Saturday, 27 October 2012

Event Report - The Young Atheist's Handbook

Alom Shaha gave an interesting and personal talk about his book the Young Atheist's Handbook and his insights on the matter of religion. He wanted to write a book that would be accessible for young teenagers and answer their questions about atheism, but the idea of incorporating his own story and experiences made the book more personal. Shaha stressed that the book is not anti-religious, but that it aims to make people think about what they believe. However, at the heart of belief is a feeling rather than an intellectual argument - even in the case of atheists. Belief may come from a human need to find patterns and meanings in a meaningless universe.

Many school students have accused Shaha: 'you don't believe in anything!' He counters that he believes in finding your own morality based on justice, equality and empathy. Humans can live as if they have purpose - with the help of love and work they can accept the pointlessness of life.

Shaha stated that he doesn't like debating whether god exists or not, but only has a problem with the concept  of god if it is used to excuse oppression and prejudice.

The fact that he comes from a Muslim background gave Shaha problems when publishing the book. Publishers thought that this combined with atheism would cause controversy and backlash. Shaha believes that this is a reflection of how Muslims are viewed by society - as fundamentalist and all the same. This may be because people don't mix with Muslims enough, as people do not have diverse social circles.

Thanks to everyone who attended! Don't forget to buy society membership to enjoy future events:

Friday, 12 October 2012

Event Report - Climate Change, Gossip and the Evolution of Our Big Brains

We continued our events this term with a talk from Mark Maslin, UCL climatology professor and researcher. Maslin gave a fascinating and fun exploration of how modern humans have evolved – through processes not quite involving ribs, clay and evil snakes.

Our oldest ancestor is around 6-7 million years old, and our defining characteristic was in fact upright walking rather than a large brain. The importance of this trait can be seen by the fact that it takes a human infant a whole year to learn to walk. Walking is a good travel solution as humans can walk upright all day without tiring too much. Maslin explained how modern humans developed in the East African Rift system, a rift valley with open landscape that helped development. Changes in brain sizes can be charted through the discovery of skulls in this area.

Maslin’s research in East Africa is concerned with finding the explanation for primitive humans’ leap in brain capacity. The solution may be in the frequently appearing and disappearing lakes along the rift. Rapid shifts from wet to arid conditions may stimulate competition and evolution. Other human species developed large jaws to eat more types of food, whereas we developed larger brains.

But how did this help us survive? Larger skull sizes can hugely impede survival as birth is so difficult and dangerous. Maslin postulated that our brains are tools for dealing with the complex social situations arising from a tribe of around 150 individuals. Keeping track of other individuals’ activities (gossip) is an advanced task which allows the creation of valuable affiliations. These alliances can help protection against predators and the accumulation of resources.

This enlightening talk was followed by questions from the audience which prompted whole new areas of discussion, continuing in the pub. Join our facebook page to keep track of further events, we’ve got lots of great things planned for this term! 

Friday, 5 October 2012

Event Report - Three Approaches to Activism

The first lecture event of the term presented not one but three speakers, chosen to represent the three themes of our society. Alex Gabriel, journalist and blogger for The Heresy Club, represented the viewpoint of atheism. Elizabeth O'Casey, a vice-president of the NSS represented secularism and Richard Norman, vice-president of the BHA spoke for humanism.

Each speaker began by introducing their ideas on the definition and purpose of their stance. Richard Norman began by asking the question, if someone is an atheist, where do they go from there? He explained that humanism can be seen as a belief in the possibility of a good life without religion. The values of humanism are grounded in fundamental human values rather than being an imitation of religion. Norman described humans as empathic beings with a shared faculty for reason. From these bases come about respect, justice and the framework for a positive society. Humanists recognise the common ground between non-believers and the religious, as well as challenging the prejudice and oppression which can stem from religious baggage.

Elizabeth O'Casey sought to differentiate secularism as a political aim rather than a philosophical system. Secularism aims to promote equality between citizens through the separation of religion and state. England is not a secular state - however France's model of a disinterest from the state in religion (viewing it as a private matter) is one that the NSS is more eager to follow. Secularism can also get rid of interference from the state in religious matters, as these individuals have a right to freedom of belief. Some of the political system seen as a problem by the NSS include the fact that the queen and church are intertwined, bishops have a moral priority in the house of lords and faith schools constitute one third of schools which are publicly funded.

Representing atheism, Alex Gabriel proposed that problems focused upon by secular activists are the tip of the iceberg in terms of how religion can negatively affect society. He stated that less than half of people in the UK believe in evolution, religion perpetuates a stereotypical view of gender which causes repression, people rely upon prayer for healing and go to the clergy for advice on mental health. In addition, children brought up in religious homes are taught to believe lies and are threatened with divine punishment. Gabriel believes that a secular state is not enough - there should be less religious belief among the population. This means that his activism includes educating the religious and provoking them to defend their position with reason. The fact that non-belief is increasing is proof of the fact that people can change their minds.

After these three speeches, the speakers took questions from the audience and discussed the ways in which their positions were compatible as well as different.

Thanks to everyone who came, we hope you learned something and had a chance to express your opinion!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Post Welcome Week Reflections

We had a busy Welcome Week! We had the first social of the year; an atheist pub crawl, which had a fantastic turnout of both old and prospective members. Thankfully we avoided the Bentham freshers' rush in the Gordon's Cafe. 
It was definitely fun handing out our shiny godless condoms at Welcome Fair - even if every freebie didn't bring a new member at least it made Welcome Week safer for everyone. 
The Grant Museum kindly welcomed us to explore in our Life of Brian film screening, with free wine for everyone. 
Hi to any freshers, post-grads or newly interested people, it's great to have you at our events! Read our newsletters or keep track of our facebook or Twitter for updates on everything that's going on.