Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Behind-the-Scenes at Questival 2012!

The new exec of the AHS were elected at the AHS AGM and I am no longer the Secretary. It's been a fantastic year, one which I will give a personal reflection on in another post, but there's one final mission before retirement - QUESTIVAL!

Click Poster to Embiggen!

Questival represents the final work of any Exec and accomplishes the "joint-actions" objective from the AHS's aims by bringing together volunteers and attendees from across the UK and Ireland. Indeed, I know that we have at least one international attendee this year, so Questival's reach is ever growing! It is distinct from the AHS' other events in that the emphasis is purely focused on being interesting and fun, fostering a sense of community and shared experience between atheists. Chatting with people at midnight round a campfire is a completely different experience to the formal environment of a conference! See photos from Questival 2011

Questival has been in the planning stages since December last year and has been incredibly fun. We started off with a completely blank sheet of paper, knowing only the date we wanted to hold it and that we had 48 hours to fill with activities! We knew we wanted to keep it varied and make sure that there was something for everyone and I think we've succeeded in that. The full schedule is online here.

It has been a true team effort, with everyone pitching in ideas and putting in the hard work to make those ideas a reality.  Scouting venues, sourcing equipment, organising logistics, planning operations, designing publicity and filling in risk assessments may not be glamourous but are utterly essential to running a national event. Meetings between our disparate members are held on Skype whilst we toil away on a giant Google Spreadsheet OF DOOM which holds all the planning information. This is a surprisingly effective way of getting things done.

Manga-Jesus appeared in a pancake at last year's Questival

I was mostly responsible for planning the catering, the Atheist Olympics and some of the publicity design and distribution. Humanists are a surprisingly ethical bunch given they're not under constant godly supervison and vegetarianism is common so I've made sure there will be plenty of yummy veggie dinner and breakfast items. There will, of course, be plenty of bacon for the hedonistic meat-heads too!

The Atheist Olympics are going to be great. We've not been threatened by LOCOG's ban-hammer for using the word "olympics" yet, so maybe the negative press has encouraged them to chill out. In any case, our olympics will be skill and brains rather than raw physical fitness with our two main events being Blind Faith and The Hippogriff is a Fine Beast.

Blind Faith will emulate religious experience by having one team-member blindfolded whilst their team-mates shout at them and order them where to go and what actions to carry out in a confusing maze. Just to make things more difficult, they will be racing against another another team in a separate maze who will be shouting contradictory instructions. This promises to be very silly.

The Hippogriff is a Fine Beast is a debating game where each team is given a mythical creature and they must make the case for it existing. At the same time, they must de-bunk their opponents creatures as clearly ludicrous flights of fancy. Again, sillyness abounds and the victors of both events will receive ostentatious prizes!

The Flying Spaghetti Monster - Myth or Reasonable Proposition?

There will be plenty else going on, including Jenny's frankly terrifying, pun-laden Flying Spaghetti Monster Church Service, Andrew's Big Photo Challenge, Nicola's general ability to get anyone to do anything and talks and music from Alom Shaha, Jonny Scaramanga and Jonny Berliner. This is the last exec's final event so we will be pulling out all the stops to make it the best yet. It would be fantastic to see you there so don't miss outBUY YOUR TICKETS before the deadline THIS SATURDAY!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Humanism by Numbers: Free Schools - Freedom to Indoctrinate?

Click HERE for a bigger version

Data here:

I am a big fan of infographics and think they can be an excellent way of communicating an issue. Over breakfast this morning I had a quick and dirty crack at the recent story about the Creationist Free School which has been given the go-ahead.

I'm broadly pleased with this, because even though the design isn't aesthetically perfect, I think it communicates the information reasonably well. It covers what a free schools is; explains that it matters because the number of free schools is increasing and a large proportion of them are faith schools; and how Gove's promise last year has been undermined by his approval of the Everyday Champions school.

