Oxford Atheists Society 2009 02 04

Talk given at the February 2009 meeting by Richard Thompson, co-founder of the Oxford Atheist Society
Abstract: I think I'll talk a bit about what I know about to start with (!!!! In other words, a bit of a fact-finding exercise about the Oxford Atheist Society and the general state of the atheist youth in this country), before rambling a little bit about how I think young atheists generally view religion. If you want to give it a name, maybe you could simply say "A Young Atheist's Perspective".

Speech: Hi all - thanks for coming.

I thought I’d start by talking a bit about the society I run – how we came to be, what we do, and our place in the rapidly growing student freethinking movement. And then maybe after that we can get onto something a little more relevant to the Sea of Faith.

OK, so I founded the society in Trinity 2008 with Will Potter, simply because we felt that there should be somewhere that people could discuss all aspects of atheism in a largely unassuming arena. I say “largely” because our society does have one central tenet – the only position that the society itself takes is that God almost certainly does not exist. By starting with this belief, we can then explore where to go from there, and by having the society take nothing else as given, we can have a diverse array of opinions be presented to the society.

We’re in part a guest-speaker-based society, and the diverseness of our society is reflected in our speakers – while we have, shall we say, more “standard”, speakers for a freethinking society, such as Julian Baggini and Peter Atkins, we also have other speakers that may not get invited by such societies very often.

For example, later this term we have John Hedley Brooke, coming to examine, amongst other things, the history of the relationship between science and religion. Last term we had 4 speakers, all of them religious – we had some Oxford theologians and philosophers of religion coming to try to find some common ground on some issue or another, and we also had a Buddhist (who happened to be a prominent TV scriptwriter) come and talk about the atheist aspects of Buddhism.

Next term we have Olivera Petrovich, an Oxford psychologist who will be talking about how children develop their conceptions of science and religion, and David Boulton, who I guess you guys are somewhat familiar with!

None of these speakers would be invited by a strictly secular society, and indeed this is why we felt there was room for our society in Oxford, for you see there is already an Oxford Secular Society, which was founded 2 years before our atheist society. My understanding is that Sec Soc (as I shall call it) has the largest membership of any student freethinking society in the country, but because they are explicitly secular and not atheist, we felt there was room for a second, explicitly atheist, society. While “secularism” is an important drawer within the filing cabinet of discussions that is labelled “atheism”, it is only one drawer – there are many more.

So, Oxford is now the only University in the country to have more than one irreligious society. Freethinking student societies have been springing up over the last 2-3 years all over the place, and there are three basic types:
Atheist societies
Humanist societies
Secular societies
In most Universities I get the impression that these names are used fairly interchangeably, especially the first two, i.e. if a society names itself as one of the three, it actually means to say that it is an adherent to all three different beliefs. This might be why Oxford is the only place to have two societies – because everywhere else has all three positions covered by one society. There’s a bit of a running joke that maybe one day we’ll get a humanist society in Oxford too!

So yeah, there are big societies in Leeds, Warwick, Edinburgh, Southampton, Liverpool, Durham, Keele... the list goes on. And recently the various societies have been hard at work together because we’re in the process of setting up a national federation!

The federation will be looking to do stuff such as help new societies launch, help inter-society cooperation, encourage each society to hold a “Rationalist Week” (which is a week with lots and lots of events) and just generally have fun. The main issue the federation has had to face so far is what to name it, because of their being three different types of societies involved. After several hours of vigorous debate we ended up calling it... the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies. Or AHS for short.

In fact this meeting is quite timely actually, because the national federation will be having its press launch in London two weeks tomorrow, and it’s going to have Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee and AC Grayling in attendance – the same three people who were at the launch of the Atheist Bus campaign! It’s all quite surreal and exciting.

So anyway, there’s definitely been a mass of this type of society appearing recently. What caused it? I suppose fairly obviously the cause is the likes of the Four Horsemen bringing atheism much more sharply into public discourse. For those who don’t know, the Four Horsemen is a name used to describe Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and was established by the group when they had a roundtable discussion last year.

Is there unanimous support for the Four Horsemen amongst the atheist youth? Well I think it varies. I think most students involved in our type of society probably do subscribe to them to some degree, but for example in terms of how our society is run, we try to be independent of their typical message, and explore a wider range of issues on our own. Julian Baggini gave a talk to us yesterday where he criticised the Four Horsemen, as well as the Brights movement (which by the way from where I am doesn’t seem to have taken off – I don’t think people like the name), saying they’ve ultimately set atheist causes back. I disagree with that.

Atheism definitely has an image problem for being too critical of religion, but like Dawkins I believe that, while you certainly get some mud-slinging which doesn’t help in any way, a lot of the criticism of religion is indeed merited, and I think that a lot of the hoo ha surrounding this criticism is because people aren’t used to it – religion certainly has faults which deserve criticism and I think the reason there is an outcry is that religion has been immune to this sort of criticism on this sort of scale, for, well, ever. If everyone can just keep things constructive, then I hope that in time, everyone will come to relish the debate.

Right, so the second thing I promised to talk about is my amateur opinion on this whole Sea of Faith thing, and what I feel the general opinions amongst the irreligious student populace are on religion. A slight warning: From here on out the speech will not be based on known statistics but will instead be based on my own personal experiences. Maybe other people have seen things differently from me and I apologise if anyone feels I’m misrepresenting things.

