Posts Tagged ‘A-Soc’

AHS – Gateway to the World?

October 18th, 2011 No comments

Last Tuesday, I delivered a lecture to the Leeds Atheist Society on how getting involved with your local student society is more than just a social opportunity with a few interesting talks thrown in. In order to really get the most out of the experience, I suggested that members should look to involve themselves early and then progress through to the wider community – i.e, AHS, BHA etc.

The theme of my lecture was on what the AHS and the BHA have to offer to students and how the local atheist, humanist or secularist student society offers a real platform from which to really explore those opportunities.

The AHS offers a fantastic range of ways of building experience and developing the CV. From the Regional Development Officers who gain invaluabvle experience of networking, communication and team working through to the Executive with their exposure to leadership, risk management, strategic planning and public relations there are saleable skills there for the taking.

Being a part of any organisations, particularly on a voluntary basis, is not easy and requires a time and resource commitment. However, it is my experience that this is well worth the effort. Unluike traditional internships and work experience, there is real flexibility in how the time and resources are delivered and as the leadership stems from the internship style positions, rather than managed from a permanent employee, then individuals can mould their experience to fit their needs.

Having gone from being a member of a society, through to leading that society and then going on to found and lead the AHS as president, I have had the chance to see what those opportunities look like. I met Richard Dawkins, negotiated affiliations with national charities, led a local campaign to ban Halal and Kosher meat, debated professional speakers and made some long lasting friendships with people from across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

It is my opinion that organisations like the AHS offer far more value than they are given credit for and if any students are reading this, then they should strongly consider looking to get involved.

2010 in Review

January 3rd, 2011 No comments

2010 started quietly for me on the blogging front, apart from my Twitter updates my first real blog post was about the 10:23 Homeopathy Overdose Project (which I was unfortunately unable to attend due to work commitments) and my strongly worded letter to David Cameron.

February was another quiet month on the blog front although I did spend a week in the Lakes and come hoem to find my house was flooded which left me without a PC for nearly a month.

March saw me foolishly making some long term plans about future living arrangements as well as celebrating’s 3rd birthday. I also gave up my car to cut down on costs and get ready for city centre living.

A good friend of mine was deported in April and threatened with death on his return to his native Pakistan. Leeds Atheist Society ran Reason Week 2010 and I started following Major League Soccer.

In May I spent a lot of time preparing for my speaking engagement at CWF’s Enquiry conference in Birmingham. I also split up with my partner and moved in with Chris and George.

June was world cup month, so the less said about it the better, but I was hardly in a celebrating mood following the events of the previous month.

I spent most of July running around the country with work, really throwing myself in to my job.

Blackpool started their Premier League campaign during August and I started to really get ready for my trip of a lifetime. The month finished with a really great weekend with Sarann at Solfest.

Eurotrip 2010 took up September. In three weeks Chris, Kieran, George and I took in Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Munich, Salzburg, Venice, Verona, St Gallen, Montreux, Monte Carlo and Jard-Sur-Mer. I also turned 26.

October was a catching up month. I was working a lot to pay off Europe and to make sure that I got my best ever performance review to date.

I was off around the country again in November. Taking in an audience with Greg Epstein and a load of gigs.

December saw me celebrate the success story of Blackpool FC’s season in the Premier League so far as well as the contribution made by their manager. I also found time to go and see Tim Minchin thank god for Sam’s Mum’s Cateracts.

As you can see, it has been a mixed bag of a year. Some real highs in the form of Eurotrip and the number of gigs I’ve managed to catch, but also some real lows.

I think 2011 might be OK, there are some things that I am already really excited about seeing how they pan out as well as some concrete plans to go to Dublin, Malta and maybe even back to Verona over the summer. I also have some great work to do with some of the organisations I support i.e. the AHS and BHA as well as continuing to build up my own career and developing some projects of my own.

Here’s to you 2011.

Reason Week 2010

April 9th, 2010 No comments

That’s right folks, it is that time of year again. The name might have changed and the tent might be in a different place to previous years, but Reason Week 2010 is going to be as epic as its predecessors!

Reason Week 2010 is going to focus its theme on science and ethics with talks on homeopathy (given by yours truly), freedom of expression and whether vitamin supplements do more harm than good. As usual there will be a plethora of debates, with the CU and new for this year AbSoc (a sect of Islam).

