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The right to free speech at UK universities is a supposed entitlement of entering higher education to think, speak and write freely. This right is necessary for students within academia to flourish within their discipline. Yet the right to free speech is not an escape clause for individuals to speak and write freely without consequences for their views. So where does this place atheist students at UK universities?

Does free speech entitle people to say whatever they please? In brief, no. To attack, humiliate and/or demonise people is discriminatory in nature and can be interpreted as hate speech. Nevertheless, free speech is essential for a democratic nation to allow people the right to voice their opinions in relation to the functioning of their society and current affairs. For example, the media and public regularly satirise and criticise the views of politicians, and rightly so. The rights of human beings and students are protected under law. The fallible nature of ideas, views and beliefs are not and are therefore open to be challenged, questioned and criticised. Further, the right to free speech entitles individuals to question the stagnant views of religious beliefs.

Religious beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010: to blaspheme against religion is unlawful and distasteful in its nature. Who gave non-believes the right to argue againat religiously held beliefs? As mentioned, at UK universities students have rights and those rights are upheld to ensure that students are not inhibited at UK institutions. The individualistic beliefs of students, however, are not protected and are open to criticism due to their fallible nature. As human beings, we are all capable of making mistakes and being wrong. It is naïve to propose that one or more religious beliefs and views are true or infallible. Fore example, in Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not great”, Hitchens states that religion originates from the period of human prehistory where nobody could understand what was going on. The infantile demand for knowledge of our species and the inadequate attempt to fulfil this need is the origin of religion. Consequently religious texts are written by men: the Bible being peer-reviewed and manipulated on multiple occasions while the Qur’an has remained stagnant form the time it was written. If, for example, beliefs and ideas were not allowed to be challenged, then there would not be institutions such as universities available to students and we would be part of a mindless institution functioning to create drones to work for the future. As students we are able and are required to critically think for ourselves and the inability to do so would be an inhibition of the premise of university for students.

So how does this relate to atheist students at UK universities? Cases such as those at the London School of Economics (LSE) and London South Bank University are essential to questioning this need for free speech fr atheist students. At LSE’s Freshers’ Fair the atheist society wore Jesus and Mo T-shirts (an online cartoon, simply satire). They were told this caused offence and were escorted off the premises. The South Bank University atheist society created a satirical poster using the pastafarian spaghetti monster. Due to the offense they caused their posters were removed by the University. Both LSE and South Bank University later apologised. Why is offence to others given such a platform? Our progression within society is dependent on the ability to question the deepest held beliefs of individuals. If students, let alone just atheist students, feel unable to openly talk about their views; even if they are divisive and contradictory to religious dictation, how can society and students progress?

The right to free speech for atheist students…because ideas, beliefs and views cannot escape scrutiny, critical thinking and offence.

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AHS Newsletter

9th November 14

Unveiling of the Cenotaph, 1920

The second Sunday in November is Remembrance Sunday – the anniversary of the ending of WWI – which is marked throughout the UK by regional events in towns, cities and villages. There is also a national ceremony commemorating the sacrifices of men and women throughout the Commonwealth. This ceremony was designed in 2005 by representatives of 14 religious groups and is officiated by HRH Queen Elizabeth II, head of the Anglican Church. The involvement of non-religious or humanist groups is absent. It is a religious ceremony, nationally observed.

This year the National Secular Society (NSS) is once again campaigning for Remembrance Sunday to be inclusive, not just of those who practice no faith, but also of all religions. Were the population of Great Britain 100% Anglican there would be no issue, but as as an Anglican ceremony Remembrance Sunday is neither the domain of some ~41,000 other denominations of Christianity, nor any other religious groups or, pertinently, us secular types. Hence the NSS’s campaign, with which even the Catholic Herald agrees.

The Cenotaph is a secular monument: it is stately and devoid of symbolism or ritual (insofar as silent reflection and the deposition of flowers fail to qualify as such). The Glorious Dead comprise persons from next to every village and town throughout this country, be they religious or not, and yet more from across the globe. It was only 9 years ago their Remembrance was claimed as the property of one, vanishingly small religious denomination.

I hope that in 2015, a decade onwards, Remembrance Sunday will be opened up to us all once again, freed from its imposed disguise as just another religious observance, lest we forget its meaning and international significance before not even a century has passed since Armistice Day.

Featured Article

Two Divided by Zero: The Inequality of Irreligion

I imagine that in June 2014, Russell Byford-Harding returned from The University of Nottingham’s Student Union Council fuming, sat down at his laptop/writing desk/typewriter with full intent to put words to his unrest, but first decided to listen to some of the Pet Shop Boys’ early works to calm himself a little. You can judge what effect listening to “Please” for five months may have had by going to the AHS website and reading his article, “Two Divided by Zero: The Inequality of Irreligion“.

