Friday, 18 March 2011

3rd Annual AHS convention - Day 2

The second day of the 2011 AHS convention was largely aimed at committee members and was that great combination of being fun and informative.

The morning started with a dilemma as I was forced to choose between the Finance and Sustainability talk, which sounded useful but hardly ‘fun’, and the Choir Workshop. I’m so glad I chose the choir as it ended up being the highlight of my day, if not the weekend. A murder of crows can carry a tune better than I can, so heaps of praise must go to the BHA choir leader Chloe Clifford-Frith, and the rest of the choir members that took part, for making all the true amateurs feel welcome, stripping away our self-conciousness and teaching us to sing a whole song in 30 minutes. The fact that the song was Do You Realize was the cherry on the icing on the cake. I’m glad my excitability and lunatic grinning didn’t put the proper singers off when we performed for everyone who had attended the other workshops.

I was really inspired by the singing and wish I had the opportunity to sing in a humanist choir in Birmingham. Someone suggesting started up my own choir, but I’m finding it hard enough to get atheists/humanists together as it is, nevermind getting ones that have either the talent or inclination to sing!

The next workshop was holding one-to-one debates with people of faith, with Chief Exec of the BHA Andrew Copson and David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation pretending to be Christians. Andrew and David took it in turns to contest that faith schools were a good thing, that god existed and that morality only exists because of god. Well done to the three brave people who volunteered to put forward the case for atheism, who more than held their own against the typically ludicrous arguments that are usually put forward by religious folk when discussing these issues.

Andrew had some simple, practical advice:
  • Respond to the opposition’s points as systematically as possible 
  • Defend without getting defensive 
  • Be prepared to attack and score your own points 
  • Avoid ad hominem arguments – attack the ideas not the person 
  • Have good examples of evidence prepared – anecdotes are not evidence 
  • Take a deep breath and sit up straight, it can make all the difference to how you feel and are perceived.
The breaks between sessions were also a great chance to network. Whilst we were all there because we were atheist/humanist and valued secular values, the pluralism of ideas was special; every discussion I entered into, one on the merits of Justin Bieber’s existence and views spring to mind, was fiercely and intelligently contested. I met some wonderfully interesting folk from across the Irish Sea, who brought an 11 strong contingent from Cork Uni and who were voted into the AHS fold during the Extraordinary General Meeting. Closer to home, I managed to get to know some of theUniversity of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society (UBASH) better and get the ball rolling for pooling resources and holding our own Reason Week.

I wasn’t quite sure how to react to the responses to my happy humanist and Darwin tattoos, from both folk at the workshops and an anthropologist from LSE who’s writing a book about the humanism and humanist organisations. Both are tattoos that don’t think I’ll live to regret but I suppose I’m in a pickle if I undergo a religious conversion; although as Andy Copson suggested, I could always just stick a little halo over the happy humanist’s head. You can see the photos from the second day of the convention (including my gurning  Bo-Selecta face next to my tattoos) here.

After a group session where we got together to discuss ways of improving how the AHS works, the day finished with the presentation of some awards. Whilst the best kind of charity goes unspoken, I can’t say I wasn’t chuffed to bits when AC Grayling (via a pre-recorded message) announced that Aston had raised the most money during Non-Prophet Week!

Together with the special efforts of Emma Moseley, Jack Hooker and Nick Martin (and a helping hand from the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub), we managed to raise a bucket-load of money , which was split between VESL, Amnesty International, Book Aid International, One World Action  and Childreach International.

Congratulations must also go all the award winners, including Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society, who won the award for best overall society

I ended the weekend pretty tired out, but, just as when I left the launch event two years ago, I was energized and excited. A huge thank you must go to Richy Thompson, President of the AHS, and the rest of the Executive Committee for doing such a fantastic job, not only of organising the convention, but the running of the AHS as a whole. The value of the kinship and support that the AHS provides cannot be underestimated.

3rd Annual AHS convention - Day 1

Saturday 12th to Sunday 13th of March was the 3rd annual convention of the National Fedration of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies’ (confusingly, also AHS for short).