RW2010 kicks off in just over a week (17th April) and if you want more info then drop me a line or leave a comment. Alternatively, visit the Leeds Atheist Society’s web site for details.

UK want to send an atheist to his death!

April 1st, 2010 No comments

Community groups across Leeds have come together to unite behind a campaign to save an openly atheist doctor from being deported to Pakistan where he faces persecution for his beliefs. The campaign is designed to raise awareness via the media as well as social networking sites and an online petition.

Dr. Shaukat Aman Ullah became heavily involved with local atheist and humanist groups while studying for his doctorate at the University of Leeds. Dr. Ullah was in the UK on a student visa and applied for asylum on the completion of his Ph.D. His application was rejected in March; he is currently appealing the ruling.

Chris Worfolk, trustee of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies said:

This is exactly what our asylum laws were set up for. Here is an individual who faces genuine persecution for his beliefs in his own country. If we truly value freedom of expression and the right to your own beliefs we must grant asylum.

Sophie Stringfellow, president of Leeds Atheist Society said:

Being part of the Atheist Society has really opened my eyes as to how some people view non-belivers, even in modern society. If we encounter this attitude in a secular country such as the UK, I fear what attitudes may be encountered in Parkistan.

Parkistan has no separation of church and state and 95% of the population are Muslim. Apostasy is punishable by death, as is speaking out against Islam (as this is considered blasphemy).

Since the decision a coalition of Leeds community groups, led by Leeds Atheist Society have come together in order to raise awareness of Dr. Ullah’s case. Dr. Richard Parker of the Leeds-based Humanist Action Group commented:

It’s amazing to see how many people have volunteered to help spread the word. I would strongly urge everyone to sign the petition and show their support.

Arslan is a personal friend of mine and is already receiving death threats from people who wish to punish him for his decision to reject Islam. Support this campaign and sign the petition. If you have any messages of support or would like to get involved with the campiagn then either contact me or join the Facebook group and leave a message there.

Google Wave

November 29th, 2009 1 comment


Thanks to an invite from Kieran today, I have just started looking into the world of Google Wave – the real-time collaboration and communication application from Google. It is still in beta form and as such does not have all the features you would expect from the full commercial product. It is missing a lot of the customisation options that Google tends to include with its offerings.

Having only used Wave for a about an hour, I really can see some great potential in what it can do. I think this application will totally change the way that A-Soc and maybe the AHS can do business and conduct meetings, increasing participation and allowing a far more flexible approach to committee meetings in particular. Combining video and voice conferencing with the ability to attach documents, links and other bits to each thread in real-time is soemthing that I think will be of great benefit.

Of course, I do not have that many contacts to share with at the moment to test out a lot of the features and to see if this kind of application is something I would use on a regular basis. Potential is one thing, actually using it daily is another. I am a signed up user of Google Docs, Spotify, etc and barely use them (witht he exception of when on the train).

If you want an invite to join me on Google Wave then contact me with your email and how collaborating with me would be useful to us both. If you are already on Wave and want me to add you to my contacts, again contact me with your details.

I hope to let you all know how using Wave fares as I am really quite excited about it.

Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies – a history.

November 13th, 2009 No comments

I was invited to speak at the Humanist Society of West Yorkshire last night on my experience with Leeds Atheist Society and the AHS. This is my first real public speaking engagement since stepping down as AHS president in June this year. Below is an excerpt from the lecture that focusses on my own personal history with these organisations, although my lecture went into a bit more detail about the general history and possible future too.

I want to talk to you about the current burst of enthusiasm amongst students to take on religious societies at their own game and build student societies based around atheist or humanist or secularist principles.

There has been a great flurry of activity over the past two or three years with regards to getting young people, especially students, involved in these societies. Much of this activity has been instigated and masterminded right here in Leeds.

Before I go on to talk about the bigger picture, or even the local picture I want to introduce you to my own personal picture.

It all started when a when an enthusiastic first year friend of mine approached me in a bar to ask if I would sign a petition to request the formation of an Atheist Society at the University of Leeds Student Union. I declined the offer. I wasn’t an atheist, at best I was agnostic. How could I sign the form?

Luckily, that wasn’t the end of story. Whilst I had felt unable to literally sign up as an atheist there and then, it did inspire me to look at the matter in far more detail then I ever had previously. It was with this new found desire to understand atheism that within a month I was standing front and centre at the Atheist Society launch party in January 2007, fully signed up as a proverbial card carrying atheist. By the April of 2007 I was elected Secretary and had taken on a central leadership role within the Society.

