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!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Abort67 Counter-Protest at Bristol Uni

Last Friday afternoon I took some time out of my afternoon to stand on Tyndall Road in the crisp November air and watch some deeply misguided people display giant pictures of foetuses. They belonged to a group called Abort67 who have been touring university campuses with the aim of shocking people into becoming anti-abortion.

Pro-choice students counter-protesting against Abort67

I didn't have time to take a picture of their larger banners, though, as students swiftly swept into action, covering the pictures with a giant banner saying "This union is Pro-Choice!" Like other similar organisations, they profess to be secular, yet their religious motivations are clear, with biblical scripture on one of the placards I managed to get a photo of.

See, it's OK, because women don't count as "every one"

After all were in place, little further happened. The protest was peaceful, with the occasional snipe from the Abort67 members, "What would your mother say if you told her you'd had an abortion?"

Whilst peaceful, I felt uneasy about the covering of Abort67's placards. Having banged on about freedom of speech before, it seems that this right must be granted to all, not just to those with whom we agree. I brought this up with some of the counter-protesters there and they justified what they were doing by saying that they were preventing harm and distress to students and also to the children at the local school and, indeed, a bunch of children on a bikeability session passed the protest site. I felt a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, questioning the actions of clearly awesome people who'd taken time out of their afternoon to stand up for what they believed in.

Turning the question round, I was asked "what is the alternative?" Caitlin G, ever the wag, suggested satirising their use of the "disgust factor" by staging an even more horrific counter protest with placards displaying a gangrenous leg or a body disinterred from a lead coffin (something she reliably informs me is particularly nasty). Others suggested "blue waffle" (DON'T Google that!). This solution, though clever, does risk turning Tyndall Avenue into a street of fleshy nightmares.

Perhaps the solution is to go entirely the other way. Who would want to walk on the foetusy side of the street when on the other are fluffeh duckies and mittens?

If they come back to Bristol, I WILL make this!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Risk Assessing Blasphemous Pineapples: The Fruit of all Evil?

The beginning of the university year has its ups and downs. On the negative side there are undergraduates everywhere, the world’s brightest frequently stumped by supermarket self-service machines and deciding that the middle of a busy pavement is the perfect place to conduct an in-depth conversation. On the plus side, there are undergraduates everywhere, including at Bristol AASS which means the weekly meetings have started again.

Last week’s drink and think discussion was on “Free Speech and the Media”. Inevitably, the Reading Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society’s (RAHS) blasphemous pineapple came up in discussion and provoked quite a lot of debate about free speech in student unions.  It was especially relevant because the University of Bristol Student Union (UBU) has policies curbing “offense” under its “safe space” policy which is similar to the “behavioural policy” which has been used by RUSU against RAHS.

A lot of the debate about blasphemy follows two major lines of thought. Firstly, should RUSU have prevented RAHS displaying their blasphemous pineapple? Secondly, should RAHS have displayed the blasphemous pineapple in the first place and was causing offense a productive method for engagement? To the first question, most I’ve spoken to think that the student union officials did not make the correct decision - a fresher’s fair is an event open to all students and as a public space there should be no expectation of comfort nor protection of your own worldview from challenging worldviews. To the second there is a more mixed response - with some thinking it was an excellent way to bring attention to the issue of free speech and blasphemy whilst others criticised RAHS for “gratuitous offense” or even “Muslim-baiting”.

I fall on the side of thinking that this was a perfectly valid way for RAHS to make their point. It seems that many of the concerns people have about this are actually not about the act of blasphemy itself, but about a bunch of attendant anxieties. Such worries might include a fear that the EDL or the Daily Mail may appropriate the story to feed their narratives of "creeping Islamisation," for example. Earlier this year, one Muslim student suggested to me that blasphemy rules were a good way of preventing stereotyping by the far-right, but such a blunt policy erodes freedom of expression to an unacceptable degree. It might therefore be useful to think about blasphemy campaigning not in terms of whether you should or should not do it, but carry out a risk-reward calculus and how the risks can be avoided and the rewards maximised. Such an analysis might look something like this:

Good risk mitigation involves building a highway from the danger zone.

The relative position of each of the risks on the graph can be useful for identifying the most important risks and therefore the amount of effort that should be spent trying to address them. You can then look at ways of addressing each risk:

Excluded from Student Union events

Probability: Low

Impact: Medium

Description: Being kicked out of Fresher’s Fair or involvement with student council. This will impact on building relationships with other societies and will impact member recruitment and membership fees!

