Hello, my name is Phoebe Owen and I am the newly elected President of Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (WASH). I decided to run for President a couple of weeks ago because the world is becoming strange and unfamiliar to me. It is a world that is becoming increasingly frightening and full of hate. Countless Muslim refugees pour across the Mediterranean to our shores, unwelcomed by the far-right and used by the ‘Left’ to tirade against government. Yet, even without these refugees, our own cities have beggars, we are oppressed by taxes and our rationale is questioned daily. Our aged are in want, our educational system is being priced so it benefits the few and not the many. Are these the signs of a happy, fair society?
We seek as individuals to gain what we can – but as a collective we do mostly nothing. The prisons are full, food banks are on the rise, unjust laws are forced upon us by unfeeling governments who pit one religion against another in order to gain votes and power. Social media eschews patriotism, secularism, pro-LGBTQ, yet will take down a post if they believe the content of it to be ‘out of line.’ Say goodbye to free speech.
We see it every day – extremism from every front, on every political issue, on the TV, radio, social media…you don’t need me to tell you where to find it. But, increasingly, what we have is a gradual restriction of our freedom to express what we believe, whether it be on a religious or political issue. The freedom to express your belief is essential to any society, and the freedom to challenge those beliefs is crucial if that society is to be progressive and more open.
The rights we are told are enshrined in law are the very rights that have been eroded by successive governments blaming anything from war to terrorism to our own safety. At the point where this illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, the scenery will fall, they will pull back the curtains and all you’ll see is the brick wall at the back of the theatre. The reality of this is how long do we stand by and do nothing and let the illusion continue?
Although I am an Atheist, I understand that people will still decide to believe in God and follow Religious doctrine. Whilst I do not share their views I still maintain that belief is a personal choice and would fight to protect anybody’s right to worship. Thomas Paine said over 200 years ago, “Whatever is my right as an individual is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”
But when religious views start to infringe on the rights of individuals to act in the way that they see fit, that is when the problems start. Restricting the movement or voices of those who fight against oppressive narratives within religion is only going to strengthen these bigoted views and help them become normative. It is vital that in the face of the recent attacks in Belgium, Lahore and Ankara that all narratives are challenged as no view is beyond dispute. Universities, I believe, are the first places where this should happen – in fact, students should be starting these debates.
Speakers who are considered to have views which incite hatred or offence continue to be banned from speaking in universities, and bigoted views are allowed to go unchallenged. It seems that according to the NUS, toxic narratives warrant less criticism. This is wrong. Any view, whether it be racist, homophobic or sexist should be contested by speakers who argue the opposite, and it should be university students who are given the means by which to challenge them. The protest that was staged a couple of weeks ago outside the NUS buildings in London was a good start but evidently more needs to be done!
If, dueing my tenure as President of WASH, I am able to convince ten people to question their rigid dogma, their life, their education, the reasons for radicalisation, the reasons for liberalisation – then I may have achieved one small thing. Then if those ten people make another ten people question the same, then even without me knowing it, I will have started a chain of events that may one day lead to freedom of expression. Whilst I know I cannot change the illusion on my own, and the change will be gradual, I hope my idea will settle in somebody’s mind, who is brave enough to take and carry the baton of free expression to the next level. This will only happen as a result of pluralism and open debates, and I hope more of these will be hosted by WASH. It will take time and it will take patience, and better people than me failed in the same quest. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. This is my one step!