Wednesday, 25 August 2010

How and Why I Started the Aston Humanist Society

I founded the Aston Humanist Society in February 2009, quite simply because there wasn’t a society anything like it that I could join myself. Perhaps the idiom that ‘getting atheists together is like trying to herd cats’ had put off anyone who had tried to start a non-theist society before me. I’m not even sure what took me so long to get round to it, perhaps my PhD finally wasn’t keeping me as busy as my supervisor would have liked.

Of the 48 societies at Aston University, there are nine religious ones, including all the biggies: Islamic Soc, Hindu Soc, Christian Union, Sikh Soc and Jewish Soc. Although there are many more denominations who are not officially listed with the Student Union). It’s a good reflection of the multicultural environment that the university is well known for. What the list of societies doesn’t reflect, however, is that there also are many students that lead a secular life that would enjoy meeting like minded people too.

Having decided to take action, I faced two big problems: deciding what the society was actually about and almost as importantly what to call it. Like the Skeptics in the Pub groups, but unlike religious societies or the increasing number of nationality/culture-based societies at Aston, there was no pre-formed idea of what you had to be/know in order to join. Because there was no precedent, I set the society up to be some nebulous idea of what I thought was missing: an open forum promoting values such as freedom of expression, and scientific and personal inquiry, centred around free discussion of philosophy, politics, science, religion and history.

I could have could just have easily called it the Aston Secular/Rationalist/Skeptics Society (or the slightly more fun Thinkers-Not-Drinkers), but settled on Humanist simply because I am one, and I feel that humanism neatly captures the secular/rational vibe I was aiming for. Lots of people are essentially humanists, but just don’t know the term or decide not to call themselves by such a name. I guess the trouble with people who insist on thinking for themselves is that they don’t usually like being labelled! I deliberately steered clear of ‘atheist’ as it has (sadly) come to have connotations of exclusivity and I didn’t want anyone to think that the group had an anti-theist agenda and be put off from joining.

It was more than just a riposte to all the religious groups, although I must admit that walking past ‘boarding the Jesus Train, WOOP WOOP!’ and ‘Obligatory Islamic Knowledge’ posters on my way to the office every morning had a little something to do with it. Starting the Aston Humanist Society was my pro-active response to something else that had been bothering me throughout my studies. Without (I hope) sounding too high-minded, I was increasingly bothered by what I saw, and still see, as a pervasive culture of having ‘just enough education to perform’ at university. I know that for some, being at university is about getting a degree and then getting a job; no more, no less, and it is not really my place to judge that ambition. I think AC Grayling eloquently captures exactly how I feel (as he almost invariably does) in this quote from a short essay on Education:

Liberal education is a vanishing ideal in the contemporary West, most notably in its Anglophone regions. Education is mainly restricted to the young and is no longer liberal education as much as something less ambitious and too exclusively geared to specific aims – otherwise, of course, very important – of employability. This is a loss; for the aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased; who think and question, and know how to find answers when they need them. This is especially significant in the case of political and moral dilemmas in society, which will always occur and will always have to be negotiated afresh; so members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable  ... People who are better informed and more reflective are more likely to be considerate than those who are – and who are allowed to remain – ignorant, narrow-minded, selfish, and uncivil in the profound sense that characterises so much of human experience now”.

To help get the group started I was lucky enough to have had the help of a number of organisations. Happenstance meant that I decided to start the group at the very same time that The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies was being launched. I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural event, speak to lots of other societies, get a ‘starting a student society’ help pack, and even get some helpful advice from Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. I also joined the Secular Portal which was a great way of getting in touch with other secular students, and sharing practical ideas, and managed to rope in the Birmingham Humanists to help out with our Fresher’s Fair recruitment stall  at the start of the 2009/10 academic year. The brilliant cartoonist Thad Guy was also kind enough to let us use his images for posters and flyers.

We’ve held weekly meetings which have attempted to try and answer, or at least think about, some of the questions that god wasn’t going to answer for us: “How do we deal with the involvement of religion in major health issues, namely the Pope and his reigniting of the condoms/Aids situation”, “Should we treat paedophiles and criminals or mentally ill?”, “Trust in doctors or trust in god: how should society deal with clashes between people's beliefs and medical ethics?” and “Do criminals should have the right to vote?”. None of these questions are going to help anyone pass their degrees directly, but I’d like to think that everyone benefited from the critical thinking and discussion that took place. I certainly left each meeting feeling a little more enlightened and with a lot more to think about.

We’ve also worked in collaboration with the Birmingham SITP on a couple of occasions and hosted both Ariane Sherine and Rebecca Watson for special ‘Skeptics in the Classroom’ meetings, held fund raising AmnesTEA parties, the Aston Happy Humanist team raised over £500 for the Cancer Research UK Relay for Life and we’re working with Aston’s Environment and Sustainability office to sponsor a university-wide bookswap scheme to promote the pleasures of environmentalism and reading.

It started out as just a few of my friends meeting in the university bar, but over the last year and a half the AHS I would like to think that the AHS has been a success and achieved at least some of its lofty ambition. The start of the 2010/11 academic year brings fresh hope, ideas and scope for growth. I’m not sure where I’ll end up once my PhD is over, but if there isn’t a society to join, I’ll use this experience to start another one. The ubiquity of social networking makes starting and maintaining societies much easier.

I hope that I have at least laid the foundations of some form of secular society at Aston. I hope the meetings, events, and this blog will allow people get together in some form or other discuss the world around them, for no other reason than because they want to think for themselves and learn what others have to say.

[A version of this post has been published on the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub page]

1 comment:

  1. well i admire your thoughts but are you telling me you've never come across a group of people who advocate the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community or doesn't this interest you regards ian