Mitigation: If this does happen, are there other ways members could sign-up? Make sure there’s an online sign-up form that you could direct people to or bring some paper forms to events. RAHS got other societies to hand-out leaflets on their behalf at Fresher’s Fair.

Hastily scrawled graphs = great success!

The rewards graph is the reverse of the risks graph - you want to build on rewards and maximise their impact and probability! Looking at the potential rewards, you can think about how to best capitalise on them:

Publicity, Increase Membership, Advertise Event
Probability: Medium
Impact: Medium
Description: If people complain and action is taken against your society then the ensuing controversy is likely to attract media attention. Exclusion from student union events might hamper recruitment and event advertising, so it’s important to use the attention received to drive society membership and event attendance.
Capitalisation: Make sure that the society name is included in press releases and that the purpose and aims of your society are emphasised. RAHS used their initial press release to advertise their first event of the year “Should we respect religion?”

This is just a quick analysis because you’re going to encounter different risks and rewards at different universities and with different student union officers! Norman R and I were thinking of developing a more general AHS workshop on risk management so societies can feel more confident judging how effective campaigns might be and how opportunities can be best exploited.
This is certainly a different approach from a lot of the discussion so far - do you think this is a useful tool for thinking about the issues like this?

Friday, 28 September 2012

Dawkins Keynote at NSS Conference

Last Saturday I went to the National Secular Society Conference in London to learn more about the state of secularism today. The venue had been kept secret until a few days before the event and I found myself wondering whether the person ahead of me a secret secularist and were they heading to the conference too? The event’s enigma was further added to by the venue itself - the Royal National Hotel - which looks like one of those hotels you get in 70’s detective dramas. Lacking cigarettes or corduroy I did my best to look shifty as I entered the hotel.

First impressions are important, and the volunteers were all excellent at getting us our name badges and showing us where to go. Delegate packs were very swanky and contained the latest NSS bulletin which I was pleased to note featured the Secularist Student Award. The stalls of various NSS affiliated groups were bustling with activity and it was good to meet so many familiar faces and a lot of younger people too - 30% of the delegates were students!

Enthusiastic intergenerational dialogue - and stall freebie art!

The talks kicked off with Ted Cantle, Professor at the Institute of Community Cohesion. He was promoting the idea of interculturalism as a replacement for multiculturalism which he said was responsible for different ethnic and faith groups leading parallel and isolated lives. Approaching communities through self-appointed “community leaders” and funding projects based on a group’s race or faith was bad for social cohesion with one of the biggest barriers being faith schools which segregate children.

Llanelli MP, Nia Griffith, was very and entertaining, bemoaning scheduled prayers in Parliament and asking “why don't we have a more secular society already? Because we have ‘tradition’.” Failure to make secularism a vote-winner means that politicians have no interest in adopting explicitly secular policies. “Principled politicians must overcome their fear of being seen as anti-religious and anti-tradition”.

“Secularism is an important pre-condition for equality” said Pragna Patel, founding member of Southall Black Sisters. “Religious groups increasingly use the language of equality and human rights when actually undermining it.” Patel was the first to break the consensus between the speakers, taking on Cantle saying his report criticised multicultural policy  too harshly in places and failed to acknowledge the positives.

Having heard Nick Cohen and Maryam Namazie several times before I decided to attend the afternoon’s “break-out sessions”. First up was Sue Cox of Survivor’s Voice, a charity which campaigns to network and raise awareness of survivors of abuse by the clergy. For me, Cox was the best speaker of the day, able to address the horror of the Catholic Church’s institutional cover-up of paedophilia by members of its clergy with passion and determination for justice whilst remaining warm and engaging at the same time. "Can you imagine a deaf and dumb abuse survivor doing the Moonwalk outside the Vatican?" she said, referring to a march earlier this year.

