Bibles in Pollock Halls? You’ve got to be joking…

November 6, 2009

Edit: Since writing this, it has come to my attention that the Christian Union actually have nothing to do with the motion (see comment dated 11/11/09). It was proposed by two of their long standing committee members, which is what led to the confusion on my part. I can only apologise for that assumption. Please note, however, that although much of the argument here is misdirected towards the CU, it loses none of its validity.

Unfortunately not. The Christian Union at the University of Edinburgh have put forward a motion for the student association’s AGM to allow themselves or another organisation to put Bibles in each of the bedrooms in Pollock Halls. If you’re a student at Edinburgh University, I urge you to read this post, although it’s likely to be quite long, and if you have a comment, if you disagree or whatever, post it here in the comments thread. I’d like to get a discussion on this motion going and hopefully get a bit of interest so that the necessary 300 students turn up to the AGM and it’s not a complete waste of time for everyone involved.

But first, a bit of history. A few years ago the Student Representatives Council passed a motion banning Gideon or any other religious organisation from putting Bibles in the rooms at Pollock Halls, the student halls. Following that, the CU proposed a motion to the general meeting lifting this ban, which got a majority of the vote, but not enough votes for it to pass (the EUSA system requires that at least 300 people vote for a motion for it to pass, they got 200 and something). This all happened before I was at uni and before the Humanist Society existed, but there are legends that when Gideon were allowed to place their Bibles in the rooms, it resulted in them being thrown out the window, torn to pieces or even in some cases burnt. I’m not exactly in favour of that but it demonstrates how a lot of students feel about evangelising on campus.

Anyway here’s a copy of the motion as it is now. As far as I can tell it hasn’t been amended so this is what will go before the general meeting. Seeing as I’m not in Edinburgh and won’t be able to attend the meeting, all I can really do about it is post a point-by-point rebuttal of what is says. This is more or less the argument I would give if I were to speak, and if I were given more time than you’re allowed at that meeting.

So, first up

The association notes: Article 9 (Freedom of thought, conscious and religion and freedom to manifest such beliefs in public and private) and Article 10 (Freedom of expression which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers) of the European Convention of Human Rights which is incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

That’s absolutely true, it does say that. This is no doubt an inclusion of one of the proposers of this motion, law student David Nixon, who even managed to use the right to freedom of assembly to justify denying non-Christians access to the Christian Union earlier this year. That was bizarre, twisted logic and so’s this. He’s trying to use the right to freedom of conscience and expression to justify leaving a Christian text within the privacy of someone’s room. You have the right to express your opinion, you don’t have the right to come into my living room and do it. Interestingly, the motion doesn’t mention the second point to each of these articles, which states that these rights may be subject to conditions or restrictions in order to preserve the rights of others, among other things.


The association believes: That the Bible has had a powerful impact on Scottish Culture and is useful to the study of many disciplines including literature, history, law, social anthropology, classics, divinity and philosophy.

That’s true as well (although I’m not sure how it’s useful for the study of law – it is, of course, a perfect example of how not to do philosophy), but so what? Would you use it to justify putting the complete works of Robert Burns in every room in Pollock? The Bible is available online (this point will come up repeatedly, just to warn you), as well as in the library. Anyone needing access to it has it right there at their fingertips.

That many religions, philosophies and spiritualities respect the contents of the Bible.

Most of them consider it blasphemy, actually. Regardless, this is a popularity argument and has no place in a motion of this type.

That many students have taken comfort in a Bible passage in times of distress and this is important given that the University Chaplaincy Centre is only open 9am – 9pm weekdays and is only staffed 9am-5pm.

Let’s take a look at that claim, shall we? Nightline is also open throughout the night, but let’s leave that aside for a minute. What are common causes of distress? Maybe being a member of a disadvantaged or minority group? Say there’s a student who’s gay, but having only just moved to university, noone there knows. Quite a difficult situation, I’d say. Now say that student opens the Bible and discovers that according to that philosophy, they deserve to be put to death. Not exactly ideal. The same kind of discrimination found in the Bible refers to women, pagans, and anyone who’s not a Christian. This isn’t exactly the kind of thing that should be allowed to be placed in people’s rooms. Those who do want to consult the Bible can do so online, or in the library.

That by providing the Bible and other Scriptures the University is not necessarily promoting the contents of such texts but merely making a service available to students. There is nothing to prevent the university or EUSA attaching stickers to any books placed in Pollock making clear that the University does not endorse the views contained within such books.

