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The march of the atheist movement

First it was a bus, now a student body has been formed to spread the secular 

By Jerome Taylor

Friday, 20 February 2009

In the rush-hour traffic on High Holborn, commuters were getting off one of 
many London buses that carry an advert proclaiming the beginning of Psalm 53: 
"The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God."

But, in a theatre down the road, hundreds had gathered to proclaim exactly that 
– that there is indeed no God and those who think there is one are, in fact, 
the real fools.

Greeted by a cardboard cutout of Darwin, they gathered in Conway Hall, the 
headquarters of the Ethical Society, for the creation of the first national 
student body to represent and lobby for the rights of young British atheists.
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The launch of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student 
Societies – which the founders have agreed to shorten to the abbreviated AHS – 
is the latest in a series of pro-secular movements that have sprung up to 
oppose what they believe is a growing pandering towards religious groups.

With scientists and rationalists celebrating the bicentenary of Darwin's birth 
this year, the timing is more than apt. But the creation of this latest 
manifestation of atheism reveals a renaissance over the past three years for 
secular and humanist ideals that began with Richard Dawkins' book The God 
Delusion and only recently manifested itself in the popular atheist bus 
campaign, in which double deckers carried the message: "There's probably no 
God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

There was once a time when those ideals were, of course, commonplace. Two 
centuries ago, progressive intellectuals of the post-Enlightenment age were all 
too happy to predict the end of religion, that the triumph of science and 
reason would win out and that man would turn away from God. Throughout the 
1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, student atheist groups were a vibrant and 
influential part of university life. Thinking the battle had been won, they 
largely died out two decades ago .

But, as religious conflict spreads once again throughout the world, throwing 
the Western world into a so-called clash of civilisations with radical Islam, 
the time is ripe, according to secularists, for a new religion – a 
live-and-let-live brand of soft atheism.

Dressed in a sharp suit and sporting a carefully trimmed goatie, 24-year-old 
Norman Ralph, the newly anointed president of AHS, explained why he feels it is 
time for Britain's atheists to unite. "I firmly believe that the secular 
traditions of this country are being openly challenged on all sides," he said. 
"But I also think there is a growing wave of British atheism sweeping the 
country and we need to ride that wave. Ever since 9/11 people are being 
challenged to pick a side. There is such a push at the moment to be politically 
accepting of religious views that those who don't have a religion are, in fact, 
missing out. That is a message that I think will be popular to many people."

If the recent atheist bus campaign is any indication, he may be right. When 
Ariane Sherine, the young comedian behind the adverts, somewhat jokingly 
suggested that atheists should all donate £5 to sponsor a bus campaign that 
would spread a secular message rather than the usual Biblical extracts, she was 
flooded with donations and letters of support.

Her original aim was to raise £5,500 to run 30 bus ads across London for four 
weeks. Within weeks, the campaign had managed to raise more than £150,000 
thanks to a huge response from the public and the financial clout of Dawkins 
who agreed to match any donations. Over the past month, more than 800 buses 
across the country have been driving around with the "There's Probably No God" 
slogan and plans are afoot to place 1,000 more adverts on the Tube system. The 
idea has also spread abroad, with secular groups in America and Spain being 
prompted to take out their own bus adverts.

Considering his prominent involvement in the atheist bus campaign it was 
perhaps no surprise that Professor Dawkins attended the launch of AHS and 
announced that his charitable foundation would be willing to give support to 
students who wished to set up an atheist society at university.

"University is a place where people think, a place where people evaluate 
evidence," the former Oxford don said. "Public statements of non-belief are 
treated as threatening, an affront to the religious, while the reverse is not 
true. More concerning is the enduring assumption that religious belief does not 
have to earn respect like any other view, an approach that has caused 
politicians and public figures across the UK to withdraw from asking the vital 
question: why is religion given such special status in government, culture and 
the media? Why is belief in a higher power an indication of greater moral 
fortitude, character and acumen? No opinion should be protected from criticism 
simply by virtue of being religiously held."

Chris Worfolk, a 22-year-old Leeds University graduate, was one of many 
students who travelled to London for the launch. He said atheists in Leeds 
initially found it difficult to form their own society because of opposition 
from students' groups like the Islamic Society and the Christian Union. "It 
took us a long time to get our society up and running. There was a lot of 
opposition," he said. "One of the issues we are trying to lobby the university 
on is the serving of halal meat in the canteens."

Chloë Clifford-Frith, who recently graduated from St Hilda's in Oxford, said 
students today had a duty to promote atheist ideas: "We live in a world where 
religious governments execute adulterers and homosexuals, deny women and 
minority groups basic freedoms, circulate fraudulent claims about contraception 
and scientific research and create laws that protect them from criticism," she 
said. "We are privileged, in such a world, to live in a country where we can 
even have this debate. As such, we have a duty to bring it into our 
universities and beyond."

Taking a stand: Notable non-believers

Diagoras of Melos

Often referred to as the "first atheist", Diagoras was a poet and sophist who 
openly spoke out against religion in ancient Greece and was forced to flee 
Athens for doing so. Unfortunately, little record of what he thought survives 
although we know that he publicly questioned the Eleusinian Mysteries, an 
elaborate series of ceremonies.

Albert Einstein

Einstein was regularly asked if he thought there was a god. In developing the 
theory of relativity, he realised there must have been a beginning to the 
universe. The question he struggled with was what came before the beginning? He 
concluded: "I do not believe in a personal God. If something is in me which can 
be called religion, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of 
the world so far as our science can reveal it."

Mark Twain

A fearsome critic of organised religion, Twain wrote many of the soundbites 
atheists repeat today, such as: "If Christ were here, there is one thing he 
would not be: a Christian." Born in 1835, a year Halley's comet was seen, he 
ironically predicted "the Almighty" would take him next time the comet passed 
near Earth. He died in 1910, two weeks after the comet was spotted once more.

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