Friday, 28 September 2012

Dawkins Keynote at NSS Conference

Last Saturday I went to the National Secular Society Conference in London to learn more about the state of secularism today. The venue had been kept secret until a few days before the event and I found myself wondering whether the person ahead of me a secret secularist and were they heading to the conference too? The event’s enigma was further added to by the venue itself - the Royal National Hotel - which looks like one of those hotels you get in 70’s detective dramas. Lacking cigarettes or corduroy I did my best to look shifty as I entered the hotel.

First impressions are important, and the volunteers were all excellent at getting us our name badges and showing us where to go. Delegate packs were very swanky and contained the latest NSS bulletin which I was pleased to note featured the Secularist Student Award. The stalls of various NSS affiliated groups were bustling with activity and it was good to meet so many familiar faces and a lot of younger people too - 30% of the delegates were students!

Enthusiastic intergenerational dialogue - and stall freebie art!

The talks kicked off with Ted Cantle, Professor at the Institute of Community Cohesion. He was promoting the idea of interculturalism as a replacement for multiculturalism which he said was responsible for different ethnic and faith groups leading parallel and isolated lives. Approaching communities through self-appointed “community leaders” and funding projects based on a group’s race or faith was bad for social cohesion with one of the biggest barriers being faith schools which segregate children.

Llanelli MP, Nia Griffith, was very and entertaining, bemoaning scheduled prayers in Parliament and asking “why don't we have a more secular society already? Because we have ‘tradition’.” Failure to make secularism a vote-winner means that politicians have no interest in adopting explicitly secular policies. “Principled politicians must overcome their fear of being seen as anti-religious and anti-tradition”.

“Secularism is an important pre-condition for equality” said Pragna Patel, founding member of Southall Black Sisters. “Religious groups increasingly use the language of equality and human rights when actually undermining it.” Patel was the first to break the consensus between the speakers, taking on Cantle saying his report criticised multicultural policy  too harshly in places and failed to acknowledge the positives.

Having heard Nick Cohen and Maryam Namazie several times before I decided to attend the afternoon’s “break-out sessions”. First up was Sue Cox of Survivor’s Voice, a charity which campaigns to network and raise awareness of survivors of abuse by the clergy. For me, Cox was the best speaker of the day, able to address the horror of the Catholic Church’s institutional cover-up of paedophilia by members of its clergy with passion and determination for justice whilst remaining warm and engaging at the same time. "Can you imagine a deaf and dumb abuse survivor doing the Moonwalk outside the Vatican?" she said, referring to a march earlier this year.

Cox made the somewhat surprising statement, “We don’t want your money! We want you to tell everyone you know that we exist!” I asked her about this, and she clarified that she didn’t want money for Survivor’s Voice as an organisation because some abuse survivor’s charities can end up becoming a business and she wanted to avoid that. What she did absolutely want money for, however, was a travel fund to help survivors attend demonstrations and for a research project. Survivor’s Voice are the recommended charity for this year’s Non-Prophet Week, so its good to know that every single penny will go to good use!
Agata gets her lab coat signed by Richard Dawkins

Lunch, always an important consideration at conferences, was excellent with a wide array of sandwiches including some particularly excellent beef and horseradish offerings. It was also a good chance to have chat with people including Dom, Martin and Gav from my hometown of Bristol staffing the Bristol Secular Society stall. Plenty of students were there too, with members of OX:ASH helping on the Survivor’s Voice stall and Jess Vautier and Matthew Power representing the AHS.  There were too many stalls to visit them all, though I had some interesting chats with the London Atheist Activist Group and Camp Quest, the rationalist camp for kids which inspired the AHS’ Questival for older, drunker people.

After lunch was Terry Sanderson and Keith Porteus-Wood who reported on the NSS’ current involvement in the current legal cases at the European High Court and other successes this year including victory on council prayers. Challenged on whether the NSS should be arguing more strongly against faith, the (mostly friendly) rivalry with the BHA surfaced with Sanderson joking that humanists like "airy-fairy philosophising ... almost theological."and that the NSS  "doesn’t need to debate the existence of god ... we know it's bullshit!" He justified the NSS’ approach by pointing out that institutional elements like faith schools are key in the perpetuation of religious belief, their indoctrinating effect so strong that he could still remember at least twenty hymns off-by-heart! Discussion ended on a question about what ordinary members and local groups could do to promote secular causes. For the moment, it seems like the NSS wants to keep affiliated groups at arms length, Sanderson saying that he has had experiences in the past where other secular groups haven’t fully supported the NSS' values.

Returning to the main room, it was a pleasure as ever to hear Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner. He sought to throw wide the overall cause of human rights, characterising it as not just a secular cause, but one which also requires taking on the current economic system. Fantastically animated and radical he was critical of oppressive systems stating “organised religion is the main threat to human rights, not people of faith, who are often victims of oppression”.

Richard Dawkins, never one to mince his words, challenges those who would call him a “dick”

The conference was rounded-off by Richard Dawkins, who took to the stage with his characteristic pro-rationalist zeal, opening by countering Phil Plait’s plea to atheists to “don’t be a dick”. “I try to convince fence-sitters, those who haven't thought and those who don't realise there's a fence to sit on!” he explained, adding that the “battle for acceptance of evolution is part of a wider war for critical thought.” He went on to justify why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is fair game for criticism in a political context, exposing some of Mormonism’s crazier beliefs, such as magic pants, along the way. Some of the material didn’t quite work, with a description of Muslims wearing “bin bags” resulting in an audible sharp intake of breath from the audience and a slightly excruciating parody letter of a Tony Blair Faith Foundation fundraising letter raising a few quizzical eyebrows. Then again, it would be easy for Dawkins to just play the hits, so it’s always refreshing to hear some new stuff even if it doesn’t quite work.

Overall, the conference was excellent and additional fun was to be had to head to the pub with people afterwards to discuss our favourite speakers of the day, somehow ending up at the ethics of bestiality. Looking back at the day, if there were one criticism I would make it would be the strong dissonance between who secularism is for and who owns it. Whilst there were many statements reiterating how secularism protects freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion there were no explicitly religious speakers. Is authentic secularism is an atheist-driven secularism? Does platforming Dawkins make a strong statement to this effect?  Segregating education and other public services by faith is a bad idea - surely there must be religious voices who would agree with this idea, especially from religions which have not enjoyed traditional privilege in the UK? What did you think?


  1. I have to say that is one superb shot of Agata and Dawkins :P
    Good article as well!
    I am surrounded by religious schools, but I was fotunate enough to not go to one and to have an unbias Religious Education class.
    Well she claimed to be buddhist... and at one time had been Muslim and gone to Mecca. Dispite this she always encouraged us to think for ourselves, I guess that's why she loved me and Alex Clarke so much, we always spoke up, in fact she loved us!
    She wanted to adopt me! xD

    1. Hehe, thanks. Religious education done well is an excellent thing - learning about religions other than Christianity was my first step towards becoming an atheist because it broke the "Pascal's Wager" logic which had held me in by fear.