Happy Zombie Jesus day, everyone!
Whether you observe Easter for real real, for play play, or are totally and violently opposed to the notion that humans are evil and salvation can only be found in blood sacrifice of some dude two thousand years ago on a hill presumably named after a sludge metal group, I hope today finds you well.
Last week was the AHS National Convention which, by all accounts, went really well. Most of the content of this week’s missive relate to that: there are plenty of opportunities to reminisce or wallow in regret at having not attended. But do not fret, there’ll be another one next year!
Also worthy of attention are articles by Glen Carrigan of UClan AHS and a conference co-organised by Nicola Jackson of IHEYO. Grab a chocolate lagomorph, put on your newsletter goggles and chow down.
From a personal perspective, last weekend was incredible. Huge thanks and congratulations to the AHS Executive – Chris Malburn and Martin Smith – for the work they put into organising this colossal event and also to all the speakers, attendees and security staff with loanable kettles who came together to make it so special.
So what went down? Lots went down.
Young Humanists had their official launch party on Friday evening in Shoreditch. For many this was a chance to meet old friends, relax and carouse. Yet there were lots of new faces to meet and voices to hear, as well as terrific standup by Gemma Arrowsmith. She’s on youtube, by the way. Photos from the launch can be viewed at the YH’s flickr.
Saturday was full of speaking, by speakers. BHA kingpin Andrew Copson was first on the roster, delivering a surprise talk on the arguments against secularism. Next, Martin Poulter discussed irrationality and how to deal with conspiracy theorist types, lunatics and angry people on the internet. Natalie Haynes blew the audience away with a staggering, stream-of-consciousness-esque lecture on the intricacies of Greek tragedy and how the Bible is, in comparison, quite naff.
After lunch, Alom Shaha, Johnny Scaramanga and Hayley Stevens spoke about their experiences of leaving their religions: a series of moving discussion chaired with great skill by Ruth Haydock. Susan Blackmore used the penultimate slot to explore memetics of religion and personal tales of confusion over having offended the faithful, somehow. Ariane Sherine spoke last. Her talk was an intensely brave, detailed and personal exposition of her collapse into major depression during and after the Atheist Bus Campaign, from which you may know her. An inspiration: not only did several members of the audience feel emboldened enough to “come out” during the evening’s social as having suffered from similar afflictions, but the factors which contributed to her meteoric recovery were clearly laid out in a very resource-heavy presentation. Oh, and her talk ended with a song she wrote about having facist pubic hair.
Sunday was more admincentric and focused on what we as AHS members are doing, and how to do it more effectively. At the morning’s EGM Warwick University’s Stephen Massey was elected to the role of Treasurer despite a strong contender in Durham’s Adam Carnall. Chris Malburn introduced a series of workshops on AHS society interactions, IT solutions and cover-all guides to running an AHS society. Following this were the AHS awards, with representatives from Nottingham, Queen Mary and Sheffield Universities netting £250 for outstanding events. Warwick, Northampton and Nottingham University AHS societies were also recognised for being the most improved society, most successful newcomers and for raising the most money during non-prophet week, respectively. Big up dem. Finally we enjoyed a lively and challenging fishbowl conversation on the merit of interfaith events, a format that several attendees decided they’d adopt for subsequent social events. Then, as is traditional, we retired to a pub to relax over drinks and discussion as visitors from across the country departed for pastures more familiar.
Honestly, such an event simply cannot be summarised. I can’t communicate to you how incredible those three days were (and thus as communications officer, I have failed you for the second time). I can’t convey the sense of exhaustion, happiness and optimism I took to bed with me on the Sunday evening. But fortunately Martin Poulter put together a storify of everything tweeted that weekend, which can go some way to adding to my account. Facebook posts with the hashtag #AHSCon are also a good starting point for any potential convention stalking.
If you were otherwise engaged last weekend, all I can tell you is to make next year’s gathering a priority. Not only will you make new friends and leave with renewed enthusiasm, direction and vigor, but you also might just learn a few things.
AHS Conventions be ballin’ yo.
Upon hearing about the death of Sir Terry Pratchett I felt the world had lost one of its great minds. I’m a huge Pratchett fan: having read his books since I was a small child, I always found them interesting and sort of knew they were funny, but it took getting a little older and wiser to understand why they were so amusing sometime. Terry’s humour was clever like that. I also had the privilege to attend the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) conference in Leeds where Terry received the Humanist of the year award in 2013.
