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.

Separate is Never Equal

It is astounding how quickly we forget or wilfully ignore that human rights are there to protect people – not beliefs. At the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, of which I’m president, we increasingly see this confused notion of rights being applied on UK campuses. Whether it’s our student groups intimidated for “blasphemy”, as at LSE and Reading, or religious societies refusing unmarried women permission to speak, as at Bristol, this trumping of individual rights by the supposed rights of “beliefs” is increasingly common.

This Friday saw the publication of a report from Universities UK, the body representing university Vice Chancellors across the UK, on external speakers on campus. The report tackled the kind of issues you might expect – how to handle far-right speakers, what kind of speech might fall foul of hate-speech laws and what groups are banned under anti-terror legislation. But nestled in the report was a bizarre and backward recommendation; universities should be willing to enforce sex segregation between male and female audience members if a speaker requests it.

The report’s peculiar logic ran as follows: speakers have the right to free speech but if their demands for sex segregation are not met they will refuse to speak. Therefore to not enforce sex segregation is to deny the speakers’ freedom of speech. The report is careful only to endorse the ‘nice’ kind of segregation with men and women split on the left and right hand sides of a lecture theatre rather than front and back, the logic here being that men and women are being treated ‘equally separately’, whatever that means.

This logic has echoes of the old racially segregated Deep South of the United States; separate but equal. To argue that segregation is not inherently unequal is to fail to see just why men and women are being kept apart in the first place; this drive for segregation stems from ideologies that view women as very much inferior to men. To allow these ideologies power in UK universities is to betray hard-won individual rights and the principle that in public spaces all must be treated equally. Separate is never equal.

The Universities UK report treats the ideology driving the segregation as if it were something inherent to the speaker that he (and it will always be he) can’t help, as if requiring him to speak to a mixed sex room would be like asking him to levitate. The reality is that ideologies are chosen and speakers alone are responsible for them, not their audience.

Many religious student societies will hold their own events, such as collective worship, at which students will choose to separate themselves by sex in accordance with their beliefs. Insofar as this is voluntary, this is acceptable. What Universities UK have called for, however, is enforced segregation, with students told where to sit, according to their sex, or they can leave. The report then goes on to consider having a third, mixed sex section of the audience as well as a male and a female section. Incredibly, this apparent compromise is then rejected by the report, which warns that to insist on a third mixed sex section is still infringing on the rights of the speaker to have a segregated audience. The report goes as far as to say that non-religious beliefs, such as feminism, should take second place to “sincerely held” religious beliefs. That’s right; the mere fact that they are religious makes some beliefs more important than others because, of course, Feminist can’t be sincere in their beliefs.

The Universities UK report focuses on sex because it’s an issue that has come up before but there is no reason for its logic to stop there. If a racist is invited to speak – should he not have the audience forcibly segregated into whites and non-whites? What if his beliefs are really “sincerely held”? Could the EDL insist on all Muslim students sitting separately? Of course Universities UK would never support this.

In advocating for enforced sex segregation they are cowardly capitulating to religious extremists in a way they surely never would to political extremists. In bending to these extremists, universities betray the moderate majority in religious groups who do not wish to see segregation or, at least, would not want it to be forced on others. Men and women should sit where they wish. Universities have a duty to protect the rights of their students, they do not have a duty to protect their beliefs.

AHS Statement On The Intimidation of LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society

For the second day in a row our affiliated society, the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, have faced intimidation and threats from its students union and university for their refusal to remove t-shirts featuring the cartoon Jesus and Mo. Their statement on today’s events can be read below. For their statement on yesterday’s event please click here.

The LSESU’s statement, which omits any reference to the use of security guards, can be read here.

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies strongly condemns the actions of the LSESU. President Rory Fenton said, “Our member societies deserve and rightly demand the same freedom of speech and expression afforded to their religious counterparts on campus. Universities should be open to and tolerant of different beliefs, without exception. That a students’ union would use security guards to follow and intimidate their own members is deeply concerning and displays an inconsistent approach to free speech; if it is for some, it must be for all. The AHS will work with our partners at the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society to assist our affiliated society and seek engagement with both the LSESU and LSE itself. It is the duty of universities countrywide to respect their students’ rights, not their sensitivities.”

Rory can be contacted at president@ahsstudents.org.uk and 07403141133.

