Sunday, 13 March 2011

The AHS National Convention 12-13 March 2011

This weekend, UCLU ASHS attended the AHS third annual National Convention since its conception in 2008. It was held at Conway Hall, Holborn on Saturday's Speakers Day, and in the Cruciform Building, University College London on Sunday's Committee Day. The full programme for the entire weekend can be found here.

A fair was held throughout Saturday in which UCLU ASHS participated with our own stand along with various other organisations and student societies promoting atheist, secularist and humanist interests (a full list can be found in the above link).

The early-afternoon speakers included Lord Warner of Brockley, Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group; Gerard Phillips, Vice-President of the NSS; and Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA. The late-afternoon speakers included stand-up comedian Robin Ince; Johann Hari, journalist for The Independent and The Huffington Post; and the distinguished philosopher, author and BHA Vice-President A.C. Grayling. Topics ranged from the implications of religious figures in the House of Lords and the Census Campaign, to faith schools and whether lack of religion leads to
nihilism. In particular, Ince and Hari - the latter humourously introducing his talk with the time the Dalai Lama called him fat - elicited much enthusiasm amongst the audience. The Pod Delusion recorded podcasts of the talks.
A performance by the BHA choir - including a lovely rendition of John Lennon's Imagine and Every Sperm Is Sacred - marked the end of an excellent day. Lively debate was subsequently carried out in the nearby pub, The Enterprise.

Sunday was specifically tailored for atheist, secularist and humanist student society committees. In addition to UCLU ASHS, delegates from universities of Aston, Bristol, Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, OU, QMU, Southampton, Surrey, UAL, as well as UCC were present. The day began with a reprise of the BHA choir's performance of Do You Realize?? from the day before, this time by the delegates themselves. This, as well as the workshops on how to start a new society; sustainability and finance; debating (with Andrew Copson pretending to be Christian for the occasion); dealing with the media; and running a "Reason Week" were all well-received.

In the second half of the afternoon, the EGM resulted in the election of James Murray from Leeds Atheist Society as the new AHS Treasurer; and the decision to expand the AHS to cover Ireland - both by unanimous vote.

Following the launch of the AHS campaigns initiative to encourage societies to campaign for e.g. BHA issues around campus, as well as an AHS member feedback session, society awards were handed out. Adding to our sense of self-importance, the announcements of these were made by A.C. Grayling - although admittedly via video recording. Congratulations to UCC Atheists on winning Best Single Event for their talk by Daniel Dennett; Oxford Atheists Society for Best Reason Week; Aston Humanist Society for Most Raised During Non-Prophet Week; and Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society on winning Best Society.

UCLU ASHS was very pleased to receive two awards: Best Collaborative Event jointly with LSE, QMU and UAL for the Intercollegiate Atheist Charity Pub Quiz on 17 February, which helped raise £500 for Non-Prophet Week; and Best New Society jointly with Bradford Atheist and Humanist Society. These are great testaments to what we have accomplished since our initial formation in mid-2010 and subsequent affiliation in January 2011, and provides further encouragement to the future of our society.

Many thanks to President of the AHS, Richy Thompson, the BHA and all others involved for organising an outstanding event - we greatly look forward to next year's convention.

Photos: Andrew West, The AHS

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Event report: Paul Sims - "Is there any point in talking to believers?

Time: 2 March 2011

Place: Bentham Seminar Room 3, Bentham House, UCL

UCLU ASHS hosted a talk by Paul Sims on the topic, "Is there any point in talking to believers?" Paul Sims is the News Editor of New Humanist Magazine, published by the Rationalist Association since 1885, and runs the New Humanist blog. His magazine features have explored topics ranging from Islamic extremism to creationist zoos.

Sims introduced the talk by expressing his personal opinions on the public reaction to the four-day Papal visit to England and Scotland in September 2010. Acknowledging that the Vatican does have much to answer for regarding the allegations of child abuse, he deemed the debate surrounding the visit "hysterical" and "over-the-top." In particular, he criticised Richard Dawkins' speech at the Protest the Pope rally, during which Dawkins considered the Pope "an enemy of humanity." Sims questioned what is actually achieved when an atheist spokesperson such as Dawkins publicly expresses aggressive atheism to this extent, fuelling anti-religious hostility amongst the public. Must secularism and religion be framed as a battle between two camps? On the contrary, Sims stressed that reasoned debate between individuals, and constructive criticism would be significantly more beneficial - for secularists and religious people alike.

Subsequent questions from the audience sparked interesting debate: can reasoned discussions achieve any more than aggressive atheism can, when people enter debates, not with the intention of changing their minds, but of forwarding their own views? It was argued that people rarely, if ever, are converted in either direction via debate alone; and that aggressive atheism may in fact raise awareness and shock people into critical thinking. To this, however, a remark was made about the interesting outcome of the Intelligence Squared debate, "Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?", whereby a substantial number of audience members changed their initial "for Catholic Church" or "undecided" views, to believing the Catholic Church not to be a force for good.

Furthermore, the issue was raised of whether a nuanced middle ground between secularism and religion is in actuality possible, or whether the existence of both in society necessitates polarisation. While balanced teaching of religion and critical thinking can be promoted in school, the role of the state in de facto discouraging religious devotion was questioned.

After the talk, speaker with audience members relocated to the pub for more informal discussion.

Feel free to add any comments below, and keep an eye on our Facebook group for upcoming events!