Cox made the somewhat surprising statement, “We don’t want your money! We want you to tell everyone you know that we exist!” I asked her about this, and she clarified that she didn’t want money for Survivor’s Voice as an organisation because some abuse survivor’s charities can end up becoming a business and she wanted to avoid that. What she did absolutely want money for, however, was a travel fund to help survivors attend demonstrations and for a research project. Survivor’s Voice are the recommended charity for this year’s Non-Prophet Week, so its good to know that every single penny will go to good use!
Agata gets her lab coat signed by Richard Dawkins

Lunch, always an important consideration at conferences, was excellent with a wide array of sandwiches including some particularly excellent beef and horseradish offerings. It was also a good chance to have chat with people including Dom, Martin and Gav from my hometown of Bristol staffing the Bristol Secular Society stall. Plenty of students were there too, with members of OX:ASH helping on the Survivor’s Voice stall and Jess Vautier and Matthew Power representing the AHS.  There were too many stalls to visit them all, though I had some interesting chats with the London Atheist Activist Group and Camp Quest, the rationalist camp for kids which inspired the AHS’ Questival for older, drunker people.

After lunch was Terry Sanderson and Keith Porteus-Wood who reported on the NSS’ current involvement in the current legal cases at the European High Court and other successes this year including victory on council prayers. Challenged on whether the NSS should be arguing more strongly against faith, the (mostly friendly) rivalry with the BHA surfaced with Sanderson joking that humanists like "airy-fairy philosophising ... almost theological."and that the NSS  "doesn’t need to debate the existence of god ... we know it's bullshit!" He justified the NSS’ approach by pointing out that institutional elements like faith schools are key in the perpetuation of religious belief, their indoctrinating effect so strong that he could still remember at least twenty hymns off-by-heart! Discussion ended on a question about what ordinary members and local groups could do to promote secular causes. For the moment, it seems like the NSS wants to keep affiliated groups at arms length, Sanderson saying that he has had experiences in the past where other secular groups haven’t fully supported the NSS' values.

Returning to the main room, it was a pleasure as ever to hear Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner. He sought to throw wide the overall cause of human rights, characterising it as not just a secular cause, but one which also requires taking on the current economic system. Fantastically animated and radical he was critical of oppressive systems stating “organised religion is the main threat to human rights, not people of faith, who are often victims of oppression”.

Richard Dawkins, never one to mince his words, challenges those who would call him a “dick”

The conference was rounded-off by Richard Dawkins, who took to the stage with his characteristic pro-rationalist zeal, opening by countering Phil Plait’s plea to atheists to “don’t be a dick”. “I try to convince fence-sitters, those who haven't thought and those who don't realise there's a fence to sit on!” he explained, adding that the “battle for acceptance of evolution is part of a wider war for critical thought.” He went on to justify why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is fair game for criticism in a political context, exposing some of Mormonism’s crazier beliefs, such as magic pants, along the way. Some of the material didn’t quite work, with a description of Muslims wearing “bin bags” resulting in an audible sharp intake of breath from the audience and a slightly excruciating parody letter of a Tony Blair Faith Foundation fundraising letter raising a few quizzical eyebrows. Then again, it would be easy for Dawkins to just play the hits, so it’s always refreshing to hear some new stuff even if it doesn’t quite work.

Overall, the conference was excellent and additional fun was to be had to head to the pub with people afterwards to discuss our favourite speakers of the day, somehow ending up at the ethics of bestiality. Looking back at the day, if there were one criticism I would make it would be the strong dissonance between who secularism is for and who owns it. Whilst there were many statements reiterating how secularism protects freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion there were no explicitly religious speakers. Is authentic secularism is an atheist-driven secularism? Does platforming Dawkins make a strong statement to this effect?  Segregating education and other public services by faith is a bad idea - surely there must be religious voices who would agree with this idea, especially from religions which have not enjoyed traditional privilege in the UK? What did you think?

Monday, 17 September 2012

March and Rally for a Secular Europe 2012

March and Rally for a Secular Europe 2012
Photo: Mary G

Secularism received a bashing from Eric Pickles this week, declaring the National Secular Society to be "intolerant" and characterising secularism as a doctrine which would ban "discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness." Pickles additionally deserves a gold-medal for his Olympian display of mental gymnastics when stating that privileging the Christian churches with "a particularly strong claim to be heard" somehow benefits everyone else. So you can imagine my surprise when I attended the March and Rally for a Secular Europe last Saturday, with people Pickles would probably call "militant secularists," all of whom were concerned about equality for all rather than the strict control of iconography in jewellery.

Posing for the camera
Photo: Amber W

I headed down with Jenny B and there was a good turn-out of people I knew through the AHS and other organisations including the BHA and NSS. Arriving late, we hurried to put up my placard with its rubbish joke which had started out as "I don't believe in miracles, since you came along ..." but that was technically inaccurate (secularism is a political statement advocating separation of church and state and is neutral when it comes to metaphysical claims) and the only thing worse than a rubbish joke is an fallacious rubbish joke! Alternatives I had considered included "Schools for Education, not Faith Segregation" and "Get Your Hands Off My Glans!" with an angry penis backing away from a circumcision blade. I think everyone was relieved that I'd not chosen the latter!

