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So What Does an Atheist Society Actually Do?

If you’re wondering what The AHS actually does, or more generally why you would want to have any sort of atheist society then you’re certainly in good company. In fact variants of the question “What’s the point in having a society for atheists?” are the single most common type of question directed across the fresher’s fair stalls of AHS societies all over the country. Often even those who have been involved in the running of their society for several years can appear just as confused by this question as those who are hearing about the society for the first time, so whichever side of the fresher’s fair stall you’re likely to be on this September, it’s definitely worth taking some time to think about.

There are two reasons why this is a difficult question to answer. Firstly it’s actually very hard to describe a typical AHS event as we cover a lot of different topics and formats, and secondly because everyone who comes along to AHS societies has a different reason for doing so. However, for those who are new to the AHS or to the “atheist movement” it seems appropriate to explain a little about the three words which make up the names of most of our societies: atheist, humanist and secularist, as it is from misconceptions about the meanings of these words that most of the negative stereotypes we endure come.

 

Picture1

Atheism has a very simple definition: “disbelief or the lack of belief in god or gods”. This definition is a little broader than the one most people would arrive at if asked, as it encompasses those who think it is likely there is no god, but wouldn’t claim to be able to prove it. Despite this broader definition the word is actually still very limited, and doesn’t say a lot about the person being described.

Atheism is an unfortunate word to have front and centre in our name, firstly because as I’ve said it’s not actually very informative, and secondly because of the unfortunate and undeserved things the word is often used to insinuate, despite the simplicity of its true meaning. However, there is no denying it’s a word people immediately recognise, and it tends to be the one thing our members generally agree upon, so atheist societies we remain.

Finally on the subject of atheism, there is an important distinction to be made between atheism and anti-theism, which is the belief that religious organisations are overall harmful to society and therefore should be disbanded. It is certainly the case that some of our members would describe themselves as anti-theists, but it’s not central to what we do.

picture2DASH debate with Durham Intercollegiate Christian Union, Reason Week 2014

 Next up, secularism is a political position which advocates the separation of political and religious power. Secularists believe the best way to build a society which is inclusive of everyone regardless of their beliefs is to ensure that no religious group is given a role in a country’s government or legal system. Proportional representation of religion in government is not good enough for a secularist, as it inevitably leads to the marginalisation of minority groups. Lobbying by independent groups or private individuals is obviously crucial to the political process, but secularists would agree that ultimately, all decisions should be based upon evidence, rational thought and free and open debate.

This does not mean marginalising religious organisations, but taking away some of the privileges which have historically been given to one religious group over those of other religions or none, e.g. the Church of England is the official state religion of the United Kingdom and the House of Lords currently has seats for 26 unelected CofE bishops but no official representation for other faith groups.

Finally humanism is a philosophy which promotes living an ethical life based on reason and humanity with no religious basis. Humanists believe that this life is the only life we have to live, that empathy and reason are capable of guiding moral decisions free from religious rules, and that the scientific method is the best way to discover and understand the world.

Many public figures identify as humanists, such as Stephen Fry, Polly Toynbee, Jim Al-Khalili, Philip Pullman, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Terry Pratchett. To find out more about humanism have a browse through the British Humanist Association‘s website.

So, getting back to the point of the article, what is The AHS and what do we actually do? Well AHS societies are partly societies for debate and discussion, partly social societies, partly campaigning societies, partly societies that organise talks and partly societies that enjoy dressing up and doing silly things to raise money for charity, but we don’t really fit firmly into any of the above categories. The only real way to get a sense of any of our societies (and each one is different) is to go along and give it a go. Every event is different and we accept a diverse range of members and opinions, but you’ll soon get a sense of what we’re about!

picture3Defunct Gods Themed Barcrawl, Michaelmas Term 2013

Our broad focus is the reason so many AHS society representatives are so stumped by this most basic of questions about their society. So, what is the solution to attracting freshers, without giving a ten slide presentation? My first piece of advice is to sit down and plan out a response before you set foot in your fresher’s fair, and either encourage the rest of your committee to do the same, or circulate your musings for them to read. For goodness sake don’t end up in the situation of not being able to answer, and begin casting back to the first half of this article for vague definitions you can use in lieu of specific information about your society.

