The AHS launched last week to activate students in resistance to what they view as “growing pandering” towards religious groups. AHS is the abbreviated name of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies. In its manifesto the organisation states that it aims to “encourage and facilitate the creation of new atheist, Humanist and secular student societies and groups,” as well as supporting existing student societies that it feels have not had a platform to present their views on a national and international level.The newly anointed president of AHS, Norman Ralph, explained that “there is such a push at the moment to be politically accepting of religious views that those who don’t have a religion are, in fact, missing out.” Judith Flacks, the chair of the Jewish Society at Sussex University, welcomed the idea saying, “It’s a view that many people have and it’s about time they had societies on university campuses.”
The movement is supported by leading critics of religion: scientist Richard Dawkins, philosopher AC Grayling, as well as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. In a press release by the AHS, A C Grayling said: “As well as making the case for reason and science, it is great to know that the AHS will be standing up against religious privilege and discrimination. All people are entitled to their beliefs but we secularists (whether religious or humanist) are right in arguing that the state must be entirely neutral in these matters. A situation where the religious beliefs of a few may dictate the personal choices of everyone – in abortion, for example, or assisted suicide – is quite wrong. Yet some religious groups defend and even aim to expand their considerable privileges – public money for their “faith-based” schools, seats in the House of Lords, exemption from laws inconvenient to their prejudices. The AHS shows that increasing numbers of young people are unwilling to put up with it.”
With controversy over a poster depicting religious symbols being thrown in the bin, with the slogan “Time to take out the trash” at the University of Warwick in 2008, some are worried that atheist societies will serve only to breed religious intolerance on campuses. Dawkins, however, argues that the set up of these societies is an entirely positive notion, particularly in a University environment which is supposed to promote free thinking, saying, “Public statements of non-belief are treated as threatening, and an affront to the religious, while the reverse is not true. More concerning is the enduring assumption that religious belief does not have to earn respect like any other view. Why is belief in a higher power an indication of greater moral fortitude, character and acumen? No opinion should be protected from criticism simply by virtue of being religiously held.”
To join the Christian Union at Sussex University you must, according to their own manifesto, accept that “the Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God.” Conversely the Atheist society at Warwick does not require those joining to believe in anything particular, instead declaring: “Joining doesn’t make you an atheist, it makes you open-minded.”
It is unclear how successful the AHS, who are happy to be referred to as the Anti-God Squad, will be in promoting their beliefs, and the question on some people’s lips is whether atheism, or the choice to be a non-believer, is even a belief at all. In a society where many are simply apathetic towards religion it will be interesting to see how this new brand of atheism evolves.