Numbers were down on previous years with only a few hundred turning out and the rally confined to a street down the back of Kings College London student Union. The 2010 March and Rally for a Secular Europe attracted 20,000 people for "Protest the Pope" when pontiff visited the UK. Perhaps future protests need a narrower theme, though it's hard to beat the Pope for a symbol of the worst of patriarchal religious control over people's sex lives and ecclesiastical displays of wealth and power.

The speakers covered a wide range of issues of religious privilege. Sue Cox, clerical abuse victim and a leader of Survivor's Voice was characteristically enthusastic, thanking the march attendees and hailing the event as "the yearly shot in the arm which keeps me going." Survivor's Voice is an important charity supporting those who have been abused and subsequently forced into silence by the Catholic Church cover-up and the AHS will be helping to raise money for them through this year's Non-Prophet Week.

Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner, made his case strongly, criticising the promotion of inequality by religious organisations whilst acknowledging the diverse views held by individual adherents.
Tatchell: "Religious organisations are biggest threat to equality for women & LGBT people ... but there are also people of faith who have stood alongside us for secularism and equality."
It was disappointing that there was only one speaker of faith (Mejindarpal Kaur, Legal Director of United Sikhs) at the event and no visible representatives from other faith groups. There was one guy wearing a t-shirt saying "Young Earth Creationist: Trolling Your Meeting," but he looked pretty godless to me! Perhaps it is understandable that the two most advantaged groups - Anglicanism and Catholicism - do not come out force, after all who would want to campaign against their own privileges removed? Having said that, if those religions can only maintain their position with state-support then that must represent a certain lack of confidence in the underlying tenets.

Robin Ince ended the rally with a broad speech, expressing surprise at how secularism and equality could be twisted to be presented as somehow anti-theist and lancing the moral pomposity of organised religion.
Ince: "The question is not how you can have morals without god, but how religious organisations can be so immoral with Him."
Similarly, he expressed incomprehension at how faith schools could possibly be considered as a way of promoting diversity
Ince: "The biggest enemy of bigotry is to mix with the people that other people are trying to make you bigoted against."
He's put the text online here, but I recommend watching the video to get the full effect with wild gesticulations and physical passion filling his words with sincerity, warmth and humanity.

Robin Ince - Speech at the Secular Europe march
Video: Matryer

It turned out to be an excellent day, with the Pod Delusion's 3rd Birthday party neatly rounding off proceedings with a healthy dose of skepticism, music and fire! For those who can't wait for more secularism, there's the Secular Conference next weekend in the Conway Hall with an all-star line-up including no less than Richard Dawkins himself.

If there was a single take-home message, I think it's that framing the removal of religious privilege as a form of oppression is a simple misrepresentation of what secularism is. Secularism means equality for all, protecting both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

10 Things I Learnt as AHS Secretary

I have been extremely privileged to be involved in atheism, humanism and secularism at many levels including talks and discussions organiser and Treasurer for the University of Bristol AASS and going on to become the South-West Regional Development Officer, Head of Membership and finally elected as Secretary of the AHS last year. I thought I’d take the opportunity to jot down some of my thoughts about what I’d learnt through the process which has been an excellent and very different experience to my day-work as a PhD research student.

Being the AHS Secretary is more than just wearing loud, primary coloured t-shirts

1. Have a strong sense of your aims, objectives and mission

The AHS has a vision statement and aims set down in its constitution. Its aims are:

to build, support and represent atheist, humanist and secular student societies, facilitate communication between them, and encourage joint actions and ensure that their members have opportunities to be part of the wider national and international movement.
Your time and resources are always limited. The best way to check whether to do something or not is to ask “does this help achieve the aims of the AHS?” If it doesn’t, don’t do it! If this all sounds a bit dogmatic to you, don’t forget that the AHS’ constitution, aims and objectives can be changed at an AGM or EGM - there’s no religion which allows that!

