Thursday, 9 August 2012

Questival 2012 Review

Questival was fantastic this year with around 30 young adult atheist, humanists and secularists taking to the fields of Stratford-upon-Avon Racecourse for a weekend of fun and scepticism! It is unique amongst the AHS' events being purely about letting off some steam with likeminded people from across the UK and the rest of the world (we had Dan R-M from Norway this year!)

Questival began last Friday with everyone arriving whilst we cooked up delicious veggie chilli and wraps for dinner. We also made the camping favourite "chocolate in bananas in tin-foil" which looked like sci-fi dildos. Space wangs duly consumed, we went into the scheduled “spontaneous fun" time, playing some not-quite-twister followed by a moonlit walk around the perimeter of the racecourse, along overgrown river paths and past abandoned railway lines.

Rational vs. Irrational: Who will win?
Photo: Nicola J

The next morning we lept out of bed to make a glorious breakfast of bacon, sausages, veggie sausages, mushrooms, eggs and beans. This was to fuel us during the morning's photo challenge which was huge fun and very silly. I was in "Team Secretary" containing the AHS' last 3 Secretaries, Nicola J, Emiko K and me as well as Raby W and Tom G. We had to rush around Stratford-upon-Avon to different locations and pose to illustrate different ideas like "correlation does not equal causation" and "socially awkward sceptic"! This culminated in a big group photo of everyone acting out Shakespearean scenes in front of the RSC theatre before heading off for lunch was at a Jimmy Spices Buffet where the napkins were entertainingly shaped like Papal mitres.

Alom Shaha spoke about his book, The Young Atheist's Handbook and read from the chapter about love, discussing romantic love and the difference and similarities it had to religious love and belief. He argued that they were similarly irrational, aesthetic and personal, yet most definitely real. Humanist philosophies must, therefore, not just be correct but a more satisfying and attractive alternative to belief too. I am inherently sympathetic to this, because there are non-religious philosophies which are a lot more positive than the stereotype of the miserable, nihilistic atheist. However, as Julian Baggini discussed in a recent New Humanist piece it does not really make sense to talk about rational philosophies in terms of being optimistic or pessimistic, rather a stoic realism. Baggini quotes Sam Harris "Hope and fear are completely natural responses to uncertainty. But they are two sides of the same coin: if we would be free of fear, we must let go of hope. Easier said than done, of course. But it is possible. And being without hope is by no means synonymous with despair. Rather, it is tranquillity." To go back to Alom's analogy with romantic love, if religion is the unbelievably enhanced sycophant in the room, then humanism is the sexy librarian with a lust for knowledge who wants to get to know you and as much of the rest of life, the universe and everything as time will allow!

James and Liz from the Pod Delusion introduced themselves and invited contributions to The Pod Delusion LIVE just before the break during which those of us who had volunteered to talk ferociously scribbled down some notes. The talks were all excellent: Dan P talked about teaching kids to code; Livia S enlightened us about the latest advances in optics; Caitlin G railed against laws governing human remains which harmed science whilst benefited bogus druids; Ben K spoke about the latest advances in cancer treatment and Helen G explained how feminist and non-feminist pole-dancing differed and how some forms can be oppressive whilst others are liberating. I disturbed the seriousness with a polemic on why we should replace the Olympics and Paralympics with the Super-Olympics consisting of an egalitarian Amateur Olympics (participants chosen by ballot like Jury Service, no technology or, err, clothes) and an Anything Goes Olympics where drugs and cybernetics are actively encouraged! Hopefully these will be online soon to enjoy again.

Ghost cruise conjurer looks deep into Jenny's soul (it's OK, she doesn't have one)
Photo: Krypto

The evening wound down to the Magical Boat Cruise where we were greeted by a man in full mystical-wear including shiny waistcoat, tidy goatee and a selection of pentagram adornments. He was quite serious at first, but soon got the feel for his audience when we laughed at inappropriate places and quickly increased the level of humour with the skill of an eminent showman. Floating along the canals of Stratford-upon-Avon we were treated to tall tales of ghosts, witches and murder as well as magic, conjuring, mind-reading and escapology thrown in for good measure!

