by Thaddeus Aid and Frank Cook
Original posting at The Tab
Recently South Bank University Student Union forced the South Bank Atheist Student Society to pull down a parody of Michelangelo’s Adam and God, first saying that the genitals of Adam were offensive but then following that up with a complaint that it was offensive to religious students, SBASH was removed from the Fresher’s Fair. At about the same time the Reading University Atheist Student Society was removed from the Reading University Student Union’s society list for naming a pineapple Mohammad the previous year, again citing offense to religion.
Parody and sarcasm are a valuable tools in the criticism of belief systems that you don’t agree with. If the Young Labour Supporters put up an unflattering image or critical meme of David Cameron, no one would bat an eye. If someone thinks their child should not play with children of a lower class (I’m looking at you, Hopkins), we laugh it off and forget about it.
Being offended doesn’t give you any special rights; you don’t get to silence your critics because you have hurt feelings. For example, I am offended when I’m told that homosexuality goes against God’s design, as if they have chosen to go against God in this way. Or I’m offended when a perfectly respectable person seeks to justify slavery or genocide in any religious book, simply because it has the words “God did it” in front. How offended can you be when the most reasonable course of action in your eyes is to mobilise and try to formally ban something? If the Christian Societies discuss non-believers going to hell for sin then they are protected by religious freedom of speech. This is of course horribly offensive to those that don’t believe in Jesus, but we will defend your right to preach it, just as our right to disagree and discuss should be protected.
But where do you draw the line? If someone is calling for violence then yes, they should have their expression limited, however society needs to have an open and critical look at the world views that people hold from political to social to religious. Incidentally, the number of “militant” atheists who actually believe in a call to arms is infinitesimally small in comparison to the number of religious people who think of violence as a suitable exercise for their beliefs.
The sad reality is that, of all places, surely one’s University is the best environment for people to come together to form a place of inquiry and expression. All voices need to be heard and protected and you can’t shut down one group in favour of another. University is where you get introduced to new ideas and different world views and it is an important part of the experience, sometimes these world views clash and this needs to be explored and discussed. Religious students should be introduced to the flaws in their world views just as secular students should be introduced to theirs. Sixth week sees the return of Think Week, where the exploration of knowledge and doubt is the driving force behind all the public events held.
The Student Unions have an obligation to provide a safe space for all students to explore new ideas and to meet new people that share the same ideas. This is true of all students including secular students. Atheists are a minority that need to be protected just as LBGTQ, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh or Jewish students do. In a strange sort of way, I’m happy that this whole saga has exploded into national news, because it will bring to the attention of the public the ridiculousness of what happened. Student Unions need to stop acting as if censorship is more important than the freedom of speech, and should provide a safe environment for all students to come together and to debate issues that are important to people.