Thursday, 4 April 2013

AHS Convention Round-Up 2013

This post was delayed by an incredibly busy month. Now I have a little breathing space to write again! This post will round-up everything everyone else said about the convention and I'll add my own observations on-top.

The AHS Convention is the annual event where student atheists, humanists and secularists from across the UK and Ireland come together for a weekend in London. There are two days of talks and workshops intended to inspire, equip students with the skills they need to make their student societies even better and to act as a forum for everyone to exchange ideas.

Robin Ince and his Sponge Crab

Day 1

The first day is the speaker day and the AHS team did not disappoint us featuring a line-up which mixed activists and campaigners with TV and radio favourites including Jim Al-Khalili (The Life Scientific, Jim Meets ...), Robin Ince (The Infinite Monkey Cage, 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People) and Natalie Haynes (The Ancient Guide To Modern Life, Armando Iannucci's Charm Offensive). Jessica V, President of the AHS, was our host, introducing speakers and setting out why the AHS is important. The full AHS review of the day is here and the BHA Storified all the tweets here!

There were some notable highlights during the speeches, which started with Andrew Copson showing us his sexy nuns. Gita Sahgal (Centre for Secular Space) gave a moving speech about the effects of political Islam across the world and chastised those human rights organisations which had colluded with Islamists.

Robin Ince was his usual ebullient self, speaking with infectious enthusiasm about the things which fascinate him. He was particularly excited about the sponge crab which "when it is frightened, picks up a sponge and puts it on its head." We've all been there!

Jim Al-Khalili gave his inaugural speech as new President of the British Humanist association whilst wearing an awesomely bright shirt. He spoke about the particular difficulties specific to being an atheist from a Muslim background and was keen that all religions be debunked, not just Christianity. He also stressed that Humanism must say what it is for and what it has to offer as well as the superstition that it rejects.

Polly Toynbee spoke about the influence religious organisations have in our lives (and deaths) intervening in government policy with respect to assisted dying, education about sex and the continuing religious segregation resulting from faith schools. She had assumed everyone in the audience would be left-leaning and was rebuked in the Q&A by a small but loud group of libertarians! "Does Humanism have a leftist bias and does that narrow the membership?" they wondered. A blogger took up their question after the event.

Rounding off the day were the BHA choir, covering Tim Minchin's "Woody Allen Jesus" and a genetic reworking of Eric Idle's Galaxy Song by Professor Brian Cox!

Day 2

The second day of the convention is all about students, with workshops, discussions and prizes for those societies which have  had the best year!

I started off the day giving my workshop, a modified version of the one facilitated at Southampton, streamlined and given the catchier title of "Taking the Fear out of Big Events". Once again there were two teams and they both came up with interesting, attention-grabbing, risky events. Team A decided they were going to have a panel discussion with Robin Ince, Evan Harris and, the bĂȘte noire of right and left alike, Nadine Dorries! Team B decided on a panel format too, but with speakers who had renounced their religion and discussion would focus on what had lead them to decided that they no longer believed. We then addressed the risks associated with both events, with similar concerns arising around security and opposition from religious societies. Finally we looked at some solutions including how to get extra security for events and managing conflict with student unions and other societies by keeping everyone well informed about what would be happening.

After a nice cup of tea and some biscuits I joined NUS Activist Development Officer Dani Beckett's workshop on "Encouraging Participation". Oozing enthusiam, Dani started off by challenging everyone to consider their own "lollipop moments", experiences which are not big in the grand scale of things, but had a profound impact on you at the time. After a few minutes of embarrassed deliberation, people started revealing their own reasons for joining their societies and it was interesting to hear these stories. Finally Dani drew a workshop favourite, the tiered triangle, with a small, highly active leadership at the top, working down towards a wider base of people with minimal society interaction. Dani stressed that is was important to make sure that everyone at every level had something they could get involved in, with more responsibility and reward at higher levels of interaction.

We broke up for lunch and returned for the prizes. Scotland featured particularly strongly this year, with Edinburgh Humanists winning Best Society. I imagine most societies were highly envious of St Andrews Atheists who pocketed £350 for events and campaigns, receiving both the Student Humanist Award and the runner-up Student Secularist Award! Having organised these prizes whilst running the AHS with Jenny B last year, I was particularly pleased to see well-run societies getting recognition for their efforts, backed-up with cash to encourage even more ambitious activities. A full list of the winners is here.

The final workshop of the day was Ethical Juries with AHS Treasurer Matthew Power and West London Humanist Philip Veasey. These are an attempt to define an ethical system based on a combination of principles and personal experience. Matt and Philip took us through an example questions, accompanied by a series of flow charts and a "triax" of axioms (Kindness, Courage, Integrity). Whilst an interesting proposition, I'm not sure to what extent I thought the process would be useful. Whilst making a decision on what to do can be usefully informed by others and the boundaries of those decisions constrained by their effects on others, any specific action should also depend on a person's attitudes and what they think most appropriate in the moment. Perhaps I need to attend more juries to understand better! More information here:

Overall, it was an excellent event well attended by student atheists, humanists and secularists. The talks and workshops were inspiring and it was good to see societies being recognised for the work they had done, especially the great number of "Awareness Week" events, boosting the profile of societies by focusing their activities into a single week. Even better was going down the pub with everyone afterwards to discuss everything that had happened recently and socialise. Chris R from Bath AHS has challendged Bristol AASS to a laser-quest battle soon, which I'm sure fits into the AHS aim to "encourage joint actions between societies" ;-).

The next big AHS event is the AGM 2013, the annual democratic extravaganza where the new executive will be elected and motions can be brought forward and debated. It is a fantastic opportunity for any host society to galvanize their leadership team, bringing prestige to the society and giving the event organisers that all important boost to their CV having run a national event. See here for more details!

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