Ellen Sandford O’Neill interviews UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society President, Keziah Conroy, to find out more about the ‘Godless of Gower Street’, their plans for the year and why you should come to the pub
UCL offers students much more than just a degree: Clubs and Societies are the foundation of many students’ social lives, and eventual careers. This year Pi will be featuring different societies, to spotlight the diversity of students’ activities and to showcase the great work we do outside of academia.
There are many atheists out there but it doesn’t seem to become a part of many people’s identities as much as religion does, so why would you encourage people to get involved in the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society?
Coming to university is daunting enough for anyone. But for many, it’s also their first chance to explore their lack of belief, away from the confines of a conservative religious upbringing. Even if you come from a privileged background, where your atheism is a non-issue, we have a duty to stand in solidarity with students who are shunned from their communities, rejected by their families, and looked upon with distrust, just for being true to themselves. The least we can do is meet in the pub for a drink and a chat, which we do weekly. The society is not just for atheists either, but people of all or no faiths – religious people can definitely be secularists and there is an argument for religious humanism too.
Also, UCL was the first university in the country to accept students of any or no religious faith: we were taunted as “the Godless scum in Gower Street” as early as 1826. Let’s embrace that!
Is it important to have a coherent voice to stand against and/or be in dialogue with religious groups?
To clarify, we are not against the existence of religious groups: everyone should be free to believe whatever they like, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the lives of others.
But, yeah, some students come to university from families that prohibitively shelter them so much that they haven’t even heard of the concepts of atheism, secularism or humanism. So that is another reason why it is important to be present and visible on campus as a student society.
Atheists are often criticised for being too belligerent, how have you and the society tried to tackle this? Does it annoy you that people often make the wrong assumptions about atheism and secularism?
That criticism is a fallacious ad hominem attack. Regardless, what exactly is wrong with being belligerent? Across the world, nonbelievers are hacked to death just for daring to think what they think; believers are persecuted by other believers because they were born into the “wrong” religion; even in the UK, we’ve got gay people from religious backgrounds undergoing exorcisms to rid them of their supposed possessions. There’s a list of these worldwide injustices (directly related to religious privilege) that’s as long as my arm. If you aren’t angry about that, I’d suggest taking another look at your moral compass.
I’d also like to point out that humanism was quite the trendy thing indeed with students of the 60s counter-culture. Even before then, humanists have always been active social reformers and at the forefront of fighting for the rights we take for granted today, like access to contraceptives and abortions, worker’s rights, LGBT rights, etc. Nowadays a whole bunch of our national treasures are humanists, like Stephen Fry and Sir David Attenborough. Through selective ignorance, people forget that, and focus on the vocal and unpleasant few.
You recently wrote an article for Pi on the origins of the UCLU Life Ethics Society, how do you feel now about them, since they have said on their Facebook page that they are not a pro-life group? Are you still uneasy about their original roots and affiliations?
As a secular humanist I would defend the right to hold pro-life beliefs, form a pro-life student society, or whatever, regardless of what I think about that stance, and separate from what I think about pro-life campaigning methods. So what irks me is that UCLU made it practically impossible for a pro-life society to form – it took them over a year of negotiation. Increasingly, a lot of students believe, incorrectly, that shutting down debate is actually progressive. As evidenced by this case, it isn’t. Here, this intolerance has only led to obfuscation.
Britain is generally becoming an increasingly secular country. Has membership for the society been on the increase since its conception in 2011?
This year we have doubled our membership numbers!
There are many who do not see increasing secularism as a positive. Is the society involved in any national campaigns against religious influence on state and government? How do you convince people who are reluctant to this idea?
Secularism is absolutely a positive thing, and was a key part of UCL’s foundation! There are religious secularists, it’s not just an atheist thing. Secularism should not be about limiting religious freedoms but rather be about ensuring that freedom of belief applies equally to all believers and non-believers alike. Without secularism, if certain faiths are privileged over others, how can people of all faiths or none ever hope to live together equally and peacefully?
Personally, I am very passionate about the British Humanist Association’s campaign against faith schools – which are state-funded institutions that serve only to indoctrinate and divide our children.
Were you surprised (or amused!) about the recent study that found religious children are less generous and altruistic than their atheist contemporaries?
Yeah, it’s pretty funny because religious people sometimes think they have the moral high ground, and that atheists are automatically bad people. It undermines any claims by faith schools that they provide a superior moral upbringing for young kids. Surely it’s more moral to do good things of your own volition, rather than because a book said you’d burn in hell if you didn’t behave yourself?
What exciting events have you got lined up for the next half of the Autumn Term?
We’ve got a talk by the archaeologist Dr Matt Pope coming up on November 26th, titled ‘When did humans adopt religion? Evidence from the early archaeological record’; the annual Winterval Quiz is coming up on December 4th; and Professor AC Grayling is coming on December 10th, which is International Human Rights Day, to talk to us about ‘Rights, beliefs and human rights’.
What kind of things could a member get involved in beside attending events/debates?
Come to the pub!
Featured image credit: UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society