 It was strange but reaffirming to back at Conway Hall, home of the long-standing bastions of free-thought, the South Place Ethical Society. Arriving there with a couple of our society’s members was special because it meant that I’d started and kept the Aston Humanists running for more than two years. I was at the press launch of the AHS when it was just a small clutch of societies, to see how big it has become since (it’s more than doubled from an initial 14 to at least 32 societies), is testament to all the hard work of the AHS founders, committee members and the support of the British Humanist Association.

Walking around the stands before the talks kicked off was a great opportunity to put faces to Twitter names and flesh out relationships that had previously only existed via Facebook. It was also a good chance to pick up some free literature, talk to the NSS about their campaigns, and of course, amass a collection of cool badges.

Thanks to the very brilliant Pod Delusion you can  hear all the talks from the Speaker’s Day, which included Humanist MP Lord Warner, Gerard Philips from the National Secular Society, Chief Exec of the BHA Andrew Copson, the brilliant blogger and journalist Johann Hari, distinguished philosopher AC Grayling and a trademark scatological rant, sprinkled with morality, profanity and scientific deference, from Robin Ince.

I urge you to listen to the talks as they are all fascinating and full of thought-provoking ideas, calls to action and not a small amount of humour;  I heard someone in the audience say that the talks were rousing and I’m very much inclined to agree.

In the break, two of the Aston Humanists got to speak to Johann.Nick Martin got a chance to talk to him about his experience of the Dalai Lama's homophobia and here's Sandra Nimako-Boatey very excitedly getting his autograph. (I apologize for the skewiff photograph, but blogger just doesn't want to play ball with pictures for some reason.)

You can also see some some of the photos (the right way up) from the speakers day on the AHS facebook album.

The afternoon of talks ended on a real high, with a fantastic performance by the BHA Choir.  Their set was peppered with excellent versions of well known songs of an atheist bent, including Monty Python’s hilarious Every Sperm is Sacred, but  I was blown away by their performance of The Flaming Lip’s Do You Realize? I was (and still a little bit am) obsessed with the album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (and frontman Wayne Coyne) and must have heard that song millions of times; whilst I appreciated it’s profundity at the time, I never really got just how humanist the song was.

The trip to the pub after the event was a chance to catch up with some familiar faces and make new friends. Andrew Copson joined us for a drink and delighted us with stories of his time as a student, including an occasion when he woke up with a mouse in his mouth! As well as being one of the most personable people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, the man’s dedication to the cause knows no bounds: he’s arranged his civil partnership ceremony forward to a day before the official census so that his marriage can be recorded, and will then head straight from the ceremony to March for the Alternative, the huge protest planned against student fees and government spending cuts!

The price of a London pint precluded any excessive drinking, but the fun company meant that I still didn’t collapse into my hostel bed until nearly 1am; exhausted but with my head buzzing with excitement.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Upcoming public inter-faith panel discussion

The Birmingham City University Islamic SocietyBirmingham City University Debating Society  and al Hakima Media, (a group who hold Islamic conferences/conventions in the Midlands and Greater Manchester regions) have teamed up to hold a public “Question Time-style” inter-faith panel discussion. There are representatives from the Christian, Sikh and Muslim faiths on the panel and members of the Aston Humanists and the University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society have been asked to represent ‘non-religious based organisations’.

The event will be open to the public, with around 70-80 people expected, and will cover a number of different themes including:
  • Women, society and religion, 
  • Freedom of speech and religion, 
  • The world with or without religion 
  • The contribution of religion, if any
  • Current issues faced by the Middle Eastern countries
As Chair of the Aston Humanists I’ve gladly taken up the offer to take part. Whilst I’ve spoken in front of bigger audiences before, it has been in academic settings, where the audiences have definitely been less religious or partisan. The chosen topics cover a lot of controversial ground and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into some juicy discussion but I’m quite nervous having never had been part of a formal public discussion before. By a very happy coincidence, however, I’m attending the National Federation for Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies annual convention this weekend where there is a workshop on debating held by BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson and European Humanist Federation President David Pollock. Hopefully the advice on debating will stand me in good stead not just for this event but also my PhD viva voce a week later!

These are all the details of the event as I have them so far:

When: 5pm to 6.30pm, Thursday the 17th of March
Where: Baker Building room 508, City north campus, Perry Barr, Birmingham, B42 2SU
How much: Free!

I’ll update with more information as and when I get it. It should be a cracking event so please do come if you can!