Friday, 25 November 2011

Event report: Interfaith panel discussion - 'Should Britain be a Secular State?'

Time: 17 November 2011, 18:30 - 21:00
Place: Ricardo LT, Drayton House, University College London

For our first panel discussion, UCLU ASHS invited the university's faith societies to explore the topic of secularism. The panel consisted of representatives from UCLU AMSA (Tahir Nasser) and UCLU Catholic Society (Kajtek Skowronski), as well Treasurer Kieran on our behalf, while President Robbie chaired the discussion.

Each of the panelists were first given 3 minutes to express their views on secularism in the UK. AMSA, highlighting citations from the Koran, advocated a view of 'You for your religion and me for my religion': the ruling religion in a non-secular state would impose restrictions on the minority religions. This would conflict with the Islamic principle of justice, as 'secularism is justice.' Hence, the role of religion in society should be to guide, but not dictate, legislature. Echoing this sentiment, CatholicSoc expressed that theocracy will not work in society - highlighting that Jesus believed the church and state were distinct -, but that religion should still maintain an active role of positive moral guidance in a system grounded by secular reason. A note was also made on how UCL's secular roots was the first university in England to admit Catholic students. Finally, ASHS brought up the issue that although the UK policy is to treat all religions as equal, this does not necessarily prevent the conflicts we would wish for secularism to prevent. Moreover, the Judeo-Christian foundations of the UK still has its influences in this society, as evidenced by e.g. the Queen being Head of State and Bishops in the House of Lords.

As each of the three societies represented were in favour of a secular Britain, then, the Q&A session of the discussion revolved around the more fine-grained differences in their approaches to a secular state. A question from the audience led to reflections from each of the panelists on their stance on government-funded faith schools in the UK. AMSA conceded that allowing for private faith schools will uphold the principle of free will, whereas public schools should teach morality common to all religions, rather than promote any one religion over others. Conflicts within religions are too many and too complex to avoid implicitly favouring one religious view. Contrastingly, CatholicSoc argued in favour of public faith schools by pointing out that the free choice of schools is still maintained, and that government funding is not significantly drained by maintaining faith schools. Moreover, it was stressed that faith schools do not necessarily limit diversity in the student population, as many Catholic schools are attended by a wide variety of non-Catholic ethnic minorities. Countering this, Kieran representing the ASHS reflected on his own experience in Catholic schools, noting that despite being in one of the most multicultural areas in the UK, the vast majority of his peers were Catholic. Nevertheless, faith schools should be upheld, he argued, as this would allow for 'atheist academies', i.e. 'you have to play along to get along.'

The topic of faith schools was further explored in detail between the panelists and the audience members: to what extent is admitting a child to a faith school an act of labelling or priming an individual without self-awareness? Here, CatholicSoc pointed out that regardless of admission to faith school, children cannot be brought up with blank slates, and that as long as faith schools teach the national curriculum, religious supplementary input is not a negative influence if this is what the parents wish for their child. Another issue raised by the audience, was that while public funding of faith schools may not necessarily be financially detrimental, it is also a question of morals, as individuals would not want their tax money to contribute towards values they do not support.

Following continued discussion of other less strictly relevant (but inevitable) issues including human versus religious morality and whether there is such a distinction, as well as abortion and ethics, each of the panelists summarised their views. CatholicSoc asserted that a secular state should not undermine the role of religion, but value well-reasoned religious beliefs; ASHS cast reflection on how religion will still inevitably influence a secular state, in particular discussions regarding abortion and LGBT - an influence which must be accepted for democratic reasons; while AMSA expressed surprise at the knowledge of Britain's non-secular influences during the discussion, and stressed that although a secular state free of any ruling religion would be the only just form of government, non-secular influences such as the monarchy should not be removed as this would demonstrate injustice to the country's heritage.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Event report: Paolo Viscardi - "Myths, Memes, & Misidentifications"

Time: 03 November 2011, 19:00 - 20:30
Place: Ramsay LT, Christopher Ingold Building, University College London

UCLU ASHS gathered on this rainy Thursday night for a talk on mermaids, the Montauk Monster, and Japanese Monkeyfish, amongst other dubiously existing creatures introduced to us by Paolo Viscardi. As a natural history curator at the Horniman Museum in South London, co-founder of London Science in the Pub, and administrator of, Viscardi presented numerous examples from both history and his own experiences of the evolution of myths, memes, and misidentifications in society, demonstrating how "members of the public are freaks."

