Atheist Students Must Fight Back

This appeared in the Huffington Post

Students have rights, their beliefs don’t. If there is one message universities need to hear at the end of this academic year, it’s this. For non-religious students on campuses across the UK, 2013-14 has been the most challenging year to date, with criticism of religion censored and religious rules enforced in lecture theatres. It has also seen the start of a significant fight-back.

At the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), of which I’m president, our member societies have borne the brunt of this confused understanding of student rights since the start of the year. At their Freshers’ Fayre in October, our members at LSE wore t-shirts featuring the satirical Jesus and Mo webcomic. Skip to the next sentence if you can’t abide grotesque offence: the cartoon depicted the two religious figures saying “Hey” and “How ya doin’?”. At the request of their own students’ union, the body surely set up to defend student rights, the university sent 10 security guards to surround the two students and their offending cotton, demanding that they remove the t-shirts or be removed themselves. All of this without any evidence of an actual student’s complaint. The two students eventually agreed to put on jumpers, at which point a security guard was assigned to each to follow them for the rest of the day, to the point of waiting outside the toilets, to ensure the t-shirts remained covered.

It is an astounding world in which using security guards to intimidate students is deemed more acceptable than tolerating blasphemy, yet this is simply the logical conclusion of a campus atmosphere that equates religious belief to sexuality or race. Many students’ unions operate “no platform” policies for racists, but at London South Bank University our members were told they could not invite speakers who criticised religion at all, or even engage religious societies in debates, putting joining the South Bank Atheist Society on a par with joining the BNP. This February the same university banned images of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a satirical deity in which nobody believes, on the grounds that they were “religiously offensive”.

There is no significant pressure from religious students to censor atheists and Humanists on campus, rather universities and unions are taking it upon themselves to be offended on behalf of religious students. The irony is that free expression of religious and non-religious students are bound together, not least as many religious beliefs could be deemed offensive to any other religion. The right for a Christian to say that Jesus was the son of God is the same right for a Muslim to say he was a prophet or for me to say he was neither. The expression of all three views must be protected.

Free expression is not the only right to be lost by students to belief systems. We see misogyny, normally rightly scorned at universities, permitted on campus in the name of religious freedom. Take Bristol’s Christian Union, which forbade women from speaking at their events unless they were married, and even then only if their husband was present. Or take Universities UK’s guidance, published last November, that permitted the enforced segregation by gender of public lectures at the request of the speaker, the guidance explicitly stating that priority should be given to religious beliefs over secular beliefs like Feminism. To do otherwise would be to deny the speaker his (the guidance explicitly says “his”) right to free speech, as if to speak to a mixed-room was like asking him to levitate.

Against this onslaught, students need to fight back. In fact, we have already begun to. At the AHS we were able to secure pro-bono advice from a QC for our LSE members, who drafted a 15-page complaint to the university. After two months’ delay and increasing media pressure, the university caved in and gave an apology to the two students. This same 15-page document will be made available to all our members, should they need it in future. South Bank University turned a negative into a positive after we publicised their treatment of their Atheist Society, making a commitment to free speech, agreeing to promote the society and even putting posters of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on their own notice boards. We have begun a fundraising campaign, supported by Stephen Fry among others, to expand our work for next year.

We can expect little support from the National Union of Students, who both supported the segregation guidance and refuse to condemn censorship, but students have shown this year that we can and will stand up against religious privilege on campus. Next year atheist, Humanist and secularist students will be better prepared to take the message to our universities: students have rights, their beliefs don’t.