This is probably a good time to speak about the growth of the Leeds University Atheist Society, seeing as much of the rest of the talk will branch off from this history as we go on.

As I mentioned before, Leeds Atheist Society was created in December 2006 as the brainchild of Chris Worfolk and quickly established itself as a society of big ideas when it announced that less than six months after forming it would put on a week long awareness event. This event was known as Rationalist Week and is now an annual flagship event for the society and has even been adopted by a number of other student societies and inspired the recent creation by the British Humanist Association’s Humanist Week.

Rationalist Week 2007 was the catalyst that allowed a small group of dedicated members to turn Leeds Atheist Society into the largest and most active student atheist society in the UK.

The society grew from a dozen members in 2006-2007 to fifty members in 2007-2008, making the society one of the fastest growing groups on campus. This growth in popularity did not go unnoticed and the society narrowly missed out on winning “Best New Society” at the annual Students Union awards.

As we moved in to our first full year we put on our first weekend away, taking 12 members to London for a weekend of debate, history and partying. We also ran a constant stream of events ranging from simple talks and lectures through to interfaith debate.

A real feather in the society’s cap was the introduction of the One Life course – a secular look at the important questions in life. The course is aimed at non-atheists and is designed to let them explore the meaning of life and the question of ethics without the need for a god.

I was elected president shortly after Rationalist Week 2008, a week that played host to over 40 events, saw us introduce a more spacious marquis and allowed us to reach in excess of a thousand students.

As president of the society, I helped steer us towards our current vision of education and enlightenment. This means a focus on teaching atheists as well as religious people what being an atheist or a humanist or a secularist really means. The launch of Perspective course also allowed us to teach atheists about other religions.

The society continued to grow and by the end of the 2008-2009 academic year we could boast a membership of just over 100. We also continued to develop Rationalist Week, with the 2009 event going 24/7 with events all day every day for a week. Answers course was also launched in March, aimed at developing our own members’ ability to express themselves and their atheist ideas.

In April 2009, a brand new executive committee took over the running of the society with a new brand of the education vision. The focus of the society is about not just educating our members but helping them to enrich their lives by providing opportunity for charity and helping them discover a way to live a more positive life based on humanist philosophies.

The growing popularity and the ever increasing range of events started to get the attention of other faith groups on campus. A screening of the documentary “What Muslims Want” developed into a heated debate, but nothing compared to some of the difficulties we were to encounter.

During Atheist Week in November 2007 we had our banners stolen in broad daylight and in February 2008 during the run up to my lecture on freedom of speech entitled “We will mock Muhammed if we want to…” I received personal death threats from anonymous Muslims. The society also received several threats from various quarters and in the end I took the decision to self-censor and remove some of the more controversial material from the presentation. Whilst running Rationalist Week 2008, we again had problems with our banners – this time seeing them defaced and covered in religious graffiti.

This problem was highlighted during Rationalist Week 2009 during a debate between Leeds Atheist Society and the Islamic Society. Not only was the atmosphere in the marquis highly charged with personal and religious insults flying around, but a group of Asian men sabotaged our generating equipment and physically threatened a number of our members.

So, I have regaled you with the saga of Leeds Atheist Society and many of you might wonder what this has to do with the growth of the student movement nationally. Well, the reasons that drove our society’s formation are behind many of the societies springing up across the UK.

There are several factors that have been suggested as causing, or helping to cause, this recent phenomenon. The ones I want to look at are the “Atheist Superstars”, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the encroachment of religion into our daily lives.

The deluge of publications that have erupted over the past decade or two has literally swept atheist and humanist ideas into the forefront of the public consciousness. People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens and Arianne Sherine have rarely been out of the bestseller lists or off the pages of newspapers since the turn of the century.

Atheism is no longer confined to the meeting rooms of community and education centres, it is no longer associated with dusty tomes and leather patched philosophy teachers. It is part of pop culture now and as such is part of youth culture. I know that several of my friends, and even me, would say that the availability of this material has played a significant role in our taking up of the atheist battle standard.

Another factor is the rise of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and the USA. It is virtually impossible to watch the news or read a paper or magazine without some reference being made to religious terrorism or some form of extremism – whether it be suicide bombs in Kabul or imprisoned school teachers in Sudan.