With an educational background in biology and geology, Viscardi applies his knowledge of fossils and bones in his work at the Horniman Museum. As such, he frequently receives inquiries from laymen finding ambigious-looking objects around the country requesting their identification (or confirmation of wacky suspicions, rather), of which he listed several examples: a concreted sea urchin believed to be a dinosaur egg; the all so familiar random toast burns believed to be the manifestation of Jesus and its Muslim equivalent; the Pope in a fire; and the 'polar bear' washed up on the beach in Cornwall. These are all examples of pareidolia, people's tendency to assume things are 'super freaky' because it looks different or has certain features, reflecting the intrinsic human ability to search for and attribute meaning to ambiguous stimuli. When taken to the extreme, pareidolia can also reflect human idiocy, as it were, exemplified by the case of the man who was so convinced the piece of rock he had found was a dinosaur egg containing an embryo, that he kept it for over 20 years and staked his entire retirement on it.

The Montauk Monster, in particular, is a case of mistaken identity which received widespread attention. A 'weird alien monster creature with a beak' washed up on the shore of Montauk, spawning a cult movement including Montauk Monster artwork, websites, origami and Montauk Monster on toast, before the truth was finally revealed as retold in this video. Instead of indulging in this the hysteria of pareidolia, Viscardi urged us to look at the Monster's teeth, as teeth are very good indicators of the species. Showing us images of the Montauk Monster's skull next to four comparable skulls of North American mammals, the audience unanimously correctly identified the Monster's skull as that belonging to a raccoon. Its carcass had been in water for such a long time that it had lost all its fur, thus giving it its otherwordly appearance.

Viscardi described further examples of such mistaken identities and manufactured monsters. Travellers, including Christopher Columbus, encountering the then unfamiliar species of manatees and dugongs, would often think they were mermaids. Stories of mermaids have been around for thousands of years, and there is a large body of folklore and myths surrounding these mythological creatures. Naturally, then, sailors knew much more about mermaids than manatees and dugongs. This, coupled with likely mental disturbances, such as hallucinations, caused by long travels, would lead the sailors to believe these squishy creatures were mermaids.

It goes without saying that the phenomenon of pareidolia can easily be exploited for personal gain. Mermen, or Japanese Monkeyfish, were believed to be manufactured by sewing the upper half of a monkey to the lower half of a fish. P.T. Barnum was a notable scam artist who in the mid-1800s misrepresented the so-called 'Fejee Mermaid' with a rich 'background story', 'verification' of authenticity by a 'Dr Griffith' and clever manipulation of newspaper journalists. This caused great uproar among the public, generating substantial sums of money for Barnum. Years later, a Japanese Monkeyfish arrived at the Horniman Museum. CAT scans, x-rays and other examinations revealed the 'part fish, part monkey' to be constructed by a piece of wire, some pieces of wood, a bundle of fiber, some fabric, clay, papiermaché and some fish bones.

In conclusion, then, 'always check your facts, otherwise you'll end up looking like an arse.' Also, there are lots of weirdos out there.

Check out Viscardi's blog for Friday mystery objects or visit the Horniman Museum (supposedly wonderful in the summer for picnic with mates!).

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Reasonable Faith? - A Review from ULU

Recently, as part of his much publicized “Reasonable Faith Tour”, William Lane Craig graced the University of London Union. His talk, entitled “Can we be good without God?”, was brought to us, so his banners gleefully informed, by and the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship (U.C.C.F). Professor Craig has certainly received a high praise over the past year, with Sam Harris describing him as “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists”, and has been described by various people as the foremost christian apologist in the world.

From the offset, Professor Craig was careful to state exactly what he meant to establish over the course of the talk. It was not, he was quick to state, about whether those without religion could lead moral lives, which he made certain to emphasise they could. It was about whether the entire idea of “good” has any basis without a God. He stated that there are three answers to the question of morality; Theism, which grounds morality in God; Humanism, which grounds good in humanity; and Nihilism, which claims that there is no grounding for morality, and that morality is illusory.

From here, he turned to the question of whether morality is objective, or subjective. If God exists, he claimed, there is an objective morality, decided by God. If He does not exist, there is only a subjective “moral fashion”. Addressing the Euthyphro Dilemma (that is, the question of “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”), the Professor asserts that the dilemma is a false dichotomy, and that God is the very definition for good. God, he claimed, underwrites moral responsibility, because it is His expression of His character and goodness. The choices of mankind, he observed, are acted out in a manner that appears to be infused with objective morality. He ignored the fact that this appearance does not mean that it is the case that the choices of mankind in fact are infused with objective morality.