My second piece of advice is to use specific examples. If your society ran cool events last year talk about them, if it didn’t talk about cool events another AHS society ran, and how you’re going to try to do the same this year. Also don’t be afraid of using negative examples in moderation and in a light hearted way. Letting people know what your society isn’t is a useful tool for clearing away misconceptions, and will encourage people to come along and give it a go, which I still believe is the only way to really understand what AHS societies do, no matter how honed your explanation eventually becomes!

The final golden rule I always try to adhere to with all of my advertising material is to inform people of what the society is and what it does rather than trying to convince them either that they should join, or that they should believe the things that you believe. Evangelism is not one of the aims of The AHS: we aim to provide a service to those who share our values, and there are plenty of people out there who do share them, but haven’t yet found out there is a society for people who think like they do.

We completely accept that a lot of atheists, maybe even the majority don’t want or need to be a part of an atheist society, however it is worth considering what does attract those who choose to join, both for new members to get a sense of what to expect, and for society representatives to know where to pitch their answers to the fateful question.

In my experience, those atheists who do end up joining the AHS often fit into one of three categories. Firstly, you’ll find a lot of our members have at one point had fairly strong religious convictions. Sometimes this is due to their upbringing and sometimes an experimental phase later in life, but a past experience of religion, even if not overtly negative, often leads people to seek others with the similar experiences who’ve come to the same conclusions as they have.

Secondly we have members more interested in the philosophy and ethics surrounding religion and atheism: Does God exist? How should we live a good life without an absolute morality? What is the best way to run a country and community that is inclusive of all belief systems? These are questions atheists naturally ask and we aim to provide opportunities for people to explore and discuss these questions.

Finally some of our members have a political motivation for joining. Faith schools, equal marriage, religious power in politics, ritual animal slaughter, assisted dying and religious persecution overseas are all issues our members feel strongly about. We campaign for humanist and secular values on all of these issues, and are keen to work together with other groups and societies who share our views.

In short, The AHS has something for almost everyone, you don’t even have to be an atheist, secularist or a humanist to join, as other points of view always stimulate the discussions we aim to promote. As I have said before, the only way to really find out what we’re about is to come along and give it a try, so we hope to see you soon!

picture4Pub Social, Easter Term 2014

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AHS Newsletter

31st August 14

This Friday AHS Officers gathered in the crypts of a former Baptist chapel to conspire, share ideas and set in place the first flagstones of what will become the oncoming academic year’s crazy paving. It was a highly charged and productive day of networking, idea-sharing and exploration, and as a result today’s newsletter is necessarily rather lacking in theme. Instead, we can reveal a few of the developments you all have to look forward to as AHS Society members:

