AHS Convention 2011

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) was founded in 2009 to build, support and represent these societies as part of the wider national and international movement.  It facilitates communication between societies and helps coordinate campaigns.  This year, the 2011 AHS National Convention was held on the 12th and 13th March at The Conway Hall in London.

Day 1

The first day started with a fair showcasing atheist, humanist and secular organisations.  These included the British Humanist Association (BHA), National Secular Society (NSS) and the AHS itself.  The proceedings really got going when the speaker series started with Lord Warner of Brockley who talked about the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) in Parliament.  He wittily reminded us that “Ethics isn’t a county north of the Thames estuary.”

Gerard Phillips, vice-president of the NSS, highlighted his organisation’s recent work including a Freedom of Information (FoI) request campaign which estimates NHS spending on hospital chaplains to be £30 million annually; a surprising figure for our austere times.  New challenges have also arisen, with half of the new academy schools being created as faith schools.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA, had something of a false start when his presentation was loaded onto the wrong laptop, but kept everyone enthused with his inimitable charisma whilst his presentation was found.  He addressed a common criticism of atheism which states that it is hollow and narcissistic with counter-arguments illustrating how only the atheist can be truly moral, without fear of divine retribution.


“A humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” – E.M. Forster 

Robin Ince, comedian, gave an impassioned defence of rationalism and science, citing his own pub arguments with believers and had so much to say it was almost impossible for the organisers to stop him!
Johann Hari, journalist for The Independent, followed with no less passion, echoing Phillip’s fears about education with the startling statistic that 7 out of the 10 new “Free Schools” will be faith schools.  He demonstrated his knack for wry comparisons by saying the only country other than the UK which constitutionally reserves places for religious figures in government is Iran!  Similarly, he exposed David Cameron’s hypocrisy when criticising multicultural segregation on the one hand whilst expanding faith schools on the other .

Professor A.C. Grayling gave the key-note speech, discussing the nature of atheism and the material world. He did not like the term atheist because it gave too much credence to the idea that there might be a god and demonstrated this by saying that he was just as much an a-fairyist as an atheist. He went on to describe the importance and difficulty of Humanism and Secularism and how they challenge us constantly to assess our morality.

The speaker series was nicely rounded off by the BHA Choir who sang a number of uplifting pieces with a Humanist bent, including Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred”!  The whole day was recorded by The Pod Delusion, so you can listen to all the speakers on their website.

Day 2

The second day was more focused on the AHS as an organisation and development of the member societies.  The first round of workshops were the BHA Choir choral workshop, sustainability and finances, and starting a new society.  Jenny and I chose to participate in the choral workshop, being reasonably confident in the other areas.  We had a fantastic time with the choir who, with their energy and enthusiasm helped us to learn and perform “Do you realise??” by The Flaming Lips.

The second round of workshops covered debating practice, dealing with the media and how to run a “Reason Week“.  Jenny and I opted for the debating workshop, where we watched Andrew Copson and David Pollock (European Humanist Federation President) pretend to be believers and debate students from the audience on a number of topics.  The importance commanding  the relevant statistics was revealed and we were directed to the BHA website, which collates useful information.

At the EGM, the current AHS Treasurer was retained and the AHS had its remit expanded to cover UK and the Republic of Ireland.  After a brief debate, a number of Irish societies were jubilantly added to the fold.

Finally, awards were given to societies, recognising their work over the past year. Cork got Best Event for hosting Daniel Dennett, 4 London societies won Best Collaborative Event, Best Reason Week went to Oxford for their consistent high attendance, Most Money Raised for Non-Prophet Week went to Aston who raised £600 and Best New Society was jointly won by Bradford & UCL.  Last, but not least, Best Overall Society went to us in Bristol AASS!  Well done everyone!

AHS Society Awards 2011: Best Society – University of Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society

Written by Michael Paynter, the AHS South-West Regional Development Officer

Photography by Andrew West, BHA Photographer and AHS Trustee