On the way back we stopped off to buy drinks and headed along the dark river path from the town towards our campsite. Agata S spotted a gloworm which she picked up to show us which was really cool because I didn't know they lived in the UK. At first it looked quite small, two glowing rings of light, but shining a torch on it soon showed it to be quite a large mini-beast, a good inch long and wriggling about! We headed to some picnic tables by the river so we could chat and dance and sing into the night without disturbing the other campers. Damian B and Jo F brought sparklers which were fun, Chloë C-F lead some impromptu singing whilst Ben K wore his sunglasses at night.

At breakfast the next day I was nursing a bit of a sore head after the night's frivolities and rose to find some of the more diligent volunteers already cooking. Emiko K had earlier challenged me to a fight to the death if we won the photo challenge and had to decide who got which book and remarked that she was confident in my current state. I claimed I fought better hungover but I think she saw through my bluster!

Our worship leaders - may you too be touched by his noodley appendage!
Photo: Krypto

Breakfast dispatched, we all fetched our colanders and got ready for our morning service at the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nicola J and I welcomed the attendees in with chocolate and muffins (evangelical smile, "have you been to our church before?", "have you travelled far today?") whilst Chloë C-F provided music on her melodica. Jenny B, Nicola J and Chloë C-F were resplendent in their piratical gear in front of the colander-clad throng and led us through this most unusual of services. There were testimonials, pasta-based reworkings of popular tunes and even a healing! I think my favourite part was the tale of the lactose-intolerant mouse who stole a miracle - a sobering story indeed.

Nicola and I refereed the Atheist Olympics, a contest to find the best atheist. The first game was "Blind Faith" where teams competed against each other to guide one of their blindfolded team-mates through a maze whilst accomplishing tasks at different points. This was very silly, though some confusion was caused when both blindfolded people went out of bounds at the same time near the end and had to go back to the start! The second game was "The Hippogriff is a magnificent beast", a game of debating and rhetoric as each team elected one person to argue for their existence of a randomly chosen mythical creature whilst rubbishing the existence of their competitors' at the same time. The grand final was between Caitlin G, who was advocating that intelligent alien life had visited the earth, and Dan F who said that was nonsense, but that the moon landings had been faked instead. Caitlin G eventually won the contest and a (damp) medal, no doubt helped by the tinfoil hat keeping the government out of her brain.

Jonny Scaramanga tells us about growing up as a Christian fundamentalist
Photo: Krypto

After lunch we had a talk by Jonny Scaramanga (yes, his grandfather went to school with Ian Fleming) who spoke about how he'd grown up as a Christian fundamentalist. He was taught the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) course at school which contained course materials weaving a fundamentalist worldview into every subject including that the aim of socialism was "world domination" and that Nessie is an extant dinosaur! To make things worse, the qualification is recognised by NARIC, a government funded standards organisation, which renewed the suitability of the ICCE (the ACE qualification) for university entrance this year. The methods of teaching seem unnecessarily cruel, requiring students to work through workbooks in cubicles, effectively in isolation, for several hours a day and parents are required by schools to administer corporal punishment for disciplinary offences. Jonny now campaigns against ACE and schools teaching the curriculum and you can read more on his blog.

Lightening the mood, Jonny Berliner ended proceedings with his science songs and geek-poppery. We had songs about physics, evolution and the future and at one point we were waving our hands in the air to a sciency power-ballad. He had loads of great anecdotes about gigs he'd been comissioned for and gave us an exclusive when he sang a song to us about albatrosses (they're not great at flying) that he'd only just written on the train.

And so the weekend ended. It all seemed so quick after nearly a year of planning and preparation and I was sad to leave, but happy to have had a great time and have met the awesome people you always get at AHS events! Questival marks my final event as an AHS exec member and was the perfect way to finish an exhiliarating year. Thanks must go to the organisers Andrew West, Jenny Bartle, Nicola Jackon, (me), Emiko and also the hard-working volunteers Paul Noden, Chloë Clifford-Frith, Ben Krishna, Agata Stachiowiak, Dan Adams and everyone else who chipped in! Thanks also to Jess Vautier and Matthew Power for helping with the organisation even though they couldn't attend in person.

I would be happy to help organise next year's camp, though the big event this time next year will be European Humanists' Youth Days. Maybe Questival could go on holiday to Belgium next year? In any case, I'm already looking forward to Questival 2013 whatever form it takes!

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