He proceeded to address the idea of morality as a product of evolution. This, he said, would make morality simply a survival aid, and nothing more. He elaborated that “If men were reared as hive bees, our females would find it moral to kill their brothers, and mothers their daughters”. This, he then said, would create “objective worthlessness”, without really providing a justification for such claims. In a sudden leap, we were looking at dualism, which, Craig claimed, if untrue would mean that determinism would reign and morality as a concept would break down. He doesn't give any argument for dualism other than that it is preferable to not find ourselves in a deterministic universe. This plea to the more philosophically pleasing option would become an undertone in his arguments from this point in. If morality were subjective, rapists would simply be akin to a moral “Lady Gaga...out of step with 'moral fashion'”, claimed the Professor, and then again return to reinforce the idea that atheists may live moral lives, but only if God exists, as God defines what is moral.

Now came an incredible claim on behalf of the Professor. Subjective ethics, he claimed, led us previously, and could lead us again, to the Holocaust. If naturalism is correct, the world is effectively equitable to Aushwitz, and there could be no moral objections to such actions, if there was no God to underwrite the objections. “If there is no immortality, everything is permitted” he asserted, without giving an justification for such a claim. Morality would purely exist out of self interest.

In conclusion, Professor Craig boiled down his argument as follows; if there is a God, objective morality exists; if there is no God, we are left to nihilism. He felt he had dispelled humanism sufficiently, it seems, to have wiped it from his final consideration. A disappointing performance for a man who it is said is the foremost Christian apologist in the world, and certainly not up to the high praise of Sam Harris.

Jacob Tierney
University College London

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Event report: Paul Sims - "Criticising Islam: Free Speech or Bigotry?"

Time: 13 October 2011, 19:00 - 21:00
Place: Darwin Biochemistry LT, Darwin Building, University College London

Following the successes of past events with Paul Sims, including a talk on the importance of keeping a dialogue with believers, UCLU ASHS was happy to welcome the News Editor of New Humanist Magazine back to chair a debate on the grey area between criticism of Islam and Islamophobia.

Sims introduced the topic with a reference to Conservative minister Baroness Warsi's comment earlier this year on how open criticism of Islam is now so widespread, it has "passed the dinner-table test." This provoked strong reactions from secularists, who assumed the Baroness was criticising the critique of Islam. While he initially agreed with her critics, Sims now find himself seeing eye to eye with Baroness Warsi, citing two important concerns: i) the rise of the EDL (English Defence League) and in particular their intimidating and violent protests against not only Islamist groups, but Muslims in general; and ii) the way in which media, in particular right-wing tabloids, demonise Muslims and portray them as a threat to the country (examples here and here). Is it evident, then, that the Baroness is correct in that constructive criticism has crossed the line to biased bigotry?

We were delighted to see that there were amongst the audience, not only atheists and the non-religious, but also religious debaters discussing the matter from their viewpoints, including those of the Christian faith and members of UCLU AMSA. The debate that followed Sims' introduction explored various issues, some of which are summarised below.

  • Where do humanists and secularists stand in relation to Islamophobia? Our friends from AMSA highlighted the importance of not polarising Muslims and humanists/secularists. They explained that while they do not agree with atheism, they consider themselves both humanists and secularists, as they define humanism as the promotion of human welfare, and view secularism a strong root of Islam. Input from the humanist point of view put forth the question of whether Islamophobia is directed towards the religion or towards the religious, and that this is important in distinguishing between religious critique and prejudice. 
  • What is the difference between Muslim satire and Christian satire? The cover of the last edition of New Humanist depicts Ricky Gervais posing as Jesus Christ, which was put in contrast with the much-publicised Muhammad charicatures in the Danish newspapers in 2005. A debater argued that although he was personally offended by the magazine cover on the grounds of his Christian faith, he accepted that he is living in a secular and democratic society. He then proceeded to question why Muslims are given privilege when it comes to sensitivity to satire. A response to this from a non-religious debater was that attention should be directed towards whether or not the satire has any real political message, or whether it is meant to only offend - arguing that, unlike Gervais' cover, the Muhammad cartoons only intended the latter. A point raised from AMSA was that religious criticism must be interpreted in the context of the current political climate. For example, the first South Park episode portraying the Prophet Muhammad, albeit after the 11 September attacks, was broadcast prior to the Danish caricatures, and thus received comparatively little response.  
  •  Presenting religious criticism in the public sphere versus the non-public sphere: Most debaters seemed to agree that while they all were offended by statements and depictions disparaging their identities, beliefs, lifestyle choices and similar, they would not ban people's right to voice any opinions they might have - but that critics should be encouraged to exercise self-censorship. Sims contrasted this view of the freedom to say and publish anything you like in e.g. newspapers and magazines, i.e. in the public sphere where the public can choose for themselves whether they want to listen/read to it or not, with imposing your views directly on people in their personal space. Here, he made a reference to an incident where a militant atheist posted derogatory anti-religious images in an airport prayer room. In a sense, Sims argued, the atheist's freedom of speech limited the freedom of the users of the prayer room, as they due to personal convictions could no longer use the room.
The general opinion amongst the debaters, religious and non-religious alike, was that legislating any form of criticism would not solve any problems, but only make matters worse - especially in a society where freedom of speech is already so entrenched. Rather, any issue should be approached in an intellectual and respectful manner: when used, political/religious satire should have a real message; and negative reactions to such satire should encourage dialogue instead of polarisation.

