Last week my University Atheist Society was lucky enough to host Professor A.C. Grayling at a free speech event. It was a significant milestone, not only for our student society but for others around the country. Why? Because just a year before we were told that we could not even put up posters merely questioning the existence of god, let alone debate anything.
My schooling up to university had been catholic; so there I was, a keen first year student, eagerly rushing to the Fresher's fair, ready to join societies. I walked along, hearing in my ear "Jesus loves you." ..."Will you find God?" Amongst the freebies I managed to accumulate quite the collection of religious pamphlets and counted AT LEAST three different religious stalls.
I stopped. "Where's the Atheist society?"
After doing my research I discovered that there wasn't one, not even a philosophy society. Now this may seem unimportant to some people, but coming from a strictly religious environment, I was keen to experience secular education in all its glory. It got me wondering about other universities and whether or not they had Atheist societies. From scouring the major universities in London alone, it became clear that only eight out of the twenty-two have an Atheist/Humanist/Secular society, but surprise surprise they all have more than one religious group. The sad pattern is also that the higher ranking institutions have AHS societies and the lower ones do not. If you are an Atheist student reading this, wherever you are, I urge you to start up a society of your own and give us non-believers a stronger presence on campuses. Clearly one is lacking.
The crux of the argument is this: Students come from all ranges of backgrounds, races and religions to study in one collective establishment. People raised religiously will be coming into contact with those raised secularly or in a faith different to their own. So why are Universities, which should promote free-thought and cosmopolitanism, still leaning towards religious privilege? This isn't the USA. Atheists aren't as minoritized, but the problem is that Universities in this country are simply places where secularism cannot flourish. It is because institutions are allowed to provide a prayer room for Muslims but not a chapel, synagogue or temple. I suppose Atheists do have the bar. I have always argued either have a room for each or none at all, move it away from the learning environment.
What happens when you start to prioritise one faith? You get extremism. So, imagine a university with a prayer-room for that one faith. Imagine that a society there has promoted and even hosted extremist speakers, who have made homophobic and anti-semitic remarks. Imagine even that one of its own students involved in the September 11th attacks. You don't need to imagine. This is real. It all happened in a single University. This is just one example. Alas, the extremist minority continues to get the majority of union power.
When secular students attempt to have their own voice or platform on campus, we are often met with great resistance from the institutions and students themselves. When our societies want to name pieces of fruit, wear cartoon prophets or put up satirical posters ...it is deemed completely unacceptable. Are these as harmful? Are we inciting pineapple massacres? The extremism and fundamentalism is loud on our campuses. Our downfall is to remain silent. When we speak out, we are told we are such things as offensive, Islamophobic, anti-Christian. But if time and time again we cower to the system a specific religion or minority wants us to adopt, we are not creating a multicultural education establishment.
Our higher education institutions tell us not to express our views and censor us. If - as students, preparing ourselves for the so-called real world, need someone else to decide for us what we will or won't find offensive, how can we ever empathise with other people's views or beliefs?
Who Chooses What Could Offend?
This raises the ugly question -- who decides fairly what is allowed and what is not? It clearly doesn't work when it's the students. Students who feel that it's acceptable to deface, tear and remove Atheist posters. Instead of making it Atheists vs. Union, they need to come together in order to educate the students that come to complain about us. When you ban certain posters, shirts, or pineapples from students because it may offend a few, you are actually stunting their intellectual growth and freethought. This is a call to all reasonable people of faith, who understand satire, jokes and sarcasm. Who are comfortable in their own beliefs. Assist secular students. This is not Atheists playing the victim. This is an urge for faiths and non-faiths to come together against extremism on campuses. It is a sad fact to acknowledge that in my own religious secondary school, I was able to exercise my rights more freely.
So, it's how our students and our universities act when offence occurs which is the problem that needs to be dealt with. The reason these students think it is acceptable to react in the way they do when their beliefs are challenged, is because they have been used to having privilege.
Firstly, make secular student groups, then don't be afraid to express yourself. When you are challenged do not back down. In order to minimize the censorship we face we need to be an active part of the study body. Luckily now, in my case, the student's union have U-turned and are a support to us, which is why we were able to hold such a successful event. It should be an example to other unions. When they censor Atheist advertisements it is like locking children in a specific area of a library, getting them to continually read one type of book, only glancing through the shelves at other sections.
"No don't do let them look! They might be exposed to different ideas! These ideas might upset them because they're not the same!"
This is not how young adults should be treated.
Finally to make this clear, I am not claiming the right not to be censored, nor am I saying I can choose what can be censored. What I am asking is that people aid our secular students more -- they are fighting a difficult battle, set an example. There's been enough regurgitation about how wrong this whole situation is, but the solution is simple, tolerance. As children in nursery, primary and secondary school, we are taught about tolerance. Sadly certain adults need reminding.
It seems that right now religion sits on top of unions, allowing others to stroll along underneath, not bothered that they can't really see all of what's around them. Students are impartial. "Well - it doesn't really affect me." or "Why should I care? Let them get on with it." It is not only my job and other Atheist students like me to fight this fight, but also yours. We need to support freethinking and free speech in Universities because it's the centre of democracy. The passivity is in which these establishments operate doesn't just allow religious hate speech but makes avenues to promote it.
If those reading this from an establishment of higher education are offended by anything that was written here, perhaps you should consider returning to primary school, where you can be spoon-fed beliefs, cottoned-wooled and ass-wiped..Whilst the rest of us are free to express and expand our views. Support free speech on campus. Follow organisations such as The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies (UK) and Center for Inquiry on Campus.
The stronger presence we have, the more progressive we can become. If we are silent, we are stunted.
Photo Credits: Toni Blay