out of their misery" but why this compassion could not be extended to humans. The critical difference identified was that of human agency; whether another human should be allowed to die should not be the choice of anyone but the person themselves.

The provocatively worded question "is it arrogant to assume that someone's life is worth living? (if they don't think it is)" resulted in some stiff debate. People in a temporary mental state could be depressed or suicidal without reason and it wasn't arrogant to check that this was not the case first. If, however, someone has made a rational decision about their situation and is in extreme, incurable  pain all the time but cannot kill themselves, for example, then we should respect their decision. Caitlin G said that, similar to Terry Pratchett, she would be terrified of getting Alzheimers and would prefer death to long, unrelenting debilitation.

The end of the discussion ended with disagreement on who should be allowed assisted dying with one person saying that the person's will should not be the only factor and their their family should be included in the decision too. This brought us full circle back to the "talented violinist" discussion - who has the right to say what you should do with your own body?

As ever, this discussion session was fascinating, fun and full of vigorous debate. If that's your kind of thing, here are some upcoming events you might be interested in:

The next discussion is "Atheism and Feminism" tonight (Tuesday) at 8pm in The Colston Arms

Don't forget to book tickets for the AHS Convention in London on the 1st March. Speakers include Robin Ince and Jim Al-Khalili!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2012

I went with Lawrence T and his friends to 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People last night at the Bloomsbury Theatre not quite aware of what I was letting myself in for. Robin Ince compered the event with the energy and passion of a rational David Icke, a non-stop stream of performers stretching the show to over 3 hours.

The show opened with the house band playing some funk-tronica, the brass instruments accompanying the ethereal sounds from the laser-harp swaddled in theatrical dry-ice. After this strong start, the first half was, frankly, a little baffling. There were many many person-with-a-guitar acts and a weird character piece which imagined the film Brief Encounter set in the present day which, having never watched, Brief Encounter, was utterly impenetrable  Josie Long saved the first half with her excellent stand-up routine, especially the part where she said Jay-Z lyrics in the style of a 1930's Film Noir detective (I've got 99 problems, but a dame ain't one). Try it!

The second half was considerably stronger, with some brilliant acts. Especially enjoyable was the mental change of gear when Richard Herring did a bit from Talking Cock, waxing phallical, right after a scientist from CERN had been oozing excitement about the consequences of what could turn out to be a Higgs Boson. In an innovative twist on ventriloquism, one performer spoke as a large, projected cartoon of God, complete with cloud and thunderbolts for smiting, which he controlled with an XBOX controller.  Those who entered doubting God's power surely left convinced after God smote the band-leader, causing him to spill beer all over his equipment! Mark Thomas ended the evening with his tales of "book heckling", putting sarcastic comments on bits of paper and leaving them in the spine of books in the shop. He told us his technique for replacing the stickers on books with his own (the trick is to "palm" the sticker before you enter the shop to make it less obvious) and gave away some facetious stickers at the end to encourage more people to do the same!

Whilst the show had some excellent moments, the running time of over 3 hours made it gruelling at times, especially when you got a couple of mediocre acts in a row. A good show for those in an exploratory mood, but maybe not for those seeking something with a coherent theme!

Monday, 10 December 2012

The First AHS Southern Regional Convention

The AHS' first ever southern regional conference was run last Saturday, hosted by the Southampton Atheist Society. Ever fearful of weekend bus schedules, I brought Greta (my bike) with me to navigate Southampton's post-war tarmac and concrete defiance up to the Highfield campus in the leafy suburbs.

It was quite a small event, with only member of Southampton Atheist Society able to make the event in the end, but good fun and worthwhile nonetheless. The day began with Jess V and Matt P giving a talk on how to run Reason Weeks, quickly covering pretty much everything from inviting speakers down to organising catering. I was up next to trial my new workshop on Risk Assessment. Everyone was prepared for the worst, with a title like that, but it turned out to be good fun with a great deal of interaction. After lunch David Allen Green gave a talk on campaigns, chastising those whose campaigns limit themselves to protest and talking about his work on the Paul Chambers "Twitter Joke Trial". Rounding off the day was Jonathan Pearce who deconstructed the Nativity Story, exposing its historical inaccuracies and how the story we're familiar with from school plays is a hodgepodge of the conflicting accounts of Matthew and Luke.

Rocking PowerPoint . . . Like a Boss

I was pretty pleased with how my workshop went. I started by examining the reasons for taking risks and making sure that the goals are always clear and well communicated. For a student society these might include getting attention for the society, growing membership and having fun! We then looked at risk management in three exercises which would demonstrate risk identification, analysis and mitigation. 

Splitting the people in the audience into two teams, I asked them to imagine a really risky event that they'd enjoy putting on. Team A came up with a "book burning" event where religious and atheist texts would be burnt onto CDs and handed out for free, whilst Team B suggested an exhibition of "Mohammed in Atheist Art" event which would be accompanied by a debate.

In the second exercise the teams identified four key risks in each other's events and rated them by probability of occurrence and the impact on the event were they to occur. These risks ranged from technical problems and preventing accidents to more unusual ones. Common to both were concerns about how the motivation for what they were doing could be misrepresented by unsympathetic groups and even violence towards the event organisers or attendees. Violence is unlikely, but not impossible, as demonstrated earlier this year when a student threatened members of Queen Mary ASH at an event about Sharia Law.

In the final task each team came up with mitigation strategies for risks associated with their events and we had good discussions about what you should do to counter bad publicity and violent individuals. Having a statement prepared outlining the reason for your event and your motivations is always a good idea, for example. If violence is threatened at an event then it should always be suspended or cancelled until adequate security can be provided by the student union or university.

Of the two, perhaps the most difficulty would be with the "Mohammed in Atheist Art" event, given Student Unions tend to err on the side of causing no offence rather than defending free expression, most recently demonstrated in the case of a Pineapple named Mohammed at Reading University. This said, the overriding message of the workshop was that we should not avoid doing something simply because there are some risks attached - most often the risk is worth taking and it gives a great sense of achievement to leave a society bigger and better than when you joined it.

Big thanks to Southampton Atheists and the AHS Exec for organising this event. Jenny B was in Edinburgh for the Scottish AHS conference on the same day as I was in Southampton, so hopefully these will both inspire more regional events in future!