Following the debate, we made the usual trip to the Bentham where Sims also joined us to continue the discussion. Thanks to everyone who attended - we hope to see more input from our religious co-students (and non-students) in future events!

"Argument for a Secular Britain" - Haris Ismail

The ideal of true secularism holds firm the view that the church and state must be kept entirely separate. In a society adhering to this basic principle, each person is to be treated as an individual where equality in the political, legal and educational systems regardless of religious belief is of paramount importance. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, a secular society is one in which “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever” and furthermore the religious shall not be afforded any privileges or special treatment simply because of their beliefs. Why is it then, that in today’s supposedly secular society, religious leaders are still treated with sycophantic reverence and given the platform and the power to influence the way our country is run?

Perhaps the most shocking example of this religious special treatment is found in the second chamber of the British parliamentary system: the House of Lords. Currently sitting in the Upper House in Westminster are 26 unelected Protestant Bishops; men (note, not women) who have the power to amend or reject crucial bills that could potentially play a decisive role in determining the laws of the land. Known as the “Lords Spiritual”, these Bishops are an unwanted remnant of the 1661 Clergy Act – unwanted not only by me, but by 74% of the population who agree that “it is wrong that Church of England bishops are given an automatic seat in the House of Lords”. The most common defence of their presence is that their position as religious leaders somehow affords them a greater and more authoritative insight into matters ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’. This view is not only patronising and offensive, it is simply incorrect. Put it this way: in a debate on assisted suicide would you rather the people with the power to shape the law based their conclusions on reason and evidence, as medical ethicists and moral philosophers do, or on out-dated and irrelevant scripture and the even more reprehensible justification of ‘faith’? Indeed, this very issue highlights another strong argument against these unelected bishops in the House of Lords – they don’t always even represent the views of the majority within the institution they are supposed to represent, the Anglican Church. A 2004 vote on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill revealed that 81% of Protestants agree that “a person who is suffering unbearably from a terminal illness should be allowed by law to receive medical help to die, if that is what they want” and yet the bishops still opposed the bill.

The news of reform to the House of Lords may sound welcome to secularists across the country but Nick Clegg’s proposals, made in June this year, would actually see a 1% proportional increase of the number of bishops allowed to sit in parliament as of right. Furthermore, the Church is to be handed new powers to choose over half of their representatives – a fact that enables the religious authorities to work together with more cohesion to influence legislation. The British Humanist Association notes that “these proposals in effect create a new largely independent, and largely unaccountable, bloc for the Church of England in Parliament”.

Whilst bishops get a free ride in the House of Lords, there is another heinous privilege that our government and media afford the religious: freedom from scrutiny. A debilitating paranoia of causing offense serves to protect and preserve the role that religion plays in society, as we are constantly told to “respect” the beliefs of others.

The effects of this paranoia can be seen all around us. One of the biggest perpetrators of providing religion with undue protection from criticism is the BBC. Last year the state-funded broadcaster introduced new guidelines that were condemned by the National Secular Society as “a threat to free speech” and were seen to be “an entirely retrograde step [since] almost anything that isn’t wholly reverential towards religious beliefs can be perceived as offensive by some believers”. Special status is already given to religion on flagship programmes like Radio 4’s Thought for the Day (which invariably invites a religious figure to deliver an early-morning dose of meaningless spirituality) and significant portions of prime time news programmes are often devoted to informing the public that prayers are being held or religious vigils are being kept; information that is as meaningless as the act is useful. What’s more, under the new guidelines comedians, satirists and commentators wanting to be critical of religion have had their work strictly censored – a luxury that would never be afforded to other matters of individual choice like political affiliation or fashion sense and there is no reason why religious beliefs should be free from similar questioning.

A secular society does not have to be one that shuns religion completely; in as diverse and multicultural country as ours the freedom to practice one’s religion in peace is seen, quite rightly, as a fundamental right. However, a truly secular democracy ensures that such religious beliefs are kept out of government policy and legislation. To create such a society we must do as columnist Johann Hari proclaims, and ensure that “nobody is granted special rights just because they claim their beliefs come from an invisible supernatural being”.

