Students, Not Gods, Need Rights

This was written for the Huff Post.

In a move beyond parody, London South Bank University’s Student Union removed posters from its Atheists Society depicting a god on the grounds that they were offensive. The god in question was the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a deity invented as satire in protest against the teaching of Intelligent Design in Kansas; a god that, quite literally, nobody believes in.

It’s hard to hear this and not laugh but this is the funny tip of a very serious iceberg – universities are increasingly turning to silencing atheist and Humanist students for fear of upsetting religious sensibilities. In banning images of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, we are seeing simply the logical conclusion of cowardice. 

Students’ unions have a duty to protect the rights of their students, not their students’ beliefs. As President of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, I’ve seen a 2013-14 academic year in which this principle has been too often forgotten. Just weeks ago our members in the LSE finally received an apology from their university for sending ten security guards to their stall when they wore t-shirts showing “Jesus and Mo” cartoons, an apology significantly motivated by the threat of legal action. In December we saw guidance from the Vice-Chancellors’ body Universities UK that said an external religious speaker could insist that his audience be segregated by gender, his own beliefs taking priority over the rights of students to sit where they wish on campus. It took an intervention from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to force UUK to withdraw its guidance. 

Campus censorship benefits no one but fundamentalists. The freedom to criticise beliefs should be just as important to religious students as it is to the non-religious. After all, any religious belief could be considered blasphemous in another religion. Should Muslims students be prevented from saying that Jesus was a prophet, if that offends Christians who call him God? Or should Christians be prevented from calling Jesus a god if this offends Muslims? Or perhaps it’s better to ban all mention of Jesus, just to be safe? Free speech for all, religious and non-religious, is best secured by secular public spaces, spaces that are neutral on religion and belief. Our freedoms are all interconnected. 

South Bank’s Atheist Society are no stranger to hostility from their students’ union. When they were formed last year and affiliated to their union, they were accepted only on the condition that they didn’t criticise religion or hold debates with religious groups, which is as absurd as telling the Socialist Society to steer clear of critiquing capitalism. Despite hopes that a new academic year would bring a more reasonable union committee, the group has faced constant opposition. Since the start of their first term, they have seen their posters torn down and stamped on the day they are put up, including posters simply showing Brian Griffin, Family Guy‘s atheist talking dog. I attended a meeting last term at which their union accused them of picking on Christians for a poster stating, “We may not be able to turn water into wine but we do like wine, join us in the bar next Thursday”.

As the society’s president Cloe Ansari told me, “I felt harassed and intimidated – it was not aimed at protecting other students from harm but an attempt to sideline and restrict our rights; perhaps perceived as the easier option rather than standing up to the much bigger religious societies. Rather than included, we have been made to feel as an unwelcome minority of secularists”.

The ultimate irony of these attacks on free speech is that they so often only give a louder voice to their targets. The LSE Union’s attempt at censoring students’ t-shirts lead to those same students being invited onto the BBC’s Big Questions, wearing those same t-shirts. South Bank’s Atheist Society’s pasta posters are now on blogs right across the country. These Students’ Unions need to reevaluate their priorities. Beliefs, not least at a university, must be open to scrutiny.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster was dreamt up to poke fun at the absurdities of religious privilege, with one of His Noodliness’ Austrian followers winning the right to wear a colander on his head in his driving licence photo. In rushing to censorship, students’ unions are making themselves the butt of this joke. More importantly, they are failing in their duty to protect their students’ rights. Gods don’t need students’ unions to look out for them, students do.