Sadly, well-intentioned yet inept pseudo-legislation on the part of Student Unions tends to be characteristic, particularly regarding emotive topics such as freedom of speech and religious liberties. Russell highlights how Nottingham SU Council’s motion is not substantiated with concrete examples of offense, intimidation or imposition which would necessitate their “Respecting Religion”, nor does it add anything to pre-existing legal statutes which protect reasonable freedom of speech and one’s right to practice religion.

Consideration of the motion itself reveals the inclusion of atheism as a faith position only to allow culpability whilst denying atheist students privileges enjoyed by students of faith. The accompanying minutes are similarly insubstantial and demonstrate a concerning absence of any deep analysis or discourse among the council members, which would include any secular attendees.

Don’t be disinterested! Don’t assume harmlessness! Russell urges towards an interest in our Universities’ attitudes towards freedom of speech, religious rights and the inevitable conflict between the two. Nottingham’s example may resonate with similar imbalances between the rights of the faithful and faithless at your own University; it would be wrong for these to remain unaddressed.

Society Training Weekend

Who: Committee Members, current and prospective

Where: Nottingham University

When: 6-7th December 2014

What: Learn to better capitalise on AHS resources, manage your society more effectively, outreach to other groups on campus, engage in effective dialogue and debate, manage campaigns and events, how to ask the AHS for money and much, much more.

Why: We want you to be the best you can be! With AHS officers hosting talks and seminars on their respective areas, Mr. Andrew Copson running one of his legendary debate/public speaking workshops and a raft of special and unexpected guests, you are guaranteed to come away from this weekend in prime position to run a stellar AHS Student Society.

Mark the date.


What’s on where you are:

Regional Events: LONDON

How can Humanist & Muslim Londoners live & work together? Find out on November 25th as London Humanists host a conversation with Alom Shaha, Mamadou Bocoum, Sara Khan, Yasmin Rehman and Huda Jawad. This event is free to attend but registration is required; to do that and find out more about the speakers visit the booking page here.

Was David Hume a Humanist? I’d say yes, but largely because that’s the impression I take from the name. BHA Vice-President Professor Simon Blackburn will deliver a much more informed answer to this question during his lecture on both Hume and Humanism at UCL‘s Bloomsbury campus on November 26th. Because this is a BHA-organised event registration is mandatory and there shall be wine afterwards. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Regional Events: SOUTH EAST

Secularism South East now has its own Facebook page! Reading University hosts the convention on the 15th November, which will involve music and gaiety and speakers such as social activist Peter Tatchell and comedienne Kate Smurthwaite. Admission is a mere £2 for AHS members and £3 for the rest of the common rabble. Bargain.

Regional Events: EAST MIDLANDS

Can the claims made in the Bible be historically verified? Nottingham University AHS are hosting a debate on November 11th to settle this very question. Theologian Joe Scales will be defending the motion while AHS Secretary and historian Martin Smith will oppose the motion and become angry at Joe Scales for being wrong. Or will he? Find out on the night, in the meantime more information can be found on the Facebook page here.

Northampton University are hosting The Big Debate. BHA CEO Andrew Copson will be debating alongside Islam Society representative Abdullah-al-Andalusi and an as-of-yet unknown Christian Union representative. Please direct all enquiries to Northampton AHS Society President Hari Parekh.

Regional Events: NORTH WEST

Some of you may have heard about a little event called the QED convention (Question, Explore, Discover). For QED 2015 a fine roster of speakers will gather in Manchester for two of the skeptical/humanist calendar’s brightest days.

(I hope we can agree that when it comes to Mitch Benn, Matt Dillahunty, Prof. Marcel Dicke, Dr. Lucie Green, Dr. Harriet Hall, Prof. Bruce Hood, Dame Sue Ion, Michael Marshall and Rosie Waterhouse, “fine” is at least an acceptable term.)

The convention takes place on 25th-26th April 2015 and tickets are only £69 for students. If even this is a bit steep, Friday 24th will be a free full-day event. There’s simply no excuse. Check the official website for further details including some very in-depth speaker profiles. More information to follow.

Regional Events: EVERYWHERE ELSE

When your society comes under the label “Everywhere else”, you just know that nothing’s happening. If your society has an upcoming event you’d like to be publicised, please contact your regional development officers. Otherwise, buy some train tickets, head out to one of the events above and make some new friends!

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