Daniel Sharp is the President of the University of Edinburgh Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society. Here we talk about his work and the society.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your background in secularism and freethought in family and early life? And 2. How did this provide a basis for developing into a secular person?
Daniel Sharp: First of all, thanks for asking to talk to me! And hello Canadian friends!
In my family and early life secularism and freethought were not concepts I knew anything about. Not because my family was particularly religious- my Dad was a bit of a Protestant, but not very churchgoing- but because, I suppose, British society is so secular that in many cases a lot of people have no need to think about such issues.
But these issues exist, of course, even in Britain (you’re shocked, I know, that Britain can be a terribly chaotic and awful place, all indications to the contrary). I first became aware of them- how else?- by reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in high school, after a friend recommended it to me. Though I had been vaguely Christian in my childhood- going to Scripture Union and church youth groups- I had just kind of fallen away from it. And Dawkins made me an explicit atheist, secularist, humanist, and freethinker.
Thereafter I read many more books on the subject, by all the usual suspects, and looked into all the debates surrounding these issues. And then I got involved with the Humanist Society- now the Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society- at the University of Edinburgh, and became passionate about secular issues in Britain, such as the bishops who sit by right in the House of Lords. I’m still a fairly unreconstructed New Atheist, I admit, but my interests are wide, and I’m interested broadly in political, social, historical, and other matters. On good days I’m the A.C. Grayling cuddly New Atheist; on others, the Hitchensian ruthless type!
Jacobsen: At the University of Edinburgh Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society, what are your tasks and responsibilities?
Sharp: I organise the weekly baby-eating ritual.
Aside from that, it’s mostly organisational: thinking of events, contacting speakers, booking rooms, and suchlike. And I have great fun hosting the events, introducing our guests and going to the pub after. I’m also the main host of the Society’s podcast, Pondering Primates. And then there are other administrative matters, like sending out newsletters, dealing with university bureaucracy.
As for responsibility- they really were idiots putting me in such a position! I like to participate, so it’s hard being the neutral host of an event, and I’m not always able to be entirely neutral. But I do take my responsibilities seriously. Since I’m in a position of trust, if anyone has issues they should feel free to come to me, or anyone else on the committee, without fear, whether they want help with personal issues- we can offer advice and point them to more qualified people- or are having an issue with a member of the Society (even if it’s one of the committee- just go to someone else, we’re not a clique, and are accountable to each other and to our members), or anything else. I also have to make sure events run smoothly- which means being alert to the possibilities of harassment, violence, and conflict of the unwanted sort (conflict of ideas and robust but civil disagreement is, of course, welcome).
Jacobsen: What are some of the fun community activities of the University of Edinburgh Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society?
Sharp: Going to the pub! Ha!
And, of course, our events- usually we have speakers and open discussions, so everyone is encouraged to ask questions and get involved. The podcast, too, is very fun, and open to anyone who wants to participate, from students to professors.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved in the University of Edinburgh Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society?
Sharp: Check out our Facebook page, or sign up to our mailing list, to see all our upcoming events- and come along, anyone is welcome! Or get in touch via social media or email, especially if you want to come on the podcast.
Jacobsen: What are some of the main reasons for the existence of groups like the University of Edinburgh Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society?
Sharp: Hmm. I think it differs. In the US, for example, such societies, I imagine, are more about raising awareness of atheists, given that atheists are still distrusted there. Here in Scotland, a very secular country already, we still have our issues, as mentioned above, especially in regard to tricky topics like multiculturalism, which too often is a disguise for religious reactionaries to impose their agendas, so by contributing to debate in the public square we participate in these essential discussions. Also, I think such societies tend to be the most in favour of debate and free speech, another tricky topic these days, sadly, and so we function as a place where the marketplace of ideas can flourish unfettered. Such discussions is in and of itself essential to any society which wishes to call itself civilised.
Jacobsen: Are there other societies or organizations that you would recommend for people?
Sharp: There’s a note on our Facebook page listing some organisations we align with. To mention a couple here: the National Secular Society, Humanists UK, and the Edinburgh Secular Society are all groups whose values we broadly support and whose work ought to be more appreciated, especially given the battles and pushback they face. In fact, our Society is affiliated with the NSS.
Jacobsen: As a MA Hons. English Literature and History student at The University of Edinburgh, who have been important writers and figures in the history of secularism and freethought? Why them? What were there most distinguishing contributions?
Sharp: Well, what a question! As suggested above, some of my main influences have been the so-called New Atheists, who are important because they brought the religion debate back into the centre of public attention and provided an admirable example of not giving a damn about sacred cows. Their robust approach- disagreeing while not lowering themselves to hurling insults as so many of their enemies did and so many people today do- is one we’d be well advised to emulate.
But as many have pointed out, the freethinking tradition is not new. It goes back a long way, to great Greek thinkers such as Lucretius, Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and more recent activists such as Robert Ingersoll in the US, Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the NSS, and Andrew Copson, currently the Chief Executive of Humanists UK. And so many others, past and present, from Annie Besant to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. All of these figures were distinguished contributors to the freethinking, secularist cause. What unites them, despite historical distance and sometimes disparate experiences and values, is a willingness to reason rigorously and campaign honestly. Atheism, humanism, secularism, and freethought are traditions as old as history, and learning about that history is as instructive as it is exhilarating.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Sharp: I feel gratitude that someone thought I was worth speaking to! So thank you very much.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Daniel.
- Society Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/EdUniAtheistsHumanistsSecularists/
- Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2253723026/
- Twitter: @UoEAthHumSecSoc
- Pondering Primates podcast: https://anchor.fm/ponderingprimates (also available on Apple Podcasts and other platforms).
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- And, to be indulgent, my website: https://arepositoryofmyown.wordpress.com/
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.