The morning started badly.
I woke up at 7am in order to have enough time to get my train, which was fine, however I also had the most brutal of hangovers thanks to an ill-advised boys night out. It could have been much worse though, I left the drinking session early because of the conference, which turned out to be a wise move as the guys regaled me with stories of pink cocktails and similarly coloured bodily expulsions.
From then it was smooth sailing to the conference location, held this year at the Royal National in central London. I met up with Chris, a wonderfully rational and funny friend of mine outside the centre where I proceded to dose myself up to the eyeballs with coffee in a bid to shift the quite horrific pain behind my left eyeball. The bid was futile.
The conference hall was set up lecture style, with a variety of tables at the back of the main room belonging to different atheist, humanist and secularist groups. I chatted to some of the groups, helped myself to a program, free bag and a few neat badges before finding myself a seat near the front with Chris in tow. Io was nowhere to be seen at this point, so I gave her a call to make she hadn’t somehow inadvertently ended up in brixton, or indeed, given her apprehension about London travel, John O’Groats.
I wandered outside about 10 minutes before the starting time to the lobby and met the female half of Amplified Atheist about a minute before start and showed her to our seats. Below is a brief outline of the main concepts covered by each of the speakers and my opinion on each one. (each speaker’s heading links to the audio of the scrips except Maryam and Dawkins)
Professor Cantle spoke eloquently, and at length about multiculturalism policies and concepts, and how his report and suggestions have led towards a greater shift to “interculturalism”. To those whom these words make no sense: Multiculturalism is the fostering and tolerance of different cultures in shared spaces, each free to implement their own cultural heritage. Interculturalism or “Cohesion” policies are about community bonding, with policies that are relevant to all cultures with an end to those set up based on race or religion alone. For example as opposed to a “Muslim” social support group, there should be just a “social support” group for all cultures.
I agreed effusively with professor Cantle about the majority of his statements and ideas, especially about interculturalism removing the ability for “faith” leaders to speak on behalf of a whole community. I wholeheartedly support the concepts he described.
Firstly, I wish Nia Griffith was my MP.
My MP, putting it as mildy as I can, is an utter fucking moron. If I was being ultra cynical I’d say that Nia was playing up to the majority in a way that only MP’s know how, however this would be doing her a massive disservice as I think it’s clear that her passion for secularism runs deep. It was fantastic to learn that the Welsh assembly is completely secular, with no prayers or other such nonsense wasting time at the beginning.
Nia was funny, intelligent, entertaining and enlightening with her talk on contemporary politics and how the fight for secularism seems to be a constant uphill battle against the old guard. She made the point very clearly that barely any progress had been made in parliament to progress the UK towards a modern secular society, often finding the excuses that there are more important things in government to worry about. I’d argue that it is important to catch up to modern Europe in having a secular government. We are the ONLY COUNTRY in the developed world to have bishops in government by virtue of the fact that they are bishops. It makes my blood boil.
It was also interesting to hear her say that they receive very few letters in support of a motion, it’s almost always letters and communications to complain about something. This is something I’ll keep in mind when there a positive moves towards secularism, Lords reform and LGBT fairness.
Pragna Patel’s talk I found to be unnecessarily wordy and ponderous. Which isn’t to take away from the importance of what she was trying to say, however I found it difficult to pull out precisely what the core points were. Pragna said that women in ethnic and religious communities should have a specific place to go to if they were being abused – which to my ears sounded contrary to the points made my professor Cantle about interculturalism. Apparently as a consequence (unintended or otherwise) her support group – the Southall Black Sisters, was under threat as their funding is being withdrawn.
- Bonus Perseus Show Off Moment!
I’d taken to a particular statement Pragna made in which she stated that she found professor Cantle’s report, and subsequent suggestions of policy switch to a more inclusive “intercultarism” as being fundamentally flawed. So I thought I’d challenge her on it. The question went as follows:
You mentioned at the beginning of your talk you found Professor Cantles concept of interculturalism deeply flawed. What do you consider a more viable alternative?
It turned out that she hadn’t listened to professor Cantle’s speach so didn’t feel adequately prepared to defend the statement she just made – the rest of her answer to me was so long and wordy that it took up all of her remaining question and answer time, and I can’t recall much of what she suggested beyond a vague reference to “Strong Multiculturalism”. Sorry Pragna.(you can hear her speech here and the aforementioned question at 27:15)
Nick was a fantastically eloquent and inspiring speaker – talking about self-censorship and imploring us to always be free to criticise “divinely inspired bigotry and facism”. His passion for free speech and how we should never be deterred from our right to it even in the face of threats of violence was fabulous, and evocative of Hitch in his refusal to back down to fascist terror threats in his robust rebuttals to religious lunatics. There is no greater compliment I can grant him than that.
He told a fantastic anecdote about how a trashy romance novel about Muhammed, that was written in such a way to be completely and utterly non-insulting – even changing history to make him seem less of a child rapist and murderer – was removed from the shelves when ONE islamic scholar in the US who hadn’t even read it properly stated it was an insult to islam. The publisher got scared not of a threat, but of the potential of a threat.