Haris Ismail
University College London

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Event report: Andrew Copson - ‘Objections To Humanism’

Time: Thursday 6th October 19:00-21:00
Place: Darwin Biochemistry lecture theatre, Malet Place, University College London

For the first event of the academic year the society hosted a talk by Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) titled ‘Objections to Humanism.’ Andrew became Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association in January 2010 after five years coordinating the BHA's education and public affairs work. His writing on humanist and secularist issues has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and New Statesman as well as in various journals and he has represented the BHA and Humanism extensively on television news on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, as well as on television programmes such as Newsnight, The Daily Politics and The Big Questions. He is a former director of the European Humanist Federation (EHF) and is currently a Vice President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

Andrew began by pointing out that being aware of the objections raised about humanism enables those who are humanist to be better armed to counter those criticisms raised, he also continued by saying that it is an obligation to be self-critical of one’s own world view including a humanist world view. Andrew went on to structure the talk on the basis of each criticism and how these should be addressed individually, the first being:

1. It diminishes the dignity of humanity.
Andrew points out here that essentially people are arguing that if we accept the evidence that people are nothing more than animals then how are we to act in any other way. His response consisted of the fact that just because we do not like the fact that we are animals it does not change it, being animals does not make us bestial.

2. Humanists can have no morals.
Here he gave an anecdote of a train journey back from a conference detailing his conversation with a priest, in which the priest could not believe how without religious dictate someone ‘wasn’t a rapist.’ Despite the raucous laughter in the room this and similar questions are often faced by many non- religious people. Clearly in response Andrew points out how this is a very bleak and false view of humanity, morals are not given by god, morality is an evolved system we use to coexist peacefully and sociably.

3. Too dry, too rational.
An example he uses is that often people argue that science cannot explain love. He counters this point by suggesting that science is the way to understand much because it is rational, universal and enquiry based, and that science can also be an inspiration.

4. It isn’t the way to explain everything.
In this rebuttal he states that explanations enhance but do not diminish, and that science’s remit is not to answer all the questions but to understand that which we can know.

5. A secular religion or “your pope Richard Dawkins.”
In response to this he describes the major tenets and concepts behind humanism as a movement, in doing so he explains how humanism is a collection of ideals and beliefs that have always existed in society. You cannot be a Christian without ever hearing of Christ, but you can be a humanist without ever hearing of humanism; as humanism describes an implicit belief system that already exists, the beliefs and values are as old as human history and are a permanent alternative.

6. A myth of human progress.
It is pointed out here that humanists are criticised for being too optimistic with an unwarranted sense of utopianism. Andrew talks about how we should be looking cautiously on the bright side, citing the BHA bus campaigns as an example. He also suggests that if you don’t believe in external help then you have to believe that normal men and women will do something, which makes progress more likely.

7. The pointlessness of it all or Nihilism.
To this idea Andrew calls the idea of the universe being meaningless a vain and ludicrous position. He also accepts here that from this perspective people often bring up a fear of death, but he suggests that death is something we should accept and live our life in accordance with reality.

8. What do you mean “that is all there is?”
He begins addressing this point by stating, what do you mean ‘all’? He adds that in making such statements you run the risk of undervaluing all that is here and now, in life the meaning comes in living, emphasizing the one life we have to live principle of humanism.

From Andrew concluding on the merits of the principle of having one life to live, the talk moved to a Q and A with members of the audience. Questions ranged from asking whether he altered his talk depending upon the audience being hostile or a ‘preaching to the choir situation’, Gaia theory, whether truth should be valued above all else, how best to enlighten your religious grandma (A C Grayling being suggested by Andrew) and how one could have hope knowing that people know right from wrong but do not always implement it. Andrew graciously continued the debate in the Jeremy Bentham pub afterward where as usual the conversation extended to various related and non-related topics. We would like to thank both Andrew Copson and everyone who attended the talk in making our first event of the new academic year a huge success.

If you would like to know more about humanism or become a member of the BHA there is a wealth of information at the BHA website:

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Freshers' Week 2011

A very warm welcome to all students new to UCL and the society, and welcome back to all familiar faces for an exciting new academic year! We have reached the end of the first week of the term, and what a great week it has been.

For Tuesday night, President Robbie booked the first floor of the Bentham for the society's welcome drinks social. If you missed out on this, do not despair - socials will be held at the Bentham every Tuesday during term time at 7.30pm. These are a great way to get to know the society members; discuss all matters related to atheism, secularism and humanism (and a number of other less relevant but equally engaging topics); or just enjoy a good drink and friendly conversation.

