The AHS Convention 2012 was a hit!
A cocktail for nihilists, a glimpse of the Invisible Pink Unicorn, Darwin on a unicycle (in cartoon form) and putting hell to good use...just a handful of the many highlights of this year’s AHS National Conference in London. Here’s how it all happened:
On Saturday March 17th, AHS member societies from across the UK converged on Conway Hall for a day of lectures, music and comedy. The lectures covered a broad range of atheistic, humanistic and religious topics, which prompted thoughtful discussion, a little righteous indignation, and a few hearty chuckles as well.
Jenny Bartle compèred the event
After resplendently attired AHS President Jenny Bartle gave the audience a warm welcome, first to the podium was Anne-Marie Waters, spokesperson for One Law For All: she expressed the vital importance of speaking freely and openly about religion, without fear of intimidation. She also addressed the misuse of the term “Islamophobia”, which too often conflates legitimate criticism of Islamic practices with a hatred and intolerance of all aspects of Muslim culture.
Next to speak was Richard Norman, who raised some important questions regarding Alain de Botton's proposal to build an "atheist temple" . He addressed the potential pitfalls of appropriating religious practices and traditions for use in an atheistic/humanistic context...in attempting to cherry pick “the best bits” of organised religion, do we risk justifying the perennially tiresome claim that atheism is “just another form of religion”?
Following him was Martin Poulter, who delivered a devastating exposé on the sinister practices and fraudulent claims of Scientology. He had the audience rolling with laughter when he showed a TV advert of a Scientologist excitedly declaring herself to be “filled with 50,000 quantum volts of Thetan energy” – much more serious was the revelation that in 2007 the Home Office granted the Church of Scientology access to privileged information on security alerts, in order that Scientologists can arrive speedily on the scene of any major crisis in the UK.
After breaking for lunch, Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, gave a talk on the theme of blasphemy: how it is defined by people of faith, and how we as atheists and humanists should respond to it. By way of illustrating the sensitivity of the issue – or over-sensitivity, depending on your point of view – Andrew displayed a series of images from Antonio Federici’s ice cream adverts, including a pregnant nun’s “immaculate conception” which was banned by the Advertising Standards Agency in 2010.
The BHA Choir
After that, the audience was treated to musical entertainment in the form of the BHA Choir, who belted out some beautiful secular anthems (including a rousing rendition of Elbow’s One Day Like This). They even had the audience singing along too! It was a fitting finalé for lead singer Chloë Clifford-Frith, who was bid a fond farewell after singing with the choir for the last time. Chloë was The AHS’ first press officer and we wish Chloë and the BHA Choir the best of luck for the future...keep singing!
Next came the turn of David Allen Green, who spoke about a new initiative to ‘Get Religion Out of the Law and Out of the Courtroom’. Drawing on his experience as both lawyer and journalist, David voiced an eloquent opposition against religion exerting undue influence on matters of law – to find out more, we encourage you to visit his 'Jack Of Kent' blog.
Concluding the day’s events was comedian Iszi Lawrence, who had the audience in stitches with her irreverent musings on religion, philosophy and everything in between. Oh, and did we mention she is deeply concerned about the environment? Buddhists in hell...the final solution to renewable energy!
With the officially scheduled events now completed, and the audience well satisfied from a day of stimulating lectures, discussions, jokes and songs, everyone flocked to the nearest pub to drink and make merry in a godless fashion. The weekend didn’t end there, though...
On Sunday, still eager though thoroughly unrested from the previous night’s revelry, the AHS gang reconvened at UCL’s Chadwick Building for a day of society workshops.
This commenced with a how-to session on running a Reason Week: a major event in the calendar year of any AHS society. The attendees were divided into groups, and asked to brainstorm ideas for speakers and events. Among the more serious suggestions were a couple of delightfully tongue-in-cheek ideas for an atheist cocktail party (teetotallers will certainly enjoy “The Nihilist”: an empty glass!), and a playful turnabout on William Lane Craig's proposal to debate an empty chair in place of Richard Dawkins ...to debate with an empty chair in place of Craig, or alternatively in place of God!
Next, Adrian Tippetts of the National Secular Society (NSS) hosted a workshop on press and publicity, providing plenty of guidance for AHS societies to attract attention, host events and increase their membership. Tippetts walked the audience through a number of key skills, including writing press releases, press calls, and the proper etiquette for contacting newspapers and magazines.
Andrew Copson as a (pretend) Christian debates a (fake) ninja
After that, two workshops ran in parallel with Richy Thompson of the BHA giving a masterclass on how to successfully attract new members during Fresher’s Week. Alongside this was Andrew Copson hosting a workshop on public speaking. Volunteers from the audience were given the daunting task of debating with Andrew while he played the role of a Christian apologist (equally convincing was his second incarnation: “Now I’m a Muslim!”). After each volunteer had survived Andrew’s uncannily accurate (and very amusing) portrayals of two shamelessly disingenuous theists, the debates were then deconstructed point by point, with Andrew offering plenty of helpful advice on what to expect, what to aim for, and how to present ourselves to an audience.
For the penultimate session, a representative of each AHS society in attendance gave a speech on the activities of their society over the previous 12 months. Special mention goes to the UCC Atheist Society, who published the first issue of their self-made magazine The Invisible Pink Unicorn. Well done, and keep writing!
Finally, the time arrived for the AHS Awards Ceremony, recognising the outstanding achievements of AHS member societies over the past year. The winners – each presented with their own certificate – were announced via a special slideshow containing the artwork of Jenny Bartle (aka “Jenny Crayon”): these images included the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Darwin on a unicycle playing a cello, and an unbearably cute baby Cthulhu!
Congratulations to the following:
BEST EVENT: Queen Mary
BEST NEW SOCIETY: Leicester
BEST REASON WEEK: Oxford
BEST FUNDRAISERS FOR NON-PROPHET WEEK: Bradford
BEST SOCIETY: Birmingham
Thanks to all the societies who attended the conference, to all the speakers who gave so generously of their time, to The Pod Delusion, New Humanist, the BHA, Ancestor’s Trail and everyone who set up stalls at the event, and to UCL for hosting the Sunday workshops.
Did you have a good time? So did we...see you all again for AHScon 2013!
Happy Humans! All photos by kind permission of Andrew West
Written by Gareth Hall