When I heard the news I thought, “What better way to send Terry off than to show that humanists can do death too?” After all: “DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING” said Death. “JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.” It occurred to me that this would be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of the good life of a great man. A man who has left behind not only a wealth of literary works and a rich universe containing the Discworld – precariously perched on the back of four elephants, who themselves stand on the back of Great A’Tuin the turtle – that we can all inhabit simply by turning the pages of his books, but also a legacy in ethical and compassionate charitable and social efforts including supporting assisted dying, and raising awareness of Alzheimer’s disease.
We took this opportunity to raise some money for Alzheimer’s research UK, elevate the campaigns within the humanist sphere that Terry felt were important, and also managed to convince our university and our local paper to cover the event. It was fantastic to see Sheffield University’s Secular and Atheist Society and Barnsley Skeptics get in touch and ask if they could borrow the idea, and then put on similar events of their own too. It does seem that Terry had touched the lives of many in the skeptic community in a positive way.
I felt honoured to read the very speech that Terry sent the BHA at the 2013 humanist of the year awards to open proceedings; it was a moving speech in which Terry’s brand of wit and wisdom shone through. We then watched “Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death”, and “The Colour of Magic” to honour his commitment to many causes he held dear and the legacy in literature that he left us. We also supplied “sausages inna a bun” from Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler courtesy of Fanaki’s Cafe and Cassandra Chatfield. The AHS volunteers as always were essential to running a successful event and helped with putting up posters, taking a register and talking to guests.
We had people from all over the local community take part including members of Lancashire Secular Humanists and other local groups, with whom we’ve become friends, worked with in the past, and plan to partner with for future events. As ever on a Thursday we rounded off the evening with Singing Skeptics, our by-now-legendary karaoke tradition and even encouraged members of the public to join in who subsequently were interested in joining the society.
I sincerely hope that this event celebrated the life and work of Sir Terry Pratchett as we hope he would have wanted it; with humour, reflection and a feeling of only slight embuggerance. And always remember: “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away” – Reaper Man.
Glen Carrigan is Founder and President of University of Central Lancashire’s AHS Society
Last July, as the newly elected president of the University of Sheffield Secular & Atheist Society I decided to attend the AHS’ AGM in Liverpool. Among the many interesting ideas that floated around that weekend, the prospect of organising a regional convention really caught my attention.
However, as our society that was pretty much on death’s door and had a non-committed committee, this idea would probably turn off anyone but the most enthusiastic and ambitious of people. So count me in!
After a successful series of events in the first few weeks of the academic year and armed with a new committee, it was time to set the plans in motion for a convention.
Step 1: Check with the Students’ Union what our options are. Answer: “Whatever you want to do is fine by us, just keep us up to date. Also, don’t forget to apply for our grants.” Okay then: let’s dream big. Instead of just holding a half day or full day convention, why not make it a weekend? We decided on a social event for Friday evening, guest speakers and a dinner on Saturday, workshops and seminars on Sunday.
Step 2: Set a date. We decided on February: early on in the semester and not too close to the AHS Convention. A weekend. 13th-15th February. We already imagined a fun superstition bash on Friday the 13th. But then some hardened romantics discouraged us from holding a convention on Valentine’s day. The week after it is! We confirmed our first speaker, who came back to us two weeks later to say he couldn’t make that weekend due to another commitment.
[Editor’s note: guess the expletive!]
Third time’s the charm: the weekend of 27 February to 1 March.
Step 3: Decide on a theme. We wanted a convention with talks that were somewhat connected. Apostasy, blasphemy, free speech… these were topics that kept coming up and seemed relevant, so that’s what we went for.
Step 4: Set a budget. At this stage, with only one speaker confirmed, we hardly knew what our expenses would be, but we did know where we’d be able to get funds. Between the Union’s grant, our society’s bank balance and the promise of an AHS grant, we already had some idea of what we could play with. We also decided to try and get ourselves some sponsorship. A friendly email, which included several sponsorship levels, was sent to dozens of companies and organisations. Most of them never even bothered to respond to us. In the end, we had 4 sponsors, this pretty much doubled our budget and didn’t even take into account ticket sales.
Step 5: Get ourselves some more interesting speakers. We thought it would be important to have a convention that wasn’t full of old white men on the podium, however interesting they may be. With one speaker in the bag, I set out to find others. As I’ve been friends with David Fitzgerald for a few years, I casually asked him if he’d be interested in giving a talk providing we’d somehow get enough sponsorship to fly him over from San Francisco. As it became clear the cost would be too high, I didn’t pursue it any further.
Until, one evening, I get a message from David asking if we’re still organising a convention and if we’d be interested in having him if he paid for his own plane ticket, we would just pay for his expenses in the UK. Why yes! Yes we would be very interested. Moral of the story is aim high + don’t ask, don’t get. That was two speakers. We researched other potential speakers, sent out friendly emails and less than two weeks later we had a full roster. Easy!