A prerequisite for the society to keep using the upper floor of the Bentham is that enough people attend these socials. If the turnout continues to be even just half of what it was on Tuesday night (30-35 people, if I am not mistaken), this is unlikely to be a problem. Packed with new and old students, AHS representatives, and UCL alumni, the room was bustling with good talk, good atmosphere and good minds - just like the Bentham should be.

This year's Freshers' Week was a milestone for the society: as UCLU ASHS did not become affiliated with the UCLU until January 2011, this is the first year we are having a stall among the over 200 official clubs and societies at the Freshers' Fayre.

Thursday and Friday saw a massive influx of freshers, non-freshers and other curious people in the UCL Main Quad and Wilkins Building. London suddenly deciding to introduce a heat wave (which was well-noticed inside the densely packed Fayre tents, to say the least) did not prevent an overwhelming response to The Godless of Gower Street: hundreds of people visited our stall for a flyer, affiliate materials, a chat about our society happenings, and an approving giggle at Dom's amazing cheezburger sign made for the Secular Europe rally - far outweighing the sporadic scowl sent in our direction. Moreover, we collected roughly 350 email addresses for our mailing list! An email will be sent out shortly to inform you of what we have in store for the coming months. Bear in mind, however, that instead of a weekly newsletter, the main society hub with all updates, activities and events is our Facebook group, whilst more detailed summaries of our events are posted in this blog.

We are now entering the Freshers' Try Fortnight, during which students can try out the different clubs and societies before deciding to officially join them. Our first Fortnight event is a talk held by BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson entitled 'Objections to Humanism.' A highly talented and entertaining speaker, his is an event well worth attending - not least for the discussion that will follow the talk. For the second week, we are having New Humanist editor Paul Sims host a formal debate entitled 'Criticising Islam: Free Speech or Bigotry?' which will be a great opportunity for you all to get your debate. After Try Fortnight, you will have the option to join the society against a £3 membership fee for the coming academic year. This will entitle you to free entry to all our formal events, such as guest speaker events and panel discussions. Our weekly pub socials, however, will still be open for all, so do come along. Enjoy the remaining Freshers' Week and see you on Tuesday!

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Event report: 'Is agnosticism a logical stance?' - a sit down debate

Time: 17 May, 19:00 - 21:00
Place: G17 Pearson Building, University College London

The usual informal discussions in the pub during our society meetings (and the many amusing directions they can take, ref. Kieran's panda analogy of the Queen) define the essence and drive of this society, namely intellectual curiosity and exchange of ideas. For our second event, we decided to keep a slightly less informal debate out of the pub, centered around a single topic: agnosticism - more specifically, is agnosticism the only logically valid approach to viewing the world?

The impossibility of certainty was compared with the need to establish a pragmatic degree of certainty in order to lead a productive life - "Should scientists abandon their jobs by acknowledging everything they don't know?" The existence of god cannot be disproved, hence from a purely logical point of view, there is no right way to live your life other than agnosticism. However, it was pointed out that there is a difference between actively following agnosticism - considered non-progressive - and merely having it in the back of your head. As with all scientific reasoning, where in this case the non-existence of a god is the null hypothesis and the existence of a god is the alternative hypothesis, definite support for the null hypothesis cannot be established. Instead, a certain confidence level to reach conclusions is set, from which you choose a direction to act on and live your life by.

The extent to which something supports a particular hypothesis was further discussed. On one hand, it was argued the concept of proof can only be found in mathematics and logic. In remaining domains, presumption is a matter of how appropriate the justification for something is. This was questioned with the argument that overwhelmingly strong evidence for something, e.g. fossils, is the closest one can get to truth, hence should be considered proof. However, evidence such as fossils is only proof in a pragmatic sense, it was countered, and conclusions are always open to interpretation.

The difference between having a passive stance and an explicit stance with regards to religion was also considered. People who declare themselves to be "not religious" were observed to often dissociate themselves from the "atheist" label, i.e. not knowing is not the same as believing it is impossible to know, and not believing in god is not the same as believing there is no god. Also, it was mentioned that atheists in the U.S. seemed to be more likely to explicitly declare their view on religion compared to less religious societies.

In conclusion, there was a general agreement that agnosticim might be the only logical stance, but not necessarily the most pragmatic stance. Emphasis was put on the importance of clarifying, when discussing religion - particularly with religious people -, that the vast majority of atheists do not claim there is definite proof against the existence of god.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Event report: Prof. John Martin – ’Could a human soul have arisen from Darwinian evolution?’

