HSV Lecture 2009 – Promoting Humanism on Campus

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HSV Public Lecture given by Jason Ball on 26 November 2009 at Balwyn Library


In 2005, Jason attended an American high school as an exchange student. He discovered that he was the only person in his class who accepted the concept of evolution. This led to much vigorous debate with his classmates and prompted him to read more widely about science and religion and develop his ability to
think critically. Around this time Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion were published, and he began to see atheism as a movement to promote rational thought, as much as a belief system.

Back in Australia he enrolled at the University of Melbourne and was eager to find other people with whom he could discuss his ideas. There were about thirteen student religious clubs on campus at that time, many with an evangelical focus. They vigorously advertised their bible study groups and regularly chalked religious messages on the footpaths around the campus.

Knowing that surveys had shown more than 50% of Gen Y (his peer group) were either atheist, agnostic or non-religious, Jason was keen to help organise students who wanted to endorse reason and science, rather than dogma and superstition. Moreover, he wanted to foster debate between the two camps about seminal
questions, such as the origin of the universe and the existence of god.

As a result, the University of Melbourne Secular Society was founded in 2007, with the following aims: to encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism and dogma; to further the acceptance and application of science, reason and critical thinking on campus and in the wider community; to challenge misrepresentations and promote acceptance of non-religious lifestyles; to promote debate surrounding ideas of religion, science, philosophy, politics and ethics; to create a campus community for freethinkers and sceptics; to cultivate in ourselves – and others – a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity; to counter all forms of religious political extremism; to defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state; to defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and disability; to unite freethinkers, sceptics, atheists, agnostics and humanists in the pursuit of these common goals. The annual membership fee is a mere $2 and there are now over 300 members.

One of the first activities of the new group was the ‘Quotes of Reason’ campaign. They countered the christian messages chalked on the pavement with their own. (The collection of over 500 quotes can be viewed on their website, www.umss.org.) They also organised a series of debates with the Christian Union students, saying that it was important to avoid generalisations and assumptions about the views of others, as well as necessary to understand their position. During National Science Week they hosted a prominent overseas speaker on campus. In 2008 it was Michael Shermer and this year, Lawrence Krauss.

To help build a sense of community on campus they have pub nights and barbecues. For the clowning around that takes place in Prosh Week, they set up Team Pastafarian, featuring the Flying Spaghetti Monster. During Open Day, many students and visitors took the opportunity to have their photo taken with Charles Darwin – or at least the life-size cardboard cut-out of him that UMSS had erected, with funds from National Science Week.

Jason is also linked with the Young Australian Skeptics. An active blog occurs through this website (www.youngausskeptics.com), with at least 20 young people regularly contributing discussion, debate and critique. They have organised a podcast, or internet radio show, in which their opinions about pseudoscience and religion are aired. It is racily designed and has been very popular, with over 2,000 downloads. In addition 15 different campus groups have registered with the Skeptics.

Some research has shown that members of Gen Y who are not religious are less likely to be involved in community welfare activities. However, Jason maintains that this is a reflection of the lack of organisational infrastructure among young atheists, rather than a lesser degree of compassion. Over the long summer vacation the UMSS is planning several community projects, including work in a soup kitchen, planting trees and a drive for blood donors.

As there are nearly two dozen freethought student organisations scattered throughout campuses across
Australia, UMSS is now involved in setting up the Freethought University Alliance, a national umbrella body. A website is being established. It will help with the organisation for the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne from 12th to 14th March 2010. It will facilitate networking and help locate free accommodation in Melbourne for visiting students. (Does anyone have a spare bed, or couch, for an interstate atheist student?) Many social events and round table discussions are en-visaged in conjunction with the Convention.

Report by Jennie Stuart