We worked hard to use the resources available to us to the maximal extent and to make sure that we expanded them where possible. This was best embodied in our series of grants and prizes which we organised to ensure that societies got the help they needed to put on big events. Similarly, we formalised the travel grants scheme to help people get to our Convention and AGM who might not have been able to otherwise. As student fees go up yet again, anxiety about money issues is going to make it even harder to provide these sorts of opportunities to students and  financial assistance will become ever more essential to keep joint-actions alive.

2. People are awesome

I have been fortunate to have worked alongside some awesome people, including Jess V whose calm determination has taken her all the way to AHS President and Press Officer Gareth whose newsletters have been consistently interesting and entertaining and occasionally baffling. The people at the British Humanist Association have been amazing too, helping us with our initiatives and giving us their advice as professional activists.

Any successful organisation needs motivated people and it's essential to identify what motivates each individual so that enthusiasm can be maintained. When organising volunteers, identify early on who is able to reliably give their time, especially when assigning mission-critical tasks, because long-term planning requires commitment. As Secretary, I kept the minutes of meetings and we soon learnt that if we wanted stuff done then we had to assign tasks to individuals so we could follow-up on it. Vague desires do not translate into action if noone bears individual responsibility for getting it done!

3. Be professional

It’s important to treat those from outside organisations courteously and transparently. Discussing the achievements of others is interesting and will inform how you achieve your own aims, but never be afraid to get down to business and seek outcome which is mutually beneficial. All activists are looking to advance their organisation’s objectives so you have to work out what’s going to give you the biggest impact.

I remember that first lunch Jenny, Dom and I had with the National Secular Society (NSS) last year and their (welcome) surprise that we were ready to discuss ideas for collaboration. Out of that lunch came free student group membership of the NSS and, further down the line, the NSS funding the Student Secularist Award. The NSS received exposure to students and we got a pledge of money for student societies so we were very happy with that.

4. Be proactive not reactive

Sounds like marketing guff, right? All it means is that If you want to instigate change, it’s important that you lead and drive the agenda rather than simply being subject to it.

One place we painfully learnt this was our campaign on unstunned meat. We had carried out some excellent research into the availability and labelling of un-stunned meat in universities and made the raw data available to member societies.  We wanted societies to base their own campaigns around what we had found out and to campaign for an end to this form of religious privilege. We did not, however, make a strong enough case for why it was an important campaign nor did we build a campaign strategy with the goals we wanted to achieve. We submitted our report to the government and tried to publicise our research in response to (inaccurate) news that the government was considering bringing in domestic labelling for meat describing the method of slaughter used to kill the animal it was from. This is, perhaps, an issue for campaigning on in future and ensuring that religious privilege cannot be used to justify unethical slaughter practices.

By contrast, Non-Prophet Week was a success. Atheist students from across the UK and Ireland collaborated to raise over £2700 for charity. From the beginning we made sure that we were in contact with member societies to encourage them to take part and to advocate for this joint-action. We suggested that members might want to support BBC Children in Need because that fell at the same time as Non-Prophet Week, but we didn’t allow it to dominate the central principle of godless giving!

5. Public speaking is fun!

I have always been aware that I like giving talks - I have to do them quite a bit as a PhD student to present my work. Being in the AHS has given me the opportunity to widen the types of speaking opportunities available to me beyond the purely academic. I have given comedy talks about agnosticism and the super-olympics at Questival, lead workshops at AHS events and gave a talk on blasphemy at Southampton University. I like all these formats, with comedy being a good test of what you can come up with off-the-cuff whilst more serious topics need to be backed-up with evidence and research which appeals to my sensibilities as a researcher!

I was called in at short notice to argue the case against religion in education for Bristol AASS’ Reason Week and surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the debate. Discussion about this topic within our local group made me well aware of the issues and a frantic call to the BHA’s Faith Schools and Education Campaigns Officer bolstered this with the latest statistics and news. Participating in public debates, researching and giving talks will boost your knowledge and confidence as well as raising awareness of secular and humanist perspectives generally so I would recommend you challenge yourself to do it.

6. Let your manifesto guide your decisions

Being elected to a position with on the basis of your manifesto gives you a mandate to carry out the actions you have proposed even though you may not be able to fulfil all of them in full. One thing I was keen to keen to address in my own manifesto was how the diversity of student groups could be improved, having observed that my own society was largely made up of white and male members and hearing, anecdotally, that this was true of other groups too.