Whilst many students do not link their lack of belief directly to fundamentalism, there is a clear link between the religious rhetoric of Western leaders and the growing feeling amongst young people that they need to have their say about religion. This means that religion is no longer something that can be ignored and whispered about every now and again when some story slowly filters into the public domain. These days every religious story is in the public domain and moreover it is right in the middle of the public consciousness.

Finally, the most student orientated factor is the presence and power of religious societies on campuses across the UK. These societies represent less that 10% of the student population but many have a disproportionate amount of power and influence not only within Students Unions but also on higher education policy in general.

Many student atheist societies form to act as a counterpoint for these organisations, a way of forcing debate and critical thought amongst the student population. Religious societies have national representational bodies; some are even governed centrally too. It is this national influence that sparked the idea of a national atheist organisation specifically for students.

This national organisation started out as a single online resource centre for student atheists to use and a forum for them to share ideas and best practice, this hub was called Secular Portal. It was on a discussion thread on Secular Portal that an idea was floated to hold an atheist student conference. Several weeks later, representatives from six student societies along with advisers from the BHA, NSS and HSS sat in a lecture theatre at the University of Edinburgh and formed the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies. That was June 2008.

My role moving forwards from the creation of the AHS was to write the constitution. My remit was simple; write a comprehensive, democratic and sustainable constitution that allowed for the AHS to work towards charitable status within a few years. If any of you have had to write this kind of document will know, turning a simple remit into a workable document is not the simplest task. Nevertheless, by the November of 2008 we were ready to ratify the constitution and officially form the AHS as a legal entity.

It was decided to host the ratification conference in Leeds, the largest and most active of the founding member societies. At the conference, the constitution was ratified and I was elected its first president. My manifesto was clear, I was to lead the AHS to a national launch within six months and build membership to a sustainable level by our first AGM to be held in June 2009.

The first part of that manifesto was probably the easiest, although not without glitch, as we had a venue we could use for free in London and a host of press pulling speakers we could enlist to help us out. The only problem was ensuring that enough students would attend to help us gain members so we could really push on and move forwards.

The launch event itself was a massive success. Held in Conway Hall, home of the South Place Ethical Society, with guest speakers Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee and Anthony Grayling we managed to attract a sizeable audience and getting some fantastic press.

I stepped down as president in June 2009 to hand over to the next executive and the AHS has continued to build its national presence and develop its policies and procedures to continue to work towards a charitable status.

It is still vitally important that student atheist, humanist and secularist societies continue to thrive and that they are continued to be supported by a national organisation that aims to help out individual societies in a practical and meaningful way. This means supporting the development of new societies, provided guidance and resources to existing societies and also providing practical training to the committees of those societies to ensure sustainability and longevity. A national voice only works well if the4 focus is on the people it claims to speak for and not if its priorities lie in press coverage and campaigning.

Equality and Diversity

October 12th, 2009 No comments

This year was supposed to be my year off. I had stood down from most of the taxing commitments of the past few years (president of A-Soc, president of AHS etc) so that I could concentrate on a few other aspects of my life such as my career and my relationship. It seems this has not worked out quite the way I had hoped.

I was eleced back on to the A-Soc committee in April as the AHS rep for the society. Unfortunately, when I left university, I had to stand down from this position as the job has to be undertaken by a current student. This left me in a slightly difficult situation of not being on the committee, but still being involved in a number of projects. To avoid any issues and to ensure that the initiatives I was involved with didn’t fall by the wayside, I began to look for a way to continue serving the society on the committee. Luckily for me, the new society exec were looking to add a permanent equality and diversity co-ordinator to the committee. I had never really seen the need for a seperate role to oversee the development and promotion of a society wide equality and diversity policy, but with the union moving towards making the position compulsory over the next few years and the fact that it afforded me an opportunity to keep my hand in, I jumped at the chance and stood for election.

However, this means that I am now more heavily involved in the society than I had planned to be this year and means that the new society exec have two past presidents still serving alongsde them, which could be an issue moving forwards. Having said that, it does mean that the committee finlly has a balance to it that it previously had lacked. The committee is possibly slightly overloaded with left leaning, liberal hippy types, but then I don’t really expect much different with today’s university student.

Anyway, the best laid plans etc.