—Statement from LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society on the second day of LSE Freshers’ Fair—

An account of events at the LSE Freshers’ Fair on Friday, October 4th:

We (Abhishek Phadnis and Chris Moos) arrived at the Fair at 10 am. In silent protest at our treatment the day before (see account of events of October 3rd), and still unsure as to what parts of the t-shirts had allegedly caused “offence”, we put tape (with the words “Censored”, “This has been censored” and “Nothing to see here”) over the faces of the “Jesus and Mo” figures on the t-shirts.

Shortly after midday, the LSESU Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara approached us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily remove us from the premises. He left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to eject us.

At about 2:30pm, Paul Thornbury, Head of LSE Security, delivered a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield. The letter claimed that some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, even though we had covered up the “offensive” parts of the t-shirts. It claimed we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure, and that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation”, and “undermining the spirit of the LSESU Freshers’ Fair and good campus relations at LSE”. It concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery”, and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”.

Shortly thereafter, having completed our work at the stall, we began packing up. As we were about to leave, Paul Thornbury returned to confirm we were leaving. We told him that we were, and as we left the room, we saw that he was accompanied by several security guards, LSESU General Secretary Jay Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara. The Security officials left the building at the same time as we did, confirming our impression that they had only been there to monitor us, like the two security guards positioned at our stall the day before to stop us attempting to put our t-shirts back on.

We can confirm that the aforementioned Students Union and LSE Security staff were the only visitors to our stall who expressed offence at our clothing. We had students from all kind of backgrounds come to us to express their support and astonishment about the heavy-handed actions of the LSE and LSESU, including several students who self-identified as Muslims.

We are still in shock about the intimidating behaviour of the LSESU and LSE staff. Again, we strongly reject the claim that our clothing or behaviour could be reasonably interpreted as “harassing” or “offensive”. In any case, we believe that in an open and multi-cultural society, there can be no right not to be offended without undermining freedom of expression, which is essential to the functioning of universities as much as of wider society.

We have written to the LSE Pro-Director for Teaching and Learning, Paul Kelly, and the Head of LSE Legal and Compliance, Kevin Haynes, expressing indignation at our treatment and seeking a full explanation of the grounds of the allegations against us. We are still awaiting a detailed reply.

Abhishek Phadnis & Chris Moos

Contact: c.m.moos@lse.ac.uk
074 2872 0599

favicon

 

What The New Archbishop Needs To Do

As I write this, Justin Welby is being enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. At the ceremony are not only leading figures from the Church of England and government but from various other religious groups, from Islam to Hinduism. Humanists are not invited in any official capacity, but there is at least one humanist in the area – I came to Canterbury for a quick interview on Radio 5 Live about the Church’s approach to those of different beliefs. As ever with these things, I didn’t have enough time to say everything I wanted, but there are some very important issues around how the established Church of the UK approached the non-believers among us.

The Church has opened its doors to dialogue but so far this is dialogue only with the religious, excluding the huge proportion of the population (between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on your survey) who have no religion. This is worrying as the Church looks to play a more active role in the provision of public services with a government that’s happy to let them do just that. Currently, the Church runs over 4,800 state schools in England and is free to exclude the non-religious from applying, or save certain places only for the faithful, if a school is oversubscribed.

It is truly astounding that in the 21st Century children can be turned away from public education because of their parents’ beliefs. This also adds to social exclusion, as middle class parents are better able to work the system. The Church also insists on maintaining the historic privilege of having its Bishops in the House of Lords, giving it further undue influence. This is not the sign of a church that values inclusion.

Welby’s choice of a more diverse audience for his enthronement is a nice gesture but an empty one for as long as his Church continues to insist on privilege rather than approaching those of other beliefs with the humility and desire for equality that should mark the Church of Christ it claims to be. I have had the privilege of working with some amazing Anglicans through interfaith and dialogue work, both clergy and lay people- the Church needs to catch up with its believers.

It’s a high hope, for sure, but Justin Welby is presented with an historic opportunity to change the seemingly entrenched state of affairs. I don’t mind if atheists can’t participate in his enthronement service, I do care if we can’t join in public services. It has just been announced that the new Archbishop is to meet campaigner Peter Tatchell, which is a welcome development, as is his outspoken denunciation of homophobia. But we need more.

The Church’s attitude to non-believers in general and the non-religious in particular needs to change.

20130321-165211.jpg