My own discipline of engineering is similarly gender-skewed and research has been commissioned into how to tackle this and, importantly, money has been allocated to make it happen. One thing that is not emphasised enough was pointed out in this report: “Take into consideration that women are by no means a homogenous group. Thus, heterogeneous actions are required in order to reach as many women as possible. Stereotyping, drawing upon traditional images of women and femininity, is a bad strategy.” The marketing people behind the hilariously misjudged Science: It’s a Girl Thing video would have been wise to heed this advice!

Our diversity strategy manifested itself in two ways. Firstly, in event planning meetings we wanted to get the best people and put effort into ensuring that our invitations list included non-white-males so  we weren’t artificially restricting ourselves to the “usual suspects” who speak at humanist / skeptic events. Secondly we made sure that the women in our leadership were visible and could provide role-models - never hard with someone as instantly recognisable as Jenny!

We were partially successful with Iszi Lawrence, Anne Marie Waters, Dani Beckett, Alom Shaha and Chloë Clifford-Frith appearing at AHS events this year with calendar conflicts preventing us from getting everyone we wanted. Certainly, it is encouraging that two of the three new AHS executive are women and that the Questival attendees gender divide was 50-50. However, there is always room for improvement and there is some way to go in ensuring that more non-white people feel that humanist events are for them too.

7. Investigate and address conflict

When conflicts occur it is important to ascertain the facts and find out the root causes of disagreement in order to solve the problem. In February there was a blasphemy row over depictions of Mohammed between the UCL and LSE societies and their respective student unions. This brought up a lot of questions including “why were student unions investigating our members for harassment?” “Why is the LSE group being accused of breaching their union’s safe-space policy?” I learnt a lot about harassment and the law from this experience, and the AHS brought together the affected societies to discuss what had been happening and we helped find legal assistance for the LSE society.

I covered these issues in my talk to the Southampton Atheists here during their reason week. A number of Muslim students attended and spoke about some of their concerns about allowing cartoons of Mohammed and it was good to have an opportunity to address some of their worries directly. Anecdotally, it seems that a lot of the discussion about safe-space comes from NUS fora, highlighting the need for atheist students to be involved at these “interfaith” events to positively engage whilst safeguarding the rights of atheist students at the same time.

8. Use the phone or Skype

Communications technology is brilliant stuff, but I’m a communications engineer so you would expect me to say that! There are a myriad of options available to us these days with e-mail, Google docs and social networking making collaboration easy even when people live hundreds, even thousands of miles from each other. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was Nicola J who continued to be involved in the coordination and organisation of last year’s Non-Prophet Week despite travelling through Africa for a time!

With this multiplicity of options, it’s very easy to get overly attached to your “favourite” method of communication, be it e-mail, Facebook or even the empty wasteland that is Google+. The most important thing to bear in mind is to use the appropriate technology - sometimes a phone call or a Skype call can save a tedious, lengthy e-mail exchange or take the heat out of a severe disagreement or misunderstanding because it’s harder to de-personalise a voice than text on a screen. Indeed, editing a collaborative Google doc whilst discussing it with someone on Skype and Instant Messaging them interesting research links is the pinnacle of communications technology nerdery and I wait with baited breath until the day we finally get 3D, hard-light avatars!

9. Always keep the bigger picture in mind

Make sure you step back and keep an overview of strategy and big events. All aspects of an event have to be managed for it to be successful including budget, operations, equipment, venue hire, speakers / facilitators, volunteers, publicity and communication. It’s very easy to get too bogged down in particular aspects and we suffered from this when organising the AHS Convention this year, getting most things right, but dropping the ball when it came to confirming speakers, publicising the event and communicating the schedule to attendees.

We learnt a lot from this experience and for the AGM and Questival we created overview documents outlining all the areas we needed to cover and set ourselves milestones so that we could monitor progress. As a result these events were very well attended and perhaps the biggest (and oddest) compliment we got for the AGM was from Matthew P who commented that “I knew what to expect from the event and it fulfilled those expectations”.

The bigger picture also involves positioning how the AHS sees itself internationally. Jenny and I had the great opportunity to attend the IHEYO European Working Group and it was fascinating to see how humanist youth was organised across the rest of Europe, the main differences being that they didn’t restrict themselves to students only and some of them got state funding. Across the pond there’s the SSA which has raised an outrageous amount of money in donations this year so there’s plenty of inspiration for the AHS and its members.