Time: 3 May 2011, 19:00 - 20:30

Place: G08 Roberts Building, Malet Place, University College London

For our first event of the term, UCLU ASHS invited Professor John Martin, Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine at UCL and Professor Adjunct in Cardiology at Yale University, to hold a talk. With over 25 years of experience as a cardiovascular physician and academic researcher, some of his former roles include Vice President of the European Society of Cardiology and President of the European Society for Clinical Investigation. Additionally, he studied philosophy prior to qualifying from Sheffield University Medical School. He came to us to share his thoughts on human beings – and the human “soul”, in particular – as a qualitative, rather than quantitative, extension from evolution.

Prof. Martin first structured his talk around a number of questions establishing his philosophical view of understanding the universe:

1. Is man machine or not?

Prof. Martin rejected the conventional notion that neurobiology can account for all aspects of human beings as “a load of rubbish”: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research does not provide any explanations as to what humans are, but merely anatomical observations.

2. Is experimental science the only truth?

Again, he stressed that science is only a series of measurements and observations, which can generate predictions, but not explanations. Whilst he “believed in Darwinian evolution absolutely”, he also expressed a strong belief in Freudian psychoanalysis as a means to discover the truth about yourself - likening knowledge of the origin of the self with knowledge of the origin of the world.

3. What is the cause of the Big Bang?

Here, he made the suggestion that this cause could be the things it produced, including immutable constants such as pi, Avogadro’s number and the speed of light – indeed, that the nature of god could be these constants. A question was raised from the audience of whether he could simply label this “thing” manifesting itself as physical constants as “God”, to which Prof. Martin referred back to psychoanalysis: “you are your psychoanalytic nature more than your neural connections,” hence, although you cannot use scientific methods to explain the nature of the universe, you can reach an understanding of it through a subjective truth – “it feels true to me.” Not surprisingly, this generated a small debate on what “truth” is.

4. Is religion daft?

Having been brought up a Roman Catholic, he emphasised its important part of European history, and the practicality of prayer as a cheap form of psychoanalysis to better understand oneself. He also stressed that acknowledging the usefulness of religion does not necessarily entail believing in the bearded man in the sky. The audience responded to this by pointing out that it is the practice of verbalising thought to clarify ideas rather than the spiritual element that makes prayer useful: religion in itself is daft – however, we can extract useful parts from it.

5. Is art superior to science?

“Absolutely so.” Superior to the purely observational function of science, Prof. Martin argued, is the ability of art to interpret the internal mechanisms of humans: art, unlike science, cannot exist independently of a creator.

6. Does metaphysics exist?

Although it cannot be tested with the scientific method, he argued it does indeed exist, as “an existing thing cannot exist and not exist at the same time.”

From this, he went on to the main topic of the talk: chimpanzees and humans have nearly identical DNA – although “identical” was disputed among the audience -, yet humans are different in that we have free will and abstract thought. Prof. Martin suggested this difference could not have arisen from a quantitative mechanism, but from a qualitative one, i.e. humans have an "abstractor" independent of our constituent biological building blocks. To illustrate this point further, he paralleled this with a symphony existing independently of its constituent notes, or even the difference between a bent and straightened finger existing independently of the finger itself. What we consider the human soul, then, could be a manifestation of this abstractor of consciousness and free will, which at some point in evolution evolved by leaping off the quantitative progression above a certain threshold.

Prof. Martin made several postulations that generated questions from the audience, e.g. how can we know that chimpanzees do not have abstract thought, or even that human consciousness is not just an artifact of biological reflexes? Is it not more parsimonious to argue abstract thought evolved from an expansion of the cerebral cortex, rather than a qualitative threshold event? When determinism was brought up, for instance, he replied he accepts the possibility of determinism, yet acts on the assumption that we have free will, as it enhances his life and gives it happiness and pleasure. In sum, Prof. Martin argued his conjecture was a philosophical one, hence one must look beyond the trivialities of science.

Further discussion of Prof. Martin's ideas (objections to them, by and large) followed at Jeremy Bentham's, before it dissolved into various topics - including the recent Royal Wedding. We hope all who attended enjoyed the talk and the break from revision for those who had exams!

Click here for an article Prof. Martin wrote on the topic covered in the talk.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The AHS National Convention 12-13 March 2011

This weekend, UCLU ASHS attended the AHS third annual National Convention since its conception in 2008. It was held at Conway Hall, Holborn on Saturday's Speakers Day, and in the Cruciform Building, University College London on Sunday's Committee Day. The full programme for the entire weekend can be found here.

A fair was held throughout Saturday in which UCLU ASHS participated with our own stand along with various other organisations and student societies promoting atheist, secularist and humanist interests (a full list can be found in the above link).

