Sunday, 3 October 2010

Fresher's Fair 2010

Aston's 2010 Fresher’s Fair is over and thanks to some of James’ delicious cookies, my constant, over-enthusiastic ranting about humanism, and of course our general all-round geeky charm, we had just shy of 50 people sign up! It might seem a modest figure compared to some student societies, but I can’t stress enough that a humanist society is really up against it at a university with such a large and religiously diverse student body.

I make a virtue of the fact that we were the only society and voice for non-believers on campus, but I dearly wish that wasn’t the case. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the sheer number, size, financial backing and enthusiasm of all the religious societies. A quick pan around the stands in the main Fresher’s Fair hall showed three explicitly Islamic societies (although none of them could actually explain why and how they were different to each other, other than vague statements to the effect of ‘we interpret the Qu’ran in slightly different ways’); Hinduism had the Hindu Society and Krishna Consciousness; Christians had the Christian Union and the University Chaplaincy and Sikhs had the Sikh Society. Coupled with these were societies that are not explicitly religious, but are bound into religious-cultural traditions, for example nationality-based societies like the Pakistani and Bangladeshi Societies, or the Bhangra society, which is a form of music and dance intimately woven with Sikh and Punjabi traditions.

Religious societies have ready-made memberships; a Muslim/Hindu/Christian student will go into that room and home in on their relevant society, and may not engage much, if at all, with the alternative societies. The problem, at least with a humanist society, is almost one of definition:  few people know what humanism is or what a humanist might think, do or believe (or more accurately not believe). My favourite response to the question “have you heard of humanism?” was “what, you’re not like Satanists are you? ‘Cause I’m really not into that, yeah”. We’ve still got some way to go before humanisms gains the recognition and even superficial understanding of established religions, but despite reactions like this, which made me chuckle and despair in equal measure, I was heartened to hear more positive responses than last year’s event, so we’re definitely heading in the right direction.

Gauging a student’s reaction was all a matter of reading their top lip. As soon as you say it’s a society for free-thinking atheists and agnostics, you either (1) get a smile, in which case you know you might talking to someone vaguely interested, or (2) watch their top lip curl into a grimace, which reveals that they’re almost definitely religious, and almost definitely not keen on hearing about how non-believers have morals too. Reactions to our stand ranged from “Atheists? Brilliant! Good on you” to “I don’t deal with petty humanists”, with ambivalence and disappointed ”you’re a lost-cause” headshakes in between.

Of course all this diversity has the advantage of throwing up some very interesting characters. I vowed to my colleagues that I wouldn’t get involved in a fruitless ‘religion is just mental, oh not it’s not’ debate, but I just couldn’t help myself. Especially not when a committee member of the Islamic Society starts talking about irrefutable scientific evidence in the Qu’ran, like how ‘salt and freshwater do not mix’, or that old chestnut of how ‘evolution is just a theory’; man must have been made by Allah from water and clay because there is no other way to explain how people, who are 70% water, could have arisen in the desert, where it never rains. These are the conversations that give me even more drive to promote and participate in not just humanist, but also scientific causes. This conversation boiled down to not just misguided theological principles, but a fundamental misunderstanding of just some basic science.

The brilliant, but divisive Richard Dawkins has written an endorsement for all member groups of The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, which very neatly captures exactly the ideals I was promoting to all of Aston’s new, and returning, students.

Students away from home for the first time are faced with a barrage of invitations from religious groups of various kinds, all eager to take advantage of the newcomers' unfamiliarity with their surroundings and their natural apprehensiveness about what lies in store for them, to lure them into the religious fold. I therefore congratulate the Aston Humanist Society for offering a real alternative, creating an environment in which young people can actively explore and celebrate the natural world and formulate an approach to ethics which is not dependent on superstition or myth.  Societies like this one offer a tremendous service, both to students who wish to learn about reality, and to the cause of atheism, humanism and secularism as a whole.

Best wishes,

Richard Dawkins

Occasional excitable chats like these aside, we were careful not to alienate those with religious views who might want to engage with humanists in ways other than arguments about the veracity of evolutionary theory. We were keen to emphasise that arguing with religious people was not our main aim (I should tattoo “you cannot reason someone out of something they did not reason themselves into” onto the back of my hands), but rather to promote the positive idea that people can be good, moral, loving and happy without necessarily having God, a holy book or even their mother to tell them to be so and that we champion lots of positive, religion-free causes, for example pro-science campaigns like Science Is Vital #scienceisvital, raising money for charities like Amnesty, Cancer Research UK and Medicine Sans Frontier, and organ and blood donation (the latter being a ‘religion-free cause’ only if you don’t include Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course).

We also had fantastic response to our environmental friendly, pro-literacy, university-wide bookswap proposal, which means that the university may just have to pay a bit more attention this time round, and not just fob us off excuses like ‘it’s a fire hazard’ or that a box of books in the corner is ‘not in keeping with the university aesthetic’. I feel our first petition coming on!

On a lighter note, we also had a competition to find the best science-related joke. The prize: a signed copy of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. The best of the bunch submitted on the day was: “What does it take to run the Marathon? 80p.” The competition will stay open all week. If you think you can top the one above, email it to with your name and number. All the jokes will be read out at next week’s meeting and the one that raises the biggest laugh will win the book!

Now that madness of Fresher’s Fair is over, here’s the line-up for the rest of October:

Thursday the 7th of October will be our first meeting of the academic year and will be a chance for all of our new members to get to know each other over some drinks and nibbles.

Wednesday the 13th of October we’re meeting at 6.30pm before heading over the Victoria pub to see Simon Singh speak to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub about his run in with the British Chiropractic Association and the subsequent Libel Reform campaign.

Thursday 21st of October will be our first discussion: “Having a baby: right or privilege?”, an ethical minefield which is taking on even more importance given potential revisions to government policy with regards to IVF treatment in reaction to the financial crisis and the need to cut NHS spending.

All the scheduled events will go up on the public Aston Humanist Society Google Calendar. To make things easy, there’s a handy button which will automatically add them to your own diaries!

Meetings on campus will be held weekly on Thursdays at 7pm in the Presentation Suite on the second floor of the Aston University Student’s Guild. Membership is £5 and runs for a calendar year from October 2010. £5 is the minimum required fee set by the Student’s Guild to cover the cost of admin., hiring rooms etc. throughout the year. We’d like to be completely free, but the price of a couple of pints is pretty good value for being part of one the coolest clubs on campus.

We'll be over the moon if all the 50 people that signed up today became regular active members, but we're realistic enough to know that probably won't be the case. The main thing is we’re continuing to grow and we’re continuing to provide a voice on campus for those who are proud of thinking for themselves.

If you’re not sure about joining the society or unable to come to meetings, feel free to email for more information about us, or how you can get involved through the blog, Facebook pages and Twitter @astonhumanists!

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