Sunday 30 May 2010

Founding the Aston Humanist Society

Strictly speaking, an entry about starting a university humanist society falls outside the remit of this blog, but the fact that it's Birmingham-based, and founded on good, strong rational values means that it shouldn't be too out of place here, and I'll take it as given that scepticism invariably leads to humanism or atheism, or at the very least agnosticism in some form.

I'm am now in my eighth year at Aston University and well into the final year of my PhD. 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 was like trying to herd cats' had put off anyone who had tried to start an 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 social societies at Aston University, there are nine religious ones, including all the biggies: Islamic Soc, Hindu Soc, Christian Union, Sikh Soc, 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 who lead a secular life that would enjoy meeting like minded people too.

Having decided to take action, I faced two bit problems: deciding what the society was actually about and almost as importantly what to call it. Like the SITP 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 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 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 taking a 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 fresh; so members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable [my italics] ... 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 make getting 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 this 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 "Should criminals have the right to vote?". None of these questions were 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 Ariene 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. We have over 70 members on "Facebook"more than 30 paid up members and around 10 people at each of our weekly meetings, which is apparently good going for all but the very biggest, well established societies at Aston.

As student society (although staff members have also attended meetings), the nearing end of the 2009-10 academic year, and soon my PhD, has meant that the society has started winding down. 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 just start another one. The ubiquity of social networking now makes starting and maintaining societies much easier. Very recently I've been following the progress of Alice Sheppard (aka PenguinGalaxy on Twitter) as they set up a STIP in Wales. "Her blog post", coincidentally written at the same time as mine, echoes many of my feelings, although she has a tougher job given the scale of the group.

I hope that I have at least laid the foundations of some form of secular society at Aston; whether it remains a humanist society once I'm gone is irrelevant, as long as a bunch of students 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.


Tulpesh Patel is a Neurosciences PhD student at Aston University working in collaboration with the Birmingham Children's Hospital. He is also founder and Chair of the Aston Humanist Society.


1 comment:

Patrick Redmond said...

I loved the Grayling quote. I was recently asked to attend a meeting at a school to consider the question "what is school for?" It would be such a shame for education to become a purely functional endeavour.
I hope that your society, the Birmingham sitp and all the other growing groups show that there are people out there that like to think, listen and learn.