The "wedge" bit at the end is in reference to the other creationist story at the moment, that of Giant's Causeway controversy where the "Wedge Strategy" is currently seen as the one that creationists are adopting. Indeed, only today the BHA has reported on another creationist school being given the thumbs-up. You can participate in the BHA's campaigns against creationism here.

How should I have presented this better, and which other Humanist issues are in need of the numbers treatment?

Friday, 13 July 2012

AHS AGM 2012

Yes, I know what it looks a bit like too
It seems a little strange to be the one orchestrating an event designed to replace you with someone else, but that’s just what Jenny and I were up to last weekend in Birmingham! The AHS AGM is the primary democratic event for the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies and saw the election of a new executive team. We had been planning the event for months with our hosts, the University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society and it was with a mixture of pride at our achievements and sadness at the end of our tenure that we began the AGM.

Friday began early, rallying the troops for an assault on Sainsburies to get all the refreshments and luncheon items we would need for the weekend.  We were also on the lookout for useful toys and items for the following day’s “atheist olympics” but I couldn’t justify budgeting for the awesome orange squirrel we found. Laden down, we called in support from more UBASHers who came to help out despite the rain which was to become a defining feature of the weekend! At Liam H’s house we set up a sandwich factory, dividing people into spreaders, choppers and assemblers, whilst others become delegate-pack stuffers in preparation for student atheists, humanists and secularists from all over the UK descending on Birmingham.

Jenny got a scare from Liam’s dinosaur 

Dinner was at the Red Lion Pub in Birmingham’s Jewellery quarter, where everyone got to know each other and check out the loot we’d given them. After dinner, we were shocked awake by Sully O’Sullivan and Rick Molland in “Kill Your God”. In their acerbic and no-holds barred routine which has been banned in Swansea, they tackled the bĂȘte noires of atheists, amongst them Stephen Green (from Christian Voice), Ken Ham (creationist) and the Pope. The show climaxes with a stunt so dangerous, Rick has to don overalls and safety glasses, but I will leave the details out just in case you decide to see them some day! Many didn’t know quite how to react when the show ended, whilst others loved its unmitigated wit and energy. I would highly recommend them to any atheist, humanist or secularist group.

In the morning, Jenny and I got up early to make sure everything ran smoothly. We enjoyed our breakfast at the hostel which was simple, but satisfying in surroundings which had an urban-art theme. The number of Banksy’s on the wall made me feel like this was a little piece of Bristol in the heart of Birmingham!

The first full day’s proceedings began with Jenny reeling off our achievements for the year. It struck me that the overarching theme was “resources” - we had done very well at giving our members access to money by arranging grants and prizes; renewing and updating the guides and speakers directories and finding legal aid for LSE Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society when they found themselves locked in a battle with their unsympathetic student union. The rest of us then reported: Press Officer Gareth told us about his experience interviewing Alom Shaha; Head of Membership Jess enthused about how our membership had increased from 34 to 42 this year; I added the story of how Andrew W nearly lost all  the crisps and Treasurer Ben informed us that he wasn’t entirely sure about the AHS’ financial situation at all!

Presiding over the proceedings

Societies reported on their achievements this year and aspirations for the future. Highlights were Dawkins’ visits to Oxford and Bristol, Sheffield’s experiences with extremist speakers and Leicester’s eggings for Non-Prophet Week! Oxford also reported on their attendance at the Survivor’s Voice march in Italy, representing and supporting victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy and made a strong case for them being future beneficiaries of the AHS’ Non-Prophet Week.

Motions and debate followed with Motion to Mandate Putting the AHS Website Source Code on GitHub. Thomas G presented the motion with half the room nodding vigorously whilst the other didn’t know quite what was going on. There was a debate with plenty of discussion of “public and private repo” but ultimately the motion fell.

