As I stood and surveyed the lecture hall, pride and amazement abound, surrounded by a crowd of 150 attendees and humoured by the charming Professor AC Grayling, I finally realised the extent of our success. Being president of Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (WASH) had been a rather difficult but deeply rewarding endeavour that had changed my life in unprecedented ways. Attaining success at WASH had certainly been difficult given the rather wayward couple of years since its establishment in 2007. Although in 2008 WASH was awarded ‘Best New Society Award’ by the Warwick Students Union, in 2013 they found themselves with average gatherings – typically convening discussions on atheism – amassing maybe 10 people at best. After recognising and, dare I say, idolising all the potential that I believed the society had when I first started attending their sessions during my year as a fresher at the University of Warwick, I decided to stand for president, a position that I was fortunate enough to be elected into. I wanted to take the society into a different direction; to reweigh its principles, to erect a clear vision in which to sail. I knew that it would not be easy. I had witnessed the same fate that has corralled so many other university atheist/humanist/secular societies be conferred upon WASH: the society had forgone emphasising its other principles.
I felt that it was no longer a bastion of support, community, education and activism. It no longer strived to increment an awareness of its key principles of atheism, humanism and secularism in equal measure. It instead became an inveighing assembly, one that fixated itself only on atheism. I do not criticise the former exec for this juncture. Such a fate is easily stumbled into. All too often students are beset by problems caused by those around them with a religious conviction. Many students are castigated by their own families for even attempting to call into question the truth of the religion they may have been raised in. Many international students risk legal sanctions being imposed on both them and even their families if they dare demur or display misgivings towards the prevailing religion of their society and culture. It is, therefore, no surprise that many societies find themselves enmired in vitriol and remonstration.
However, I wanted to emphasise parity, counter-balance and a more far-reaching narrative. I wanted to allow humanism and secularism to stand on as equal footing as atheism had been in terms of its dissemination. Over the summer I had worked tirelessly with the other elected exec members to devise a guest-speaker list that would impart the balance that I wanted to achieve. Having founded and chaired the Warwickshire Humanists since 2013, I had recognised some effective practices that begat a lot of success, practices that I wanted to apply within WASH. We managed to assemble an impressive roster that included Andrew Copson, Bob Churchill, Peter Tatchell, David Pollock and AC Grayling. We made a promise to ourselves that we would have weekly sessions that included documentary viewings, lectures, debates, and, of course, guest-speakers, all of which would ensure that our principles are balanced. What is more, we made sure that a valiant effort would be directed towards advertisement, emailing and interfaith-dialogue, and making sure that we availed ourselves of Facebook and Twitter.
As the year started, we took advantage of the Fresher’s Fair, making sure that we engendered as much awareness as possible. As we got into full swing in terms of our weekly events, we saw an incremental change in terms of attendee numbers and a more diverse group of spectators. Every week I found myself being accosted by one passionate student to the next, all of whom shared a deep interest in the society. Numbers of paid members escalated, our Facebook and twitter feeds were consumed with activity, and we were thrilled! Andrew Copson’s event attracted around 80 people, as did Peter Tatchell’s. David Pollock, who decided to talk about ‘The Origin of Morality’, witnessed a crowd of around 100 people, a success that had been achieved by our gallant effort in promoting and appropriating both our principles and the event in question. However, we really wanted to push the boundary with our final guest-speaker. We wanted Professor AC Grayling’s talk to be innovative, unrivalled and effusive in really capturing those beloved key proprieties that the society holds.
After weeks of vigorous advertisement on every possible platform, and expedited by what was now a respected reputation, we found ourselves with a diverse array of spectators numbering 150 watching AC Grayling’s delivery attentively. I decided to position myself in front of the crowd after Professor Grayling’s talk. I wanted to thank them for their attendance, I wanted to thank my colleagues with whom I worked tirelessly and I wanted to thank everyone who contributed to this unparalleled state of pride in me. Much work was afforded to reach the position we now found ourselves occupying. But, as Confucius so aptly said: “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” It really did feel like a joy, indeed a privilege, to have been entrusted the position of president for WASH. Such joys were augmented when the AHS (of which WASH is a member) kindly awarded WASH ‘Most Improved Society of the Year’, as well as conferring our society the position of hosts for their Annual General Meeting (AGM).
Now with the academic year ending and having been re-elected president for the second year, I am pushed to examine what I believe to be the most seminal lesson that I have acquired from my role within Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists. It has been this: our vision has been our start; our commitment has been our rise; and our working together has been our success. I can only hope that during what will be, I am sure, a thrilling AGM in July, an AGM that WASH has been proud to superintend, we are able to show the rest of the AHS societies just how much WASH has grown, and what can be achieved through passion, vision and growth.
President of Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists.