This is a response written to Kyle Mulholland’s blog post (available at: http://kylemulholland.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/has-atheism-become-a-political-movement/) written in a personal capacity drawing on my experiences as President of the University of Bristol Student’s Union Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society (AASS) and National Federation of Atheist Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) AGM delegate. It is a reflection of my own thoughts and understandings of the world and does not represent the policy of the AASS or any of its affiliates, including the National Secular Society (NSS) or British Humanist Association (BHA). I’m publishing this here temporarily and will remove it in due course if I feel it’s appropriate, I should probably get my own blog at some point in the future, anyway.
I was elected President back in March 2010 and took over from Jenny, my predecessor. In her year as President, she had expanded AASS’ presence on the national stage by joining with the AHS and laying a great deal of groundwork for our later affiliation with the NSS and the BHA. I saw these events upon my election as an opportunity for the society to assert itself and part of my manifesto at the AASS AGM was to initiate a number of campaigns as a way of reinvigorating the society and opening it beyond the science and computer science students that formed such a tight core in previous years. We led a small sally in the BHA’s Census Campaign to test our feet and got a fantastic response from both religious and non-religious students and there is more working coming in the next few months as we work with the AHS and BHA. We’ve had our successes but I must admit, I suppose I was a little anti-theistic at the time but things do change.
Now, in response to your question: Is Atheism becoming too political? I feel that being non-religious has always had a political aspect. I am personally a secular humanist but I represent soft atheists, hard atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, secularists (both non-religious and religious should they choose to engage with us and turn up) and goodness knows what else. The non-religious movement is a vast and multi-faceted beast and it’s impossible to represent everyone so I have made an effort to include elements to appeal to all aspects of the movement and to allow our members to cherry pick those that suit them and those that do not. To do otherwise would be a failure of leadership on my part since I represent so many differing attitudes that to please everyone would render my own position impossible. I am fortunate that the committee this year has been composed of a representative sample of the society and each holds views very different to my own and that has seriously influenced my decisions in taking the society forward.
I’d also like to answer your charge that the current form of atheism and religion are incompatible. Granted, we are affiliated with the NSS but that doesn’t mean we necessarily approve of everything they do and, personally, some of their anti-theist attitudes worry me. I mentioned earlier that when I got into this job, I was probably a little bit anti-theist myself. I’ve been performing this role for nearly 9 months now and it’s shifted my attitudes a fair bit. As President of AASS, I have to engage with the Faith Societies on a regular basis and I often personally make an effort to go one step further and give up parts of my scarce free time to do this. Sunday evenings are sacred to me as a medical science student since its often the only spare time I get but I give them up anyway if needs be. I do this for one very, very simple reason: exposure begets tolerance and it is tolerance that we need to build a society that works. By spending an evening with a group of people with very different ideas to my own, I’ve found I am able to attain an understanding why they believe what they do and often will come to respect that. I would encourage everyone to do this and go into the scenario with an open mind.
So why spend a paragraph telling you that? Well, it’s because when you sit down with 99% of people, you find that they’re decent enough, up for a discussion if you approach it correctly and the 1% that are idiots are often the fringe extremists. I often come up against this myself as an atheist. Often, the first thing I have to do when I walk into a bar full of Methodists (or any other faith group, I choose them because they’re the first Christians I engaged with as a President) is reassure them that I’m about as far from Dawkins as Harold McMillan was from Mussolini. The Dawkins and Hitchens (Hitchkins as one of our members so wonderfully put it) militancy is not something that represents us all (indeed, what does?) but we shouldn’t be ashamed of it because we allow these ideas to exist as part of a vibrant and varied movement. Further, it’s something that binds non-believers together because you can look at them and say “OK, fellas, I agree with you but please turn the noise down” or just go right out and debate them. Indeed, myself and successive committees have issued repeated invites for Professor Dawkins to come and give a talk here at the University because it is always important to engage with those you disagree with and at least attempt to understand how they have come to the beliefs they have even if you cannot hope to convert them to your way of thinking.
It is that engagement and understanding that you probably are not going to change someone’s beliefs overnight (or indeed at all) that makes the work of groups like ours and the NSS so important. By ensuring that it is impossible to impose a belief system on someone without their consent, political non-religious groups are able to protect the second most important of human rights: the right to hold a belief free from persecution. The first most important being the right to life because, let’s be honest, without that one everything else that follows is somewhat redundant. In light of that, I’d like to point out that at no point would we like to neither see the destruction of Christianity nor have it pushed to the fringes unless people do not take up the banner of their own free will. I use the plural of the first person yet because in my experience as an active non-believer at both the local and national level, the majority of non-religious people are very happy to exist alongside religion and not to destroy it. Indeed, there’s a strong current of belief that challenging religious privilege as it stands would be simply restoring a dynamic equilibrium to something of a centre point that would allow other ideas, beliefs and religions to flourish in its place.
On a personal level, I believe that religious influence in public life should be diminished. I’d like an end to automatic seats for Bishops in the House of Lords and, yes, I’d like an end to the segregation that faith schools bring to our communities. Above all, I’d like to see the removal of “Hey, that’s my religion you’re talking about, you can’t criticise my faith” argument. However, if people choose to wake up in a morning and say “Hello God! Thank you for putting me on this earth” then that is fine by me and I have no right to judge them for that. I think the same goes for 99% of other non-religious people in the world who realise, like me, that the key to a harmonious society is to ensure that no one particular belief or idea system should be favoured over others in the public arena and that the only means of legitimately handing down any form of imperative to someone is through democratically written laws. This why we should allow a political aspect to our non-belief but always on the proviso that non-religious people are able to cherry pick the bits they want and avoid the politics should they so wish.
AASS President 2011-12