10. The AHS is important!

The AHS is about connecting member societies knowing that they can have more of an impact together and it has grown from its 8 founding societies in 2008 to a current total of 42. Sharing ideas, resources and promoting new societies can help non-religious worldviews reach more people and provide friendly spaces to do godless things! I will certainly continue to attend godless events because I have met some brilliant, intelligent and passionate people through them that I might not have met otherwise. There is a lot of potential for future growth with many more universities to establish societies at, more opportunities for joint actions and campaigns to promote so best of luck to the new executive!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Questival 2012 Review

Questival was fantastic this year with around 30 young adult atheist, humanists and secularists taking to the fields of Stratford-upon-Avon Racecourse for a weekend of fun and scepticism! It is unique amongst the AHS' events being purely about letting off some steam with likeminded people from across the UK and the rest of the world (we had Dan R-M from Norway this year!)

Questival began last Friday with everyone arriving whilst we cooked up delicious veggie chilli and wraps for dinner. We also made the camping favourite "chocolate in bananas in tin-foil" which looked like sci-fi dildos. Space wangs duly consumed, we went into the scheduled “spontaneous fun" time, playing some not-quite-twister followed by a moonlit walk around the perimeter of the racecourse, along overgrown river paths and past abandoned railway lines.

Rational vs. Irrational: Who will win?
Photo: Nicola J

The next morning we lept out of bed to make a glorious breakfast of bacon, sausages, veggie sausages, mushrooms, eggs and beans. This was to fuel us during the morning's photo challenge which was huge fun and very silly. I was in "Team Secretary" containing the AHS' last 3 Secretaries, Nicola J, Emiko K and me as well as Raby W and Tom G. We had to rush around Stratford-upon-Avon to different locations and pose to illustrate different ideas like "correlation does not equal causation" and "socially awkward sceptic"! This culminated in a big group photo of everyone acting out Shakespearean scenes in front of the RSC theatre before heading off for lunch was at a Jimmy Spices Buffet where the napkins were entertainingly shaped like Papal mitres.

Alom Shaha spoke about his book, The Young Atheist's Handbook and read from the chapter about love, discussing romantic love and the difference and similarities it had to religious love and belief. He argued that they were similarly irrational, aesthetic and personal, yet most definitely real. Humanist philosophies must, therefore, not just be correct but a more satisfying and attractive alternative to belief too. I am inherently sympathetic to this, because there are non-religious philosophies which are a lot more positive than the stereotype of the miserable, nihilistic atheist. However, as Julian Baggini discussed in a recent New Humanist piece it does not really make sense to talk about rational philosophies in terms of being optimistic or pessimistic, rather a stoic realism. Baggini quotes Sam Harris "Hope and fear are completely natural responses to uncertainty. But they are two sides of the same coin: if we would be free of fear, we must let go of hope. Easier said than done, of course. But it is possible. And being without hope is by no means synonymous with despair. Rather, it is tranquillity." To go back to Alom's analogy with romantic love, if religion is the unbelievably enhanced sycophant in the room, then humanism is the sexy librarian with a lust for knowledge who wants to get to know you and as much of the rest of life, the universe and everything as time will allow!

James and Liz from the Pod Delusion introduced themselves and invited contributions to The Pod Delusion LIVE just before the break during which those of us who had volunteered to talk ferociously scribbled down some notes. The talks were all excellent: Dan P talked about teaching kids to code; Livia S enlightened us about the latest advances in optics; Caitlin G railed against laws governing human remains which harmed science whilst benefited bogus druids; Ben K spoke about the latest advances in cancer treatment and Helen G explained how feminist and non-feminist pole-dancing differed and how some forms can be oppressive whilst others are liberating. I disturbed the seriousness with a polemic on why we should replace the Olympics and Paralympics with the Super-Olympics consisting of an egalitarian Amateur Olympics (participants chosen by ballot like Jury Service, no technology or, err, clothes) and an Anything Goes Olympics where drugs and cybernetics are actively encouraged! Hopefully these will be online soon to enjoy again.

Ghost cruise conjurer looks deep into Jenny's soul (it's OK, she doesn't have one)
Photo: Krypto

The evening wound down to the Magical Boat Cruise where we were greeted by a man in full mystical-wear including shiny waistcoat, tidy goatee and a selection of pentagram adornments. He was quite serious at first, but soon got the feel for his audience when we laughed at inappropriate places and quickly increased the level of humour with the skill of an eminent showman. Floating along the canals of Stratford-upon-Avon we were treated to tall tales of ghosts, witches and murder as well as magic, conjuring, mind-reading and escapology thrown in for good measure!

