A wake-up call to non-religious students
At the start of a new academic year, Rory Fenton calls for non-religious students to resist the tide of religious privilege on campus
University is a time when young people are introduced to fresh ideas and new world-views. It is a time when old opinions are challenged and new beliefs take their place. For many young people across the UK who went to religious schools, it is their first experience of socialising with people with different religious beliefs, and those with none at all.
In the midst of this, many find themselves doubting or losing their religious beliefs. For them and for those who have never been religious, non-religious societies on campus, whether called "atheist", "humanist", "secular", "freethinking", "rationalist" or "ex-Muslim" (and non-religious groups can rival the gay rights movement for the sheer number of inclusive terms they use), can be a second home. At their best they are oases of free debate and discussion, challenging their members as well as the wider campus community to question dogma and speak up for reason. In the words of Ruth Haydock, a student at St Andrew's University:
"In the summer of 2012, I finally came to the conclusion that I no longer believed in God. For about 2 years I had drifted away from religion and I had lost touch with my Christian friends. As a result I had very few accepting friends with whom I felt at ease and I felt very alone in my new state of unbelief. That summer was very difficult for me as I was at home with my Christian family for 4 months, who found it impossible to respect my life choices. So I decided to find like-minded people at a local humanist group or something similar on my return to university. Searching on the internet I found out about the St Andrew's Atheist Society. Having the knowledge of this group over the summer gave me hope that soon I would find people who would not judge me for being an atheist. I ended up joining the committee of the society. I really value the people that I have met through the society and I really do consider them all to be my atheist, humanist and secularist family. Also, being part of the committee showed me that I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to and I didn’t need a god to help me achieve it!"
Running a society isn't always easy. The last year in particular has seen challenges to non-religious student societies' freedom of expression and even existence. The most famous example took place this time last year at Reading University's Freshers Fair. It all started with a pineapple.
The pineapple in question was sat on the stall of Reading University's Atheist Society. The pineapple was called "Mohammad", as indicated by a sticker, and was there to promote an upcoming discussion on freedom of speech and blasphemy. Reading Students' Union soon received complaints from Muslim students. Rather than defend their members' rights to free speech, the union demanded the pineapple be removed. When Reading Atheists refused, they were kicked out of the Freshers Fair altogether. The union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing "offence" to other students or even to members of the wider local community. The policy offers no definition of offence, creating in essence a blasphemy ban. The policy remains unchanged, forcing Reading Atheists to choose between signing the document and leaving the union altogether.
Reading isn't the only atheist society to face censure from their students union. LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society were prevented from changing their name to include "ex-Muslim" by their own student union on the grounds that it would somehow endanger apostates, effectively allowing religious extremists to set the union's agenda. The same society was forced by its union to remove a cartoon of Mohammad from its (private) Facebook page for being "Islamophobic". The union then went on to label Islamophobia as "racist". Fortunately, an intervention from the British Humanist Association, pointing out the legal rights of the students, lead to the university overturning the union's decision.
The religious privileges that have censored atheist societies have also allowed religiously inspired bigotry to march on unheeded on UK campuses. Christian and Muslim societies regularly invite speakers with deeply homophobic and sexist views to their events, including those who have advocated the death penalty for homosexuals. Fortunately, the speakers are not permitted to air these views on campus, focusing instead on more general topics, but being invited to these universities lends them a perverse legitimacy.
In an extreme example, Bristol University's Christian Union last December announced that women could not address their events unless married, and then only if accompanied by their husband. The decision was merely "reviewed" by their students union, with the Christian Union only eventually changing the policy as a result of the intense press coverage received.
These events are alarming signs of a trend. Universities and their students' unions are confusing their responsibility to protect their students with a duty to project their beliefs. Our universities are not run by religious fundamentalists but they know that religions will fight tooth and nail to protect their privileges while the non-religious too often accept the status quo. To steal from Yeats, "the best all lack conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity." This needs to change.
It's beginning to.
Religious student societies enjoy the financial, legal and political support of large religious groups and national umbrella bodies to represent them, such as the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) or the Union of Jewish Students. Non-religious students also need national representation. The National Federation of Student Atheist, Humanist and Secular Societies, of which I'm president, provides just this; representing and supporting non-religious students across the UK and Ireland. The Federation, or AHS for short, now represents non-religious student societies from over 40 universities and is growing every year. We aim to give a louder voice and larger audience to our members when facing challenges on campus, building on our strong links with the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society.
If non-religious students are to resist the tide of religious privilege on campus, this national voice is key. We also need more students to form societies and the AHS have the resources and experience to assist. There are currently over 300 Christian Unions at universities and colleges across the UK but just 45 AHS societies. This is in the face of the fact the vast majority of UK students are not religious. Atheists, of course, are rightly suspicious of organised belief groups, and the reasons for their unity under a shared belief (or lack of belief) is weaker than for the religious, but without a shared voice, it is the religious who will grab the attention of decision-makers.
A new academic year is beginning for non-religious societies. Whether universities and unions will repeat the mistakes and censorship of the past year remains to be seen. Regardless, last year should be a wake-up call for non-religious students and all who care about free speech nationwide; if on issues of speech we stay silent, we will be silenced. We need universities and unions to remember their duty is to defend their students, not their students' beliefs.