Step 6: Venues. The main venue to arrange was the Saturday. Unfortunately, as this was going to be an event that was open to the public, we couldn’t get a free venue from the university. Lecture theatres came with a significant price tag and porter charges on top of that. Ouch. But then, the university has a couple of really nice halls, which are surprisingly good value for money and no porter charges…
Mappin Hall it is! We decided to keep the Sunday workshop there too, out of convenience. That left us with finding a venue for the Friday and Saturday social. For Saturday we wanted a nice 3 course dinner, with the option of some entertainment, at a student-friendly price. It took me a while to find a place which didn’t have expensive room rates and I lucked out with a nice little cafe in an ideal location. The Friday evening venue was more of a miss than a hit. The pub we chose was a bit too loud and not very conducive to good conversation. Sorry.
Step 7: All the little stuff, aka sleepless nights. Marketing, chasing speakers for info, designing posters and programme booklets, setting ticket prices, selling tickets (Eventbrite, the Union’s ticket system, …?), arranging refreshments and food for speakers and volunteers, finding a free photographer, updating budgets, collating info packs for speakers, confirming attendees and volunteers, getting lanyards, figuring out the social media, putting the schedule together, liaising with the Union, dealing with the weirdos who screamed class warfare when there weren’t concessions for OAPs… All of this while still doing a degree and having a job, whoop-dee-doo.
With the wise words of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce in the back of my head I was ready. “Remember the three key words for any Slayer Convention Organiser: Preparation… preparation… preparation.”
(“That’s one word three times.”)
[Editor’s note: it is a good word]
Step 8: 9.45pm Thursday, less than 24 hours before the start of the convention. An email from Maryam Namazie arrived, saying she couldn’t make it due to illness. She had a replacement, Amal Farah, lined up but at a significantly higher cost (last minute train ticket and childcare). This would eat through our contingency budget and then some. Frantic phone calls to other committee members, messages to anyone we could think of who would be able to help us with an alternative. By 11pm we hadn’t managed to find a cheaper suitable replacement. We needed to make a decision fast: do we blow our budget on a guaranteed quality speaker or do we wait and keep searching? I picked the former, chose security as I needed to be able to sleep. This turned out to be the right decision.
From there on, it was pretty much plain sailing. A few little hiccups, hot water urns turning up late and a volunteer not turning up at all were the worst things that happened, which probably went unnoticed.
Attendance was a little lower than what we had hoped, but we had a fine and interested crowd. The speakers were all more than great and everything ran on schedule. I managed to convince Andrew Copson to show up on Sunday morning at 10.30am instead of his scheduled time of 11.30am (you will respect my authority, Andrew Copson). We still managed to come in on budget and our attendees were generous in giving us kind words.
All in all, I’m pretty happy with how the first ever Sheffield Freethought Convention turned out. Now I just hope it won’t be the last.
Sylvia Broeckx is the President of Sheffield Secular and Atheist Society, Regional Officer for Yorkshire and the Humber, Director of Hug an Atheist and general overachiever. Sheffield’s convention was amazing and we should all be very jealous.
You can see more photos of this amazing convention at https://www.flickr.com/photos/131877355@N05/sets/72157650870630307/
The UK’s grandest and greatest Humanist gathering
Check the Convention webpage by clicking the banner above for information about the amazing speakers and to book tickets. If the student rate (which is generously discounted!) is a little too steep at the moment, you can pay in installments too!
The AHS and Young Humanists are currently running a little competition: TEN free tickets to the conference are up for grabs. Pretty much everything you need to know is in the image below. Deadline is 8th April, so don your pondering helmets and come up with something prizeworthy!
Interested in social media? Humanism? Oh give over, you’re probably screen-surfing between this newsletter and Facebook. There’s a conference designed with you in mind held in Bucharest between the 24th and 26th April, specifically addressing translation of social media initiatives to public policies with punch. As in clout, not fruity booze. Though that may also be present.
Find out more by clicking the above banner, or head to the event’s Facebook page!
Congratulations on scrolling through all the convention-related material! Exeter AHS have been very kind in their recent provision of guest events, so that those who may not have had the chance to see certain speakers this year can still enjoy their ideas.
This week we have a masterfully conducted interview with AC Grayling by F. Lowe and T. Stone.
Also a recording of the impeccable Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the topic of “When it’s wrong to be an atheist“.
Please don’t tremble at the standard set by Exeter AHS: subscribe to their youtube channel and send any reports of your own guest events to email@example.com.