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Atheists hit with death threats

12th May 2009 12:04:58

The National Student has discovered that a death threat made during an atheist event in Leeds is the latest example of ongoing opposition and alleged prejudice towards atheist societies on campus.

During an event held between April 19th - 25th called ‘Rationalist Week 09’ organised by Leeds University Atheist Society and billed as ‘the country’s largest atheist festival’ a member of the society allegedly received a face to face death threat.

It is said the student, who wished to remain anonymous, was threatened while patrolling outside the festival tent at night. The victim in question has decided not to go to the police, but police in Leeds are now investigating vandalism that also occurred during the event.
This is the second death threat received by the society, the last one being made by university’s Muslim society member’s state. They believe that this most recent threat may have also been made by the same people.

The previous death threat was made because the Leeds University Atheist Society wanted to show material in a debate about free speech that was deemed offensive to Islam, in this case the infamous Danish cartoons.

News of the death threat and vandalism in Leeds came on the same day that the Southampton University Atheist Society were finally permitted, after 2 months extensive blocks from their Muslim Society and SU, to hold a debate on the limits of free speech.

The debate was only permitted with police presence and security guard searches of student attendees, who claimed they were treated with suspicion and made to feel like they’d done something wrong.

The Pro Vice Chancellor attended and thanked the Atheist Soc for making a vital contribution to campus life by standing up for freedom of speech.

The process started two months ago Southampton Atheist Society sought to run a debate about freedom of speech featuring a screening of Geert Wilders’ controversial anti-Islamic short-film ‘Fitna’.

The university’s Muslim Society launched a petition which gained much support gathering 180 signatures against the event.

In response the students’ union intervened in the running of the event putting some conditions on the Atheist Society for them to be allowed to proceed. The atheists had to hire security guards when traditionally, Southampton societies don’t charge students for anything and have no income, and the event could only take place with police presence.

The motives of the atheists were also questioned - it was suggested that they wanted to show the film to stir up religious hatred and debate the validity of Islam. These accusations were met with outrage from members of the Atheist Society.

Between February and April it seemed possible that the Atheist Society was going to collapse due to public pressure.

However, Jens Christensen, President of the Atheist Soc made persistent efforts to claim that freedom of speech and whether or how it should be limited was the subject of the debate and nothing more.

Eventually the screening went ahead on Tuesday April 21, the same week in which Leeds Atheist Society received further death threats.

It is claimed that before entering the venue, some of the 20-25 students had food and drink confiscated and were frisked by police and security.

Muslim students were invited to the event but none attended on the evening. The event began with a speech by the Pro Vice Chancellor, Debra Humphris, outlining what the event was about and appealing for good conduct with no violence.

The debate concluded that there should be no limits on free speech, although suggested that the vulnerable could be manipulated by propaganda like Fitna.
A second year physicist called Joss concluded: “You can’t get rid of hateful ideas by silencing them - that just drives them underground where they get worse. It’s only by hearing these ideas that you can reply to them with counter arguments.”

In response the Muslim Society are responding with a talk called ‘An Intellectual Response to the Concept of Freedom of Speech’.

The Atheist Society have set up a joking petition to allow the event to go ahead without any fuss.
Speaking at the debate Jens Christensen, said, “I advocate free speech because it is pragmatically observed to be a good way of doing things. Good ideas tend to resonate more than bad ones, and hence our civilization benefits from everyone being able to speak freely. “Hate speech” is a sub category of “free speech”, typically it is intentionally offensive, based almost solely on personal opinions and designed to rally one population at the expense of another. The problem is that almost all opinions fielded about society from the most banal comment on public spending to the vile rantings of a white supremacist would fall somewhat into this category, and so the very act of judging if language counts as hate speech is subjective. Who is it offensive to?”

“We can’t really judge it by its inoffensiveness to a majority, since then a racial slur against a minority would really not an issue.”

Chloë Clifford-Frith, AHS Press Officer told The National Student that she believes atheist and agnostic students are experiencing prejudice on campus, “One of the reasons the AHS exists is to support uni groups who experience these problems. The level of suspicion with which the atheist societies have been treated in both cases is sadly quite common and a readily understood prejudice. There is a popular idea at present is that religious beliefs should be protected from criticism, because the religious are easily offended. This is misguided, not to mention rather patronising to religious people, because while human beings inherently deserve respect, ideas are open for debate. This a crucial aspect of a free society.”

“Student Unions may feel pressured to automatically side with religious groups because of the current trend, and religious groups are increasingly demanding immunity from having their ideas discussed. It should be noted that in both incidents neither of the Muslim Societies were actually even being targeted for criticism.”

She also explained that there are many examples of such prejudice on campus and in wider society, “Leeds have experienced death threats, vandalism, theft and SU discrimination in the past. Warwick Atheists were also stripped of their ‘Best New Society’ award and prize money in 2008 after a complaint that a poster for one of their talks was offensive. The award, but not the prize money was returned some months later. Some societies have experienced problems with their SUs refusing to ratify their existence. Again, this is symptomatic of a wider suspicion of people who profess to be atheists - as if there is something threatening about not believing in a god or gods. Even Prof Richard Dawkins, when attempting to set up the charitable educational foundation ‘The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’, had his forms returned to him with the suspicious question: ‘Please explain how “science” has benefited humanity’!”

Still under the banner of AHS atheist students are looking to expand the voice of non-religious students on campus. It is their aim to help at least 15 universities hold a ‘Rationalist Week next year and regardless of the problems the Leeds event has been considered a success.

The Leeds event ran for 24 hours a day for 7 days in a large tent baring a ‘there is no god’ sign over the entrance. It was the festival’s third year and it is expected, once again, to draw crowds of hundreds across the week. Events can even be watched online via a live webfeed.

A programme of interfaith and other educational events included ‘It’s Only Water’ - concerning homeopathic medicine, a church service to the cult god the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the ironic ‘Why are evil dictators always atheists?’.

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