RE: Denying the existence of Atheism – Atheism & Movements

A response to a response:

First up, the usual arse covering. This is 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.

Kyle, thank you for your response – your blogs are providing me with food for thought over the festive period (it makes a nice difference from Christmas pudding and mince pies!) I’d like to point out a few elements I’m a little uncomfortable with before I begin. First up, the only person that’s called me ‘Mr Harratt’ in recent years was the doctor who X-rayed my, thankfully unbroken, arm that time after I fell over in the snow – Mike will do. 🙂 Second, contrary to my predecessor’s self awarded title of “Queen of the Athiests” (we’re still not sure if she was joking but there wasn’t a coronation…), I don’t consider AASS to be ‘my’ society in any respect. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic committee who are assertive enough to ensure ideas and such beyond my own are represented. Then there are the the members that regularly berate me and, the committee and ensure that we’re held to account. It’s their society more than anyone’s.

I accept that my use of the word movement was probably the wrong one in the context of your blog post. According to the Briish Social Attitude 2010 survey, 51% of people describe themselves as having no religion but you don’t see the BHA, NSS or other non-religious groups as having a membership of 30 million-odd. Even if you take the 2001 census figure (a much lower 15.5%) you still don’t get anywhere near parity between membership and actual belief if you look at the statistics. Evidently, this is because non-believers who don’t want to be political steer clear of these groups and I think if that’s what you want, then that’s fine with me. In the broader context, however, I stand by the use of movement in that wider context because I think that by joining up, you’re joining a group with a set of aims and goals. I feel that it needs to exist and there does need to be a seperation of church and state. I believe it needs to exist to protect basic freedom of choice in matters ranging from sexuality to social cohesion to a woman’s reproductive rights. As a medical science student (Virology & Immunology in the interests of full disclosure), I often come across religious arguements and I am often expected to treat them with a degree of respect that I would not normally accord to other arguements – that doesn’t mean I will, I’ll deconstruct them just as much as I’ll deconstruct anything else that’s thrown at me. I don’t think it’s acceptable at the individual level and I don’t think it should hold in political circles, either. Secular groups like the NSS (and to an extent, AASS) see themselves as providing this dissenting voice when presented with arguements that are supposed to be treated as sacred because they’re a religious belief.

I do agree, however, this does pose a risk to the average non-believer you describe. I suppose there’s the problem of finding yourself between a rock and a hard place: keep your head down and hope to be left in peace or join them and dissent within their ranks to ensure the agenda meets your needs. The latter’s difficult because your membership is seen as tacit support for the agenda while the former is impossible because it erodes your right to declare your non-belief. I can imagine there’s a Christian somewhere in the world writing this same piece from the opposite side…

Now to answer your charges that these groups claim to speak for all non-believers. I accept that AASS often do. The main reason for this, in my opinion, is because we’re the only specifically non-religious group here at Bristol and our constitution mandates us to represent non-religious aspects of the student body and campaign in that direction. The committee are elected and our constitution is written by our membership which is open to all (including the Faithful – indeed, we do have one or two in our ranks) and we derive our ability to function from that . If you choose to be non-religious but not to join the society then that’s fine with us. Please understand, however, that in our work we might have to use population stastics because it’s one of the few effective means we can use to get our point across when it matters and that won’t stop Faith lobby groups from using them. I accept that it doesn’t resolve the issue and still suffers from the rock and hard place problem I described above but it’s the best we have in an imperfect world.

Ultimately, it’s a hard conflict to resolve and I suppose one of the ways to go about it would be not to do what I did above and use population statistics of attitudes to inform decisions as a movement. “I have 300,000 paying Secular Movement members behind me” rather than “54.4% of the population are not athiests” (note: these are all illustrative and fictional for this point). That of course comes with its own problems since a goodly number of times I’ve been told the non-religious are under-represented and accepting that has implications for the value of statistics. Either way, I’m sure there are other solutions but none come to mind at the moment.

The local differs vastly from the national and I agree the two do not easily translate. I can’t comment on numbers since I don’t have access to the figures from our affiliates so I can’t say whether the movement is growing or not but I will from where I’m standing, both sides are getting more and more vocal. In a practical sense, I’m not able to offer too many solutions on this one since I’m only President here in Bristol, I’d have to refer you up to the chain to someone who has a clue how things work out there in the big wide world.

Finally, if you’re uncomfortable with the NSS then you’ll be pleased to hear that we only affiliated with them back in October and as such it hasn’t yet reached ratification. There will be a debate in March as part of our AGM when we discuss whether we will extend our current temporary affiliation to include it in the constitution thus making it permenant. As a member, you are welcome to attend, discuss and vote on it with the rest of the society. In the mean time, you’re welcome to attend events and you should start getting our emails now you’ve signed up – welcome to the fold. I’ll answer some of the questions you pose about the practicalities of secular advancement in a seperate post since those are very much my own opinion and may require further explaination.

I hope that answeres a few questions, I’m off for New Year’s Eve and will probably put up another post after tomorrow’s dinner time.

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