  • Our webmaster most extraordinary (Sam Whitehall) has been hard at work working on a beautiful new membership database for our website. This will generate and update profile pages for all of our societies, as well as place points on a national map. However, this will only be as good as the information we put into it, so make sure you’ve sent your regional officer or head of membership your latest society contact details, description and committee!
  • A meeting with Uganda Humanists has been arranged as part of the AHS’s ongoing goal of establishing links with non-UK organisations to bolster the strength of the international Humanist network.
  • Further discussion with Uganda Humanist Schools Trust regarding how to best distribute funds from Non-Prophet Week. Speaking of which, have you read the article below yet? There’s certainly no good reason not to, unless you oppose the provision of education to children or have a deep-seated fear of wearing high-heeled shoes for charity.
  • Drafting proposals for new and exciting uses of AHS funding! A budget for societal high-heels remains undrafted.
  • The development of a new AHS logo! The AHS’s Design Officer (Sylvia Broeckx) unveiled a fantastic raft of new potential logos at Saturday’s training day. Logos #1 and #6 seemed to be the most popular, while Board Member Andrew Copson described #8 as looking like “a man being attacked by snakes”. Regardless of whether this was meant as a compliment or not, the quality was superb, the design process will continue and we can all look forward to the end product.
  • Drafting new educational resources on what exactly A, H and S mean. Atheism, Agnosticism or Antitheism? Secular Societies or Secularist Societies? Humanism or Ham Sandwiches? Both, most likely. These new resources will better explain the positions held by many student members of AHS societies and prove invaluable in clarifying misconceptions common among non-members.
  • The development of new AHS leaflets!
  • Preparation for AHSCon. The convention may not be at the front of your minds, but the selection of venues, speakers and events is already well underway. Look forward to it.
  • Considering new board members!
  • Reviewing membership guidance. Any revisions to this fundamental description of what it is to be an AHS society, what resources should be provided to member and provisional societies and what is required of societies for membership will have tremendous impact. Needless to say, it’s a big task.
  • Updating and collating all the information on societies and committees. On a related note, has your society re-ratified yet? If not, please contact Adam Carnall as soon as possible at membership@ahsstudents.org.uk.
  • Chris Malburn, current AHS President, attended the National Union of Students’s Faith and Belief project event in London. Just because we at the AHS have no Gods or Masters doesn’t mean we shouldn’t play nicely with those who do; the AHS will continue to seek links with National Organisations which represent students of faith.
  • On the subject of the NUS, the AHS is currently in collaboration with the NUS as part of their review of University guest speaker policies. This is exactly as important as it sounds.
  • We’re all very busy coming up with more wonderful ideas for Non-Prophet Week!

These are just some of the current works-in-progress we can tell you about, to say nothing of any plans for a airship citadel, 24-hour AHS television channel or designs on the conquest of Madagascar. Please anticipate a lot of innovative and engaging projects throughout the coming year: it’s going to be a big one and we hope you’ll join us in enjoying it!


Non-Prophet Week: Required Reading

Victorious Martin Smith

We’re all wracking our brains in search of the most inventive and effective ways to raise funds and awareness during Non-Prophet Week, which this year takes place during October 20th-26th. The charity supported by the AHS will be The Uganda Humanist Schools Trust, who help a number of Ugandan schools provide a Humanist education to needy children irrespective of race or faith – check their website for further details. Non-Prophet Week supports an excellent cause and sends a clear message to the student community of just how committed your Society is to Humanist values.

Martin Smith raised the most money during last year’s Non-Prophet Week. This year he has written a fantastic article which communicates both his own perspective and an offer support for any societies who may want some helpful advice on how to make their Non-Prophet Week a success. He’s also issued a challenge to all AHS Society members: beat his record from last year.

Now, surely there’s no one among us who can resist a challenge?


Thanks for re-ratifying your AHS society!

Despite most societies now being firmly nestled under the wing of the National Fedaration of AHS Societies’ avian mascot du jour, a few stragglers remain un-ratified.

Please check your society’s email inbox for instructions on how to do this, or contact Adam Carnall at membership@ahsstudents.org.uk


 Scottish AHS students’ convention

Do you live in Scotland?
Do you live near Scotland?
Do you want a reason to visit Scotland?

If the answer to any of the above is “yes”, then please consider attending the Scottish AHS Students’ Convention on the 18th October at Glasgow’s IET.

This day-long event will feature a host of speakers from multiple nations and attendance is absolutely free.

That said, registration is essential, so head to the event’s Facebook page to declare your interest.


 New Humanist Magazine discount up for grabs

Are there any Humanists in your AHS Society? If there are – and there jolly well should be – why not point them in the direction of New Humanist, the Rationalist Association’s official magazine?

Also inform them that the AHS has a number of discount vouchers available for interested parties. Perfect for luring in new members! If your society would be interested in this discount or in getting their hands on a few free (yes, free) copies of the magazine itself, please contact Luke Dabin at communications@ahsstudents.org.uk

 

 

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