Yes, it would be making a service available. A service that is already widely available on the internet, or in the library. Hardly one that is lacking at the moment.

5. That it is in the interests of promoting religious diversity and promoting freedom of expression and religion that EUSA do not prevent Bibles being placed in rooms in Pollock.
6. That the University should be a free market place of ideas and as such no view should be suppressed or censored. True tolerance would allow all views a chance to be fairly represented and would not ban the distribution of any books.

Erm, starting with number 5, no it’s not. It’s in the interest of freedom of expression and conscience to allow people to believe and express themselves as they wish in public or private. This is completely contrary to allowing people to impose the Bible onto people who aren’t interested or who hold different beliefs.

As for number 6, the Bible is not being censored. As I’ve said several times now, the Bible is available online and in the library; the University is in fact actively making it available. To claim, therefore, that it is being censored, is nothing short of ludicrous. In addition, the distribution of the Bible has not been banned. The CU is free to, and regularly do, distribute copies of their religious texts. I have 7 copies of John’s gospel given to me by members of the CU. Unless they’ve been taken away since I was last there, there’s a big box of them underneath the stairs in George Square Lecture Theatre, the very building where the AGM will take place! The only difference between them distributing them on campus, and putting them in people’s rooms, is that when they’re distributing them, people can say no. This motion just allows religious groups to push the Bible or other religious texts onto people who otherwise wouldn’t want it.

That any group or society representing any particular point of view who wish to provide literature to be placed in every room in Pollock should be allowed to do so providing the books are made available freely at their own expense.

Oh so we’re not just talking about religious groups? So why don’t we allow the Socialist Society to put a copy of the Communist Manifesto in each room? Of course in response, the Conservative and Unionist Society will want a copy of their literature in the rooms too, and so will any other organised group out there. The University already has this kind of resource available, it’s right next door to George Square and it’s called the Main Library! But that last part, about the books being made available freely “at their own expense” is an interesting addition, I wonder why they put that in? Could it be that they know the CU, with its large membership and funded by the UCCF, is the only group on campus that would be able to afford such a project? Methinks so. More on that later.

The Association resolves: To mandate the President of EUSA to represent these views to Accommodation Services so that the situation can be returned to what it used to be prior to the SRC deciding Bibles
should be removed from Pollock.

You mean returned to what it was before progress was made, right?

Secularists tend to have two responses to this kind of problem. The first, very prominent in the States, would be to allow every group, religious or not, to put their book in the rooms. This is how ludicrous situations like the Washington State nativity scene come about. The second would be to not allow any groups to do it. I favour that option, and here’s why. It doesn’t matter if you give access to all groups, the big fish will always be able to dominate, in this case the CU will be able to put the Bible in the rooms and other groups will struggle. Then we’re back to the situation, where one group is favoured over another, that we were trying to avoid in the first place!

So that is why we shouldn’t pass this motion. Agree? Disagree? Put your comments here!

There are also a number of other motions going through the AGM which are of interest. One is about taking action against Israel, and another is about not giving a platform to discriminatory groups on campus. Maybe I’ll put a similar post up about that one. But regardless of where you stand on any of these issues, go to the AGM and vote! It’s on the 17th November 7pm in George Square Lecture Theatre.

Disillusioned with democracy

February 25, 2009

More specifically student democracy, but there are wider implications too. First of all the Dutch MP was banned. Then when Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church were supposed to be coming over, they got banned. I don’t agree with these people, but what the hell happened to free speech?

Anywho last week was the EUSA AGM. I always make sure I’m at these meetings and stay to the end, but this time I was in London for the AHS Launch, so instead I encouraged everyone I knew to go to kind of make up for it. Attendance is particularly important because in order for any decision to be binding, 300 people are required to vote in favour of it, or a 2/3 majority, whichever is higher ( 300 is always higher because we never get anything like 450 people). Since I’ve been here we’ve struggled to get those 300 people. And this particular AGM was really important because one of the motions was to allow referenda to take place over the internet, which would mean we’d never need the 300 people again. Out of something like 25,000 students, this should not be difficult. I got back from London and didn’t hear anything about it, so assumed that it went off without a hitch.

Then the Student paper came out and the headline was “Apathy mars General Meeting”. 180 people showed up to the meeting! Out of 25,000 students! So nothing whatsoever got passed with the numbers needed, instead it was just “the will of the students”, which effectively means nothing. I was thoroughly depressed. A few pages in was more bad news for democracy. The EUSA elections are coming up and a large number of the positions on the SRC have either not been applied for at all (!) or have only one candidate and will return uncontested. Ridiculous! What’s more, some of the sabbatical positions have only had 2 nominations! These are well paid positions which involve taking a year out of uni and vastly improving your job prospects upon graduation, there should be a queue to nominate.

