Interview with University of Birmingham newspaper

I spoke at the University of Birmingham a couple of weeks ago and was interview while I was there. They have a nice word cloud on their site too.

In 1811, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from University College, Oxford, for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley’s opposition to the notion of God was indicative of the radicalism that characterised his literary career, and its academic setting foreshadowed a series of conflicts and disagreements to come between science and religion in the educational sphere.

It seems much easier to be an undergraduate non-believer in Britain today than it was for Shelley. The University of Birmingham’s Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society has been nationally recognised following its successful Reason Week, which featured open discussions and guest speakers, including Andrew Copson, the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.

Being a student at university can often provide an opportunity to question our values and beliefs. Would you be able to describe what led you to become a humanist? Did your experience at university catalyse your own support for humanism?

I was the child of a humanist mother and non-religious grandparents, the community institutions of the town where I grew up were municipal or secular cooperative ones, the multi-ethnic primary school I went to was secular, the academic secondary school I went to was the same, the popular culture I imbibed was humanistic (I liked Star Trek and science fiction), the academic subjects I studied by choice at school and at university were the culture of ancient Greece and Rome and Enlightenment Europe and as a result of these combined factors, there was nothing at all of religion of any sort in the formative aspects of my upbringing, whether at University or beforehand. What did happen at university was that I encountered seriously religious people for the first time and learned more about religious privilege and discrimination in our society – for example in state-funded faith schools – and that political awareness catalysed my support for humanist organisations and campaigns.

Percy Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for writing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Do you think there is something unique to the university environment that can be particularly conducive to formulating humanistic, secular or atheistic ideas?

I think that any broadening of horizons will make you challenge your own narrow beliefs and prejudices and – hopefully – university is a time when you meet people from a wider range of backgrounds than you have before, encounter ideas of more diverse types than ever before, are freed from the constraints of community and family, and are always encouraged to think critically. I do think that all those experiences will tend to produce doubt in any intelligent person, and doubt is a close ally of humanism.

Even at university, some academics are uncomfortable discussing scientific concepts such as evolution without adding the caveat that some people have ‘different opinions’. In the context of notions of offence and respect, what are your views of the relationship between evidence and belief at an academic level?

I don’t think that offence to those who profoundly believe the contrary is ever a good reason not to advance a belief. We should respect not people’s prejudices but the disinterested search for truth and the dignity of the human being.

Do you think humanism receives adequate attention in university courses such as History, Sociology and Philosophy?

No – but partly this is because it is often implicit in these fields, as a result of its silent cultural victories in the last couple of hundred years. Nonetheless, it does need to be named more often, made more explicit and studied more comprehensively. Novelists like E M Forster, philosophers like A J Ayer, politicians like Michael Foot – to mention just a few – had profound and explicit humanist convictions and in this if in no other way explicit humanism has shaped the world that the academy studies.

Last year, the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society (RAHS) was criticised and removed from a societies fair for naming a pineapple ‘Mohammed’. What do you think is the best approach for student groups promoting atheism, secularism and humanism to express their views in a campus environment?

Courting controversy is definitely not an unacceptable way to promote a point of view, but we should also engage intelligently with those who believe differently from us.

How do you think students can effectively counter claims of offence that seek to silence critics of religious privilege?

By choosing the moment carefully, prioritising those instances where academic freedom or freedom of speech are most obviously threatened and then countering those claims with appeals to universal principles like freedom of belief and thought, building alliances with those whose metaphysics may be different, but who nonetheless want to live in an open society and enjoy the liberty that entails.

Should humanist students engage and debate with religious students about the nature of their beliefs?

If invited to, and if it serves a useful purpose, I don’t see why not. But there are certainly instances where it is not useful to do so, and debates about the existence of gods can often become stale and pointless.

One of the difficulties you emphasised in your talk was the limitations of the national census, which contains leading questions about religious affiliation and does not properly reflect unbelief and humanism. How difficult is it to ascertain how many students in Britain hold a religious belief? How can this be improved?

It is not that difficult – there are excellent instruments like the British Social Attitudes Survey which are more reliable than the deeply flawed national census.

Individuals such as Sayeeda Warsi have expressed concern about what they describe as ‘militant secularism’. Do you think term ‘militant’ is an appropriate description of prominent atheists, as well as of the secularist and humanism movements?

No. I think the term ‘militant’ gives a totally false impression (and deliberately so). Secularism as a political settlement is a liberal and inclusive approach, humanism as a worldview is premised on the fallibility of human knowledge and the need to place human beings here and now at the centre of our thoughts. I don’t see how these ideas can be described as militant just because some of their advocates assert them robustly.

Can social media play a role in challenging religious privilege and contributing to debates about religion, and has it done so in the past?

Yes – especially for people who may not have access around them, in their immediate family or community, to other people who share their views. By building community online, social media can be a lifeline for the otherwise isolated.

The UB: ASH (University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society) Reason Week is demonstrating that many young people are enthusiastic about the values of humanism, secularism and atheism. In your mind, what does the future hold for humanism in Britain?

I think that the prevalence of humanist values – implicit and explicit – will continue to increase in Britain and that we will become increasingly impatient of claims to privilege and special treatment from churches and other religious organisations. We can already see that substantial moral progress has accompanied the rise of humanism in Britain over the last century and I expect that will continue.

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