On the way back we stopped off to buy drinks and headed along the dark river path from the town towards our campsite. Agata S spotted a gloworm which she picked up to show us which was really cool because I didn't know they lived in the UK. At first it looked quite small, two glowing rings of light, but shining a torch on it soon showed it to be quite a large mini-beast, a good inch long and wriggling about! We headed to some picnic tables by the river so we could chat and dance and sing into the night without disturbing the other campers. Damian B and Jo F brought sparklers which were fun, Chloë C-F lead some impromptu singing whilst Ben K wore his sunglasses at night.

At breakfast the next day I was nursing a bit of a sore head after the night's frivolities and rose to find some of the more diligent volunteers already cooking. Emiko K had earlier challenged me to a fight to the death if we won the photo challenge and had to decide who got which book and remarked that she was confident in my current state. I claimed I fought better hungover but I think she saw through my bluster!

Our worship leaders - may you too be touched by his noodley appendage!
Photo: Krypto

Breakfast dispatched, we all fetched our colanders and got ready for our morning service at the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nicola J and I welcomed the attendees in with chocolate and muffins (evangelical smile, "have you been to our church before?", "have you travelled far today?") whilst Chloë C-F provided music on her melodica. Jenny B, Nicola J and Chloë C-F were resplendent in their piratical gear in front of the colander-clad throng and led us through this most unusual of services. There were testimonials, pasta-based reworkings of popular tunes and even a healing! I think my favourite part was the tale of the lactose-intolerant mouse who stole a miracle - a sobering story indeed.

Nicola and I refereed the Atheist Olympics, a contest to find the best atheist. The first game was "Blind Faith" where teams competed against each other to guide one of their blindfolded team-mates through a maze whilst accomplishing tasks at different points. This was very silly, though some confusion was caused when both blindfolded people went out of bounds at the same time near the end and had to go back to the start! The second game was "The Hippogriff is a magnificent beast", a game of debating and rhetoric as each team elected one person to argue for their existence of a randomly chosen mythical creature whilst rubbishing the existence of their competitors' at the same time. The grand final was between Caitlin G, who was advocating that intelligent alien life had visited the earth, and Dan F who said that was nonsense, but that the moon landings had been faked instead. Caitlin G eventually won the contest and a (damp) medal, no doubt helped by the tinfoil hat keeping the government out of her brain.

Jonny Scaramanga tells us about growing up as a Christian fundamentalist
Photo: Krypto

After lunch we had a talk by Jonny Scaramanga (yes, his grandfather went to school with Ian Fleming) who spoke about how he'd grown up as a Christian fundamentalist. He was taught the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) course at school which contained course materials weaving a fundamentalist worldview into every subject including that the aim of socialism was "world domination" and that Nessie is an extant dinosaur! To make things worse, the qualification is recognised by NARIC, a government funded standards organisation, which renewed the suitability of the ICCE (the ACE qualification) for university entrance this year. The methods of teaching seem unnecessarily cruel, requiring students to work through workbooks in cubicles, effectively in isolation, for several hours a day and parents are required by schools to administer corporal punishment for disciplinary offences. Jonny now campaigns against ACE and schools teaching the curriculum and you can read more on his blog.

Lightening the mood, Jonny Berliner ended proceedings with his science songs and geek-poppery. We had songs about physics, evolution and the future and at one point we were waving our hands in the air to a sciency power-ballad. He had loads of great anecdotes about gigs he'd been comissioned for and gave us an exclusive when he sang a song to us about albatrosses (they're not great at flying) that he'd only just written on the train.

And so the weekend ended. It all seemed so quick after nearly a year of planning and preparation and I was sad to leave, but happy to have had a great time and have met the awesome people you always get at AHS events! Questival marks my final event as an AHS exec member and was the perfect way to finish an exhiliarating year. Thanks must go to the organisers Andrew West, Jenny Bartle, Nicola Jackon, (me), Emiko and also the hard-working volunteers Paul Noden, Chloë Clifford-Frith, Ben Krishna, Agata Stachiowiak, Dan Adams and everyone else who chipped in! Thanks also to Jess Vautier and Matthew Power for helping with the organisation even though they couldn't attend in person.

I would be happy to help organise next year's camp, though the big event this time next year will be European Humanists' Youth Days. Maybe Questival could go on holiday to Belgium next year? In any case, I'm already looking forward to Questival 2013 whatever form it takes!