The early-afternoon speakers included Lord Warner of Brockley, Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group; Gerard Phillips, Vice-President of the NSS; and Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA. The late-afternoon speakers included stand-up comedian Robin Ince; Johann Hari, journalist for The Independent and The Huffington Post; and the distinguished philosopher, author and BHA Vice-President A.C. Grayling. Topics ranged from the implications of religious figures in the House of Lords and the Census Campaign, to faith schools and whether lack of religion leads to
nihilism. In particular, Ince and Hari - the latter humourously introducing his talk with the time the Dalai Lama called him fat - elicited much enthusiasm amongst the audience. The Pod Delusion recorded podcasts of the talks.
A performance by the BHA choir - including a lovely rendition of John Lennon's Imagine and Every Sperm Is Sacred - marked the end of an excellent day. Lively debate was subsequently carried out in the nearby pub, The Enterprise.

Sunday was specifically tailored for atheist, secularist and humanist student society committees. In addition to UCLU ASHS, delegates from universities of Aston, Bristol, Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, OU, QMU, Southampton, Surrey, UAL, as well as UCC were present. The day began with a reprise of the BHA choir's performance of Do You Realize?? from the day before, this time by the delegates themselves. This, as well as the workshops on how to start a new society; sustainability and finance; debating (with Andrew Copson pretending to be Christian for the occasion); dealing with the media; and running a "Reason Week" were all well-received.

In the second half of the afternoon, the EGM resulted in the election of James Murray from Leeds Atheist Society as the new AHS Treasurer; and the decision to expand the AHS to cover Ireland - both by unanimous vote.

Following the launch of the AHS campaigns initiative to encourage societies to campaign for e.g. BHA issues around campus, as well as an AHS member feedback session, society awards were handed out. Adding to our sense of self-importance, the announcements of these were made by A.C. Grayling - although admittedly via video recording. Congratulations to UCC Atheists on winning Best Single Event for their talk by Daniel Dennett; Oxford Atheists Society for Best Reason Week; Aston Humanist Society for Most Raised During Non-Prophet Week; and Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society on winning Best Society.

UCLU ASHS was very pleased to receive two awards: Best Collaborative Event jointly with LSE, QMU and UAL for the Intercollegiate Atheist Charity Pub Quiz on 17 February, which helped raise £500 for Non-Prophet Week; and Best New Society jointly with Bradford Atheist and Humanist Society. These are great testaments to what we have accomplished since our initial formation in mid-2010 and subsequent affiliation in January 2011, and provides further encouragement to the future of our society.

Many thanks to President of the AHS, Richy Thompson, the BHA and all others involved for organising an outstanding event - we greatly look forward to next year's convention.

Photos: Andrew West, The AHS

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Event report: Paul Sims - "Is there any point in talking to believers?

Time: 2 March 2011

Place: Bentham Seminar Room 3, Bentham House, UCL

UCLU ASHS hosted a talk by Paul Sims on the topic, "Is there any point in talking to believers?" Paul Sims is the News Editor of New Humanist Magazine, published by the Rationalist Association since 1885, and runs the New Humanist blog. His magazine features have explored topics ranging from Islamic extremism to creationist zoos.

Sims introduced the talk by expressing his personal opinions on the public reaction to the four-day Papal visit to England and Scotland in September 2010. Acknowledging that the Vatican does have much to answer for regarding the allegations of child abuse, he deemed the debate surrounding the visit "hysterical" and "over-the-top." In particular, he criticised Richard Dawkins' speech at the Protest the Pope rally, during which Dawkins considered the Pope "an enemy of humanity." Sims questioned what is actually achieved when an atheist spokesperson such as Dawkins publicly expresses aggressive atheism to this extent, fuelling anti-religious hostility amongst the public. Must secularism and religion be framed as a battle between two camps? On the contrary, Sims stressed that reasoned debate between individuals, and constructive criticism would be significantly more beneficial - for secularists and religious people alike.

Subsequent questions from the audience sparked interesting debate: can reasoned discussions achieve any more than aggressive atheism can, when people enter debates, not with the intention of changing their minds, but of forwarding their own views? It was argued that people rarely, if ever, are converted in either direction via debate alone; and that aggressive atheism may in fact raise awareness and shock people into critical thinking. To this, however, a remark was made about the interesting outcome of the Intelligence Squared debate, "Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?", whereby a substantial number of audience members changed their initial "for Catholic Church" or "undecided" views, to believing the Catholic Church not to be a force for good.

Furthermore, the issue was raised of whether a nuanced middle ground between secularism and religion is in actuality possible, or whether the existence of both in society necessitates polarisation. While balanced teaching of religion and critical thinking can be promoted in school, the role of the state in de facto discouraging religious devotion was questioned.

After the talk, speaker with audience members relocated to the pub for more informal discussion.

Feel free to add any comments below, and keep an eye on our Facebook group for upcoming events!