And then, to cap things all off, the Christian Union tabled an amendment a week or so ago which would mean only people who could sign a declaration of faith would be able to join the society. The declaration reads:

In joining the Union I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, and I shall seek both in my life and in thought to be ruled by the teaching of the Bible.

This goes explicitly against EUSA rules which state that membership should be open to all students of the university. So I let them know my objection and in coordination with EUSA, they changed it so that anyone could join, but only people who sign the declaration can vote on governance issues. Obviously this is far from democratic, only certain people are allowed to vote? It’s blatant discrimination on religious grounds, surely? So I replied and complained again, this time also to Naomi Hunter, VPSA, saying that the new amendment may fit the wording of the EUSA constitution, but certainly not the spirit. ‘Sure, you can join the society and pay your membership, but you can’t have a say in what goes on, you’re not a Christian!’ Brilliant. What happened to one member one vote? Redefining what a member is in order to slide around the EUSA constitution is unacceptable, and EUSA say it’s fine. So I’m pissed off.

Homeopathy 6

January 24, 2009

Just a quick one before I head out.

Those following the Homeopathy series may remember that the clinic we’re objecting to is at the office of the Edinburgh University Settlement. This is an independent charity linked to the University through which graduates can volunteer in various ways. The homeopath at the clinic is a history graduate. Recently I’ve been emailing EUSA President Adam Ramsay, who appears to be sympathetic to our cause, over who best to contact at the University about this. He, along with everyone else it would appear, didn’t know what the links between the two are, but the best person to ask would be the University secretary. He then emailed me again and advised me that, since the Settlement is a totally separate organisation, it would be best to campaign directly against them, because any complaint to the University is likely to be a waste of time.

So, let’s just recap a little. We have an organisation which has been granted a privileged position on campus (it couldn’t be any more privileged, the office is within the union building), and is seen as a member of the university community (hence their inclusion in the Wellbeing Fair). This organisation is now promoting irrationality at our educational institution, and it seems they don’t answer to anyone! Brilliant!

There must be some link somewhere, else how would they have got the office right there? There are banks which hire premises on the other side of the building but I’m sure this is different. I think the key thing to do is to find out who agreed to have a homeopathic clinic at the Settlement. This person may be able to do something.

Homeopathy 5

January 19, 2009

Today was the day of the Wellbeing Fair, where the homeopaths at the Edinburgh University Settlement had set up a stall alongside a reflexologist and all the other health foods companies and stuff like that. Over the weekend a made a load of flyers (for some reason WordPress won’t upload Publisher files, I see what I can do to get them up) on homeopathy, informing people just how diluted the remedies are, which I’ve found to be a good way of dissuading people who believed in it before. They also mentioned how homeopaths theorise that it works (energy signals, succussion etc), and links to further information on the subject, including some studies.

I also sent an email to Naomi Hunter and Adam Ramsay (EUSA VP Societies and Activities and President, respectively), which I didn’t intend to be rude, but upon reading back this morning it did seem a tad over the mark towards the end. Anyway Adam replied to me by email that he agreed with me about it being a con, but that the University Settlement is part of the university community and it would be unfair to ban them. I disagree but I think that’s less of an issue to take up with EUSA and more with the University. Naomi spoke to me in person and said “everyone’s got different tastes” (I don’t really think it’s a matter of taste) but she also didn’t have a problem with me flyering the fair and even offered me a stall of my own! I politely declined because I had class at various points throughout the day, but it was good to get a response.

Generally speaking I was fairly pleased. Not all that many people came to the Fair, and many of those who did skipped straight past the homeopathy stall to others with more freebies. Of those that did peruse their materials, I made sure they also got one of my flyers so they weren’t just reading propaganda, like I was originally. One of Stuart’s friends, Max, was running the self defence society’s stall right next to the homeopathy one, so I got a load of flyers on that table and stood around handing flyers to anyone who walked through that section, which wasn’t too many. I still have loads left, but they’re easily reused, especially if we’re going to take this up further with the University.

What surprised me most was the attitudes of other people I spoke with throughout the day. An acquaintance of mine in the Christian Union asked what I was up to today, and when I told her, she didn’t see the problem with homeopathy. What amazed me most is that she’s a medical student! She said that all medicines go through stages of skepticism