Your freedom of expression is at risk, don’t let the unenlightened take it from you.
It was time for lunch and finally a chance to have a chat to my blogger in arms, Io, who hitherto I’d never met, despite blogging together. Our mutual enjoyment of metal and an intolerance of theistic bollocks meant we got on brilliantly (at least… I think we did!). It was strange in that because of our online communication I felt like I knew her already! She is very much lovely and the proudest mum & fiancee I’ve ever met. Had we met earlier in life I’ve no doubt we’d be great friends, and I’d like to think we will be from this point on.
I also at this point met the charming and quite absurdly handsome “Logical Narwahl” who we found and then spent the rest of the conference with. Narwahl was very friendly, intelligent and witty. He shared the Amplified Atheist view on the bucket of fuckery that is atheism+, which of course endeared us to him all the more. Basically, everyone I met there was my sort of person. I wish I could have a beer or two with all of them. Except the priest guy. He creeped me out. Ugh.
Side note: there appeared to be a pretty much 50 / 50 gender split to my eyes and I did not see a single instance of anything approaching harrassment, sexual or otherwise at the conference. This is only of relevance to you if you’ve been keeping up with the a+ shennanigans.
We also found the one and only professor Dawkins, who turned up just in time for the free sandwiches:
I’ll be honest – at this point in the day, after eating more than a fair share of the complimentary sandwiches I was beginning to flag as the excess booze I’d consumed the evening before started to take its toll. This combined with it being uncomfortably warm and a touch cosy inside the conference hall led me to sort of drift in and out of Peter Tatchell’s talk. I did find out however that he was the winner of this year’s Secularist of the Year prize. Which is pretty fucking awesome. His main points were also around how religious organisations and theocracies are the greatest threats to freedom, and human rights today. Which is something I can totally agree with. Secularism is a much better philosophy for both theists and atheists alike. Society and government function better without a religious leech draining and poisoning them.
Maryam’s talk was the highlight for me, Io, Narwahl and Chris as she delivered a devastating, passionate and ferocious salvo against islamo-fascism and the horrors of sharia law. I can’t do justice to how amazing she was, her presentation was a tour-de-force, and it was truly compelling and educational. I urge you all to read the talk in full right here. Go do it. Now. And only come back here when you are done.
A couple of key points from it that had me completely aghast:
The Islamic Sharia Council in Britain explains for example why a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s. ‘If one forgets, the other can remind her.’ It’s the difference between a man and a woman’s brains.’ ‘A woman’s character is not so good for a case where testimony requires attention and concentration.’
In a Sharia court in Britain, a woman can’t even sign her own marriage contract; a male guardian must do it on her behalf. Child custody goes to the father at a pre-set age irrespective of the welfare of the child. Marital rape is seen to be the prerogative of the husband – a sharia judge recently said calling it rape is the act of aggression. The rules here in Britain are the same as the ones women in Iran face in family courts.
And they are also dealing with child marriages, which is nothing more than religiously-sanctioned child rape and paedophilia. In 2010, around 30 cases of child marriages were reported in Islington alone. At least three 11-year-old girls and two nine-year-olds had been forced into marriage with older men. The oldest girls were 16.
Shocking isn’t it? Maryam also urged everyone to stand up to this and to denounce anyone that would dare to call you a racist for questioning and criticizing islamists and sharia law. Those liberals who would claim in their defence this is all their “right to religion” are as ignorant as they utterly stupid. I for one am not afraid to call out any theistic bullshit for what it is. Dark age, ancient, out of touch, lying, oppressive, fascist bullshit. This conference has only made me more confident in doing so.
Professor Richard Dawkins
There’s really not much I can say about Dawkins speech that would surprise you. Suffice to say it was about 40 minutes of trolling Christianity and it’s most peculiar sub-division, Mormonism. His presentation was typically sharp and witty, with his laying in to Mitt Romney a particular highlight. He also spent some time satirising Tony Blairs ridiculous faith foundation, much to my delight.
The Q&A was also interesting, with the opportunity for him to again passionately denounce those that label their children after their faith, which you can tell is a rather large bugbear of his just by the way he talks about it.
Home Time :-(
It seemed as soon as it started, the conference closed to rapturous applause and appreciation by everyone there. I didn’t know what to really expect both in terms of the content of the conference and the people I’d meet. However the whole day completely blew apart my expectations. I sincerely wanted to stay for drinks with some of the guys we met there, however I had other commitments that evening that I needed to attend to.
I returned from the conference a head full of new knowledge and a heart full of inspiration. I was very impressed with the calibre of the speakers and breadth of subject matter, and I am determined to attend next years meeting as well as other similar ones such as the BHA conference.
I had such a great day out, it was fantastic to meet my fellow blogger and some other Twitter activists who were all just the loveliest people you could meet, I can’t wait for the chance for us all to meet up again for a proper chat.
Till next time, fellow secularists x