Farewell old friend

August 31st, 2009 No comments

Take in the Leeds Atheist Society logo above as it may be the last chance we see it. After three good years of service and exposure to thousands of students over that period, it is nearing retirement. This is due to the new committee looking to move the society in a new direction.

I have always hada softspot for this logo. It may be simple design but for a lot of Leeds students, past and present, it has come to represent the very values that the society has stood for over the years. The colours representing the dawn of enlightenment, the application of reason to improtnat questions, the use of open debate to draw to rational conclusions and not least of all embodying the bright futures many of our alumni have gone on to. The tree itself representing the tree of knowledge, the foundation of the society based on strong roots in philosophy, science and art. The branches representing the many groups of atheists or agnostic people that make up the society.

I will be sad to see it go but hopefully the new committee will devleop an idea even stronger and bolder and this will help forge a new era for the society.

Midweek Karaoke!

August 4th, 2009 No comments

Dfusion001zk2Just got back from celebrating Sophie’s 21st birthday at D-Fusion in Leeds. D-Fusion is a karaoke bar/restaurant/night club and is well worth a punt if you are bored or just love singing in public! Drinks are reasonably priced for this kind of place and the staff seem really friendly. Their song collection appeared to be particularly weak to start with, the book of songs being very thin. However, the manager informed me that they had over 20,000 songs on their karaoke control machine and that they could find any song we requested.

With this being a Tuesday night, many of the faces were from A-Soc and a few of the committee got the ball rolling in terms of singing, Zoltan biting the bullet and getting up first.

The night was good, although I left relatively early as had just compelted a 12 hour shift at work and I am due back at work in less that 8 hours! Luckily I have a half day, finishing around lunchtime but back for 12 hours on Thursday to try and make an imapct on the backlog we have built up.

Is Atheism the New Coca-Cola?

August 3rd, 2009 7 comments

Since leaving university and stepping down from my positions with the AHS and Leeds Atheist Society I have had quite a bit of free time on my hands, much of which has been spent looking at new ways of developing a national identity for atheists.

I don’t know how many of you will have ever tried looking at how many different groups exist for atheists and the seemingly endless associated groups, humanists, secularists, brights, freethinkers, rationalists, sceptics etc, but there are a lot. Almost every conceivable name and wordplay related to atheism, humanism, secularism etc has been used and there is a group set up. However, the majority of these groups have relatively low numbers and small areas of influence. In fact with the exception of the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society, these groups receive little to no national attention.

I think this is a problem. I think it is perhaps a greater problem, however, that there is no unified group representing all non-religious people. Whilst it is true that no two atheists (and I will use atheist from now on as an umbrella term for anyone who describes themselves as non-religious) have the same desires, ambitions or even world views, they do tend to exhibit broadly similar political and ethical views. These views should be expressed to decision makers, politicians and commercial leaders. Atheists should have a national voice that should be listened to.

Having spent some time with the BHA I can report that they do sterling work in the name of humanism and the NSS, likewise for secularism but they don’t represent enough people. Their image is not attractive to young atheists, for example, and their membership demographics highlight this. There is a need for a unifying brand to be created and heavily marketed. The most difficult thing for atheists to grasp at the moment seems to be the need to start running an organised, national atheist centred organisation that represents everyone, regardless of the name they call themselves. Moreover, this organisation needs to be run like a business.

The more time I spend delving into local and regional groups, and even some of the larger national groups, is the feeling that they are not meant to be attracting new faces, finding new blood. What is more depressing is the fact that the large organisations do not have the resources or, seemingly, the desire to recruit and retain members.

In order to develop the kind of business, the kind of brand that I have alluded to above, requires a rethink of how atheist organisations should approach marketing, recruitment and ultimately their basic business model. People in today’s world are consumers. We consume everything. We should start appreciating this fact and begin to treat members and potential members like customers and potential customers respectively. If atheist organisations approached recruitment like a service brand approaches their customer base I believe they would be far more successful.

These organisations need to start marketing themselves not as a luxury, discretionary purchase such as a large screen TV or an expensive tailor made holiday, but an essential! Once you have started to change people’s minds about how essential their worldview is to their lives then you can start to turn your customers into fans. Brand loyalty is something that the religious organisations have built up and the strength of this loyalty is stronger than that of household names like Coca-Cola and Sky. Atheists should be aiming for that kind of loyalty.

This kind of loyalty can only be developed if atheists stop thinking of themselves as idealists and start thinking of themselves as offering a service, a product.