Let me start by saying that amongst the youth in general, I feel that there has been a bit of a polarisation of opinions, and that the number of those holding moderate religious beliefs is on the decline. This is probably because there are now two large and competing sets of beliefs in this country, and whenever such competition occurs, interest in the whole damn thing rises, and people get more engaged. One of the two, atheism, is in many ways a new set of beliefs (it’s certainly been presented in new ways lately), and so is experiencing rapid growth as it finds itself as a widely accepted option gaining the serious attention of everybody for the first time. The other set of beliefs is, in reaction to this, working harder to keep itself going, and more Christianity also leads to stronger Christianity.

A knock on effect of this is that it means that more moderate groups lose out, such as the Quakers, who I understand have declining numbers.

Having said that, the number of “active atheists”, i.e. those involved in this kind of youth society, is quite low. Many of them are content without joining such a society or fearful maybe that they may take on some of the trappings of organised religion (not on my watch mind!). But that doesn’t mean they’re not religiously clued up.

Right, a little about my background. My parents are both atheists, and took the strange approach of deciding to bring me up without telling me anything at all about religion, to see what conclusions I would come to myself. It sounds like a strange thing to say but I think I realised that Christianity is false around the same time as, and in much the same way as, I realised that Santa and the tooth fairy aren’t real.

I don’t know if my background affects my views at all, but thought I’d say it for full disclosure. Moving on to young atheists then, and what they believe, let’s start with spirituality.

Personally I don’t think of myself as spiritual at all, and believe that everything can be explained can be explained by science. There seems to be a slight split amongst prominent atheists on this, with my opinion being shared with Dawkins, and Peter Atkins is coming to talk along these lines tomorrow, but opposed by Julian Baggini and Sam Harris – the latter being a proponent of Buddhist philosophies. What’s the consensus amongst the young masses?

I suspect most of them come down on the side of Atkins, Dawkins and myself. I think holding spiritual beliefs is seen as holding beliefs that are not explainable by logic and empirical evidence; and in rejecting religion, most young atheists are not just rejecting organised religion, but effectively rejecting all beliefs that science has not attempted to tackle.

So where does this leave religion, when viewing it from a post-religious perspective? I suspect, as sad as it is, that most young atheists don’t take any positive knowledge from religion at all. Why is this? Probably largely because they haven’t thought about it. At the moment they’re all on a war against organised religion and its many evils, getting worked up about intelligent design and religious homophobia, and haven’t yet reached the stage where they’re trying to see past that.

It’s a war that needs winning, and I think it’s a war gradually being won (especially in this country), so I expect things will change in time, as the battle moves into the past. But trying to look ahead now, what do I personally think religion will ultimately give to a post-religious world?

Starting at the very bottom, we should at the very least be able to derive some entertainment from modern religion, as there are some excellently crafted stories out there, with very archetypical characters. Indeed if you look at the Greek, Norse and Egyptian mythologies, entertainment is largely the purpose that they serve nowadays.

But one thing that could do with being explored more, in my opinion, is the relationship between memes and religion, thinking of religion as memes, and following up this thought process with trying to derive information from religion.

Let me expand on this a little. An interesting question would be to ask why, from a memetic point of view, adherents of various religions believe what they believe. For an obvious example, most mainstream religions believe in converting everyone else to their religion. Why is this? Obvious answer here: Because for a meme to thrive, it is a good idea for it to continuously draw new members!

I’m sure most of you are familiar with this idea of viewing religion through memes, and some people have indeed methodically worked through religion in this manner, explaining everything through its memetic properties, be it benefits to the survival of the religion directly (as in my example), or benefits to the survival of the religion’s adherents (and hence, indirectly, the religion itself).

But I suspect the next step would be to see if this could be used to teach us something about how best to go about our lives. To use my (possibly overly simple) example about conversion again, I guess the conclusion here would be that a community that welcomes in new members with open arms is likely to thrive, whereas a closed one will ultimately stifle itself. (That may seem a bit obvious which is why it’s probably too simple an example, but hopefully you can see what I’m getting at.)

I’m sure religion can be used as empirical evidence in other similar ways, and as far as I know this hasn’t been done much before. And I think that that will be the final contribution of religion to the world.

To end then, I wish to tell an amusing anecdote of the experiences of our society at Fresher’s Fair in Michaelmas. Fresher’s Fair can be quite a boring thing, so after maybe half a day or so we started keeping tallies of what was going on with the people who came to see us.

The first tally we started was the look and laugh tally, which was for people who saw the atheist society stand, looked at us, and laughed. This happened surprisingly often – 53 times!

At fresher’s fair we were in a room with Sec Soc and the religious societies. (I remember someone from the Catholic society telling us very smugly “Ha! So you’re a religion too!”) ...And so the second tally was the number of people who asked us how we felt about being in the religion room – this happened on 22 occasions.

The third tally was for the number of people who came into the room, spotted our stand, and immediately rushed over to sign up – this happened 28 times.

And the final tally was the number of people we got signing up for our mailing list – and this was 265, which I’m quite proud of, as it was more than the Christian Union ;)

Thank you,

Richard Thompson