I presented Motion to Mandate the Funding of a Sabbatical President and was subjected to an intense grilling by the caucus! It was clear that there was broad agreement that the status quo where the AHS was run entirely by volunteers was unsustainable, but not everyone agreed that a sabbatical president was the answer. There were concerns that it might upset the balance of power between the exec, but most importantly it couldn’t realistically be achieved until March 2014, which was far too late. Alternatives were suggested including a part-time exec or staff member and summer internships. Given the importance of this issue, I was advised to withdraw my motion and resubmit it later.

Dynamic debate pointing!

Lunch turned out to be more business than pleasure, speaking to some of the caucus and coming up with an alternative with the help of the board. The best solution seemed to be to hire a permanent staff member similar to student unions or Liberal Youth who would be accountable to the elected executive. The final job specification would be agreed in active consultation with the caucus and the package including beefed-up travel expenses for the executive would come in at £60K over two years. After robust debate the motion was carried. Though both a sabbatical president and staff member have their advantages and disadvantages, I think we made the right choice for now whilst a full sabbatical executive team remains a longer term goal.

Votes for the new executive team began with the Presidential election. In an unusual twist, one of the candidates was not there in person, but had submitted her manifesto so was allowed to run in absentia. Jess V won the vote, however, and is has therefore ousted Jenny as President! If my year with Jenny could be characterised as about “resources”, Jess gave us a peek at the year ahead focusing on joint-actions and campaigns as well as officer training.

Emiko K won the vote for secretary, impressing all with her ability to raise money through research proposals and clearly motivated by her experience of evangelical religion during her time in the US! The vote for treasurer was quite tight between Adam G and Matthew P, both of them having extensive experience running societies. Adam was, perhaps, more charismatic, whereas Matthew presented more ideas and strategies. The caucus went for ideas in the end, electing Matthew.

The old and new executive teams

After the excitement of elections the group split with Norm R taking a group for “Finance and Fundraising” whilst Jenny and I lead the “Drink and Think” workshop. Sadly, the “atheist olympics” we had organised to follow had to be cancelled because of the rain - so we scuttled off to the pub instead!

On Sunday morning, most people got to enjoy The Secret Life of Brian, “Running Big Events” with Richy T and “Campaigning for Change” with Dani Beckett (and her bigot tree!). Meanwhile the new and old execs were in an intensive handover session trying to cram a year of experience into 3 hours. I think we succeeded, despite having nothing printed out, argh! In any case, Jess has a really strong sense of what she wants to achieve with this year, so I’m sure the new exec will do an excellent job.

After lunch, we had a bit of a panic when Rupert Sutton from Student Rights hadn’t shown up, but he did eventually, having got lost on campus so we dived straight into his workshop. Just to make things slightly more surreal, medieval reenactors were having a fight outside the room we were in, the noises of anachronistic warfare hanging in the air during Rupert’s presentation on “Extremism in Universities”! A debate ensued on the best way to tackle extremist speakers - whether banning them was productive or whether we should engage them. Opinions from the floor covered the whole spectrum from those who would ban all extremist speakers to those who would ban none.

I have described my own views in detail here and with a broader brush here (though the latter uses “censure” when I meant “censor”, grr). Student Rights advocates for “balanced platforms” because extreme speakers seldom succeed against reasoned opposition and Rupert offered the interesting suggestion that atheist societies should balance their own talks in order to put pressure on religious groups to balance theirs. I would, perhaps, modify the emphasis of this slightly such that we encourage atheist and religious societies to hold more debates and joint events.

Introducing Stephen Law

Stephen Law ended proceedings with his Evil God Challenge - can you prove that his Evil God is any more absurd than a Good God? This was a very entertaining presentation and an interesting take on the classic problem of suffering - especially Dave, the man who believes that dogs are Venusian spies!

That’s it folks! The old exec are gone and a new generation take up the reins. Jenny and I have had an exciting time advancing the cause of atheist, humanist and secularist students this year and I’m sure the organisation will continue its upward trajectory under its new leadership!

Photos by Krypto
Ninja Edit:

The 60K fundraising task we've mandated is quite daunting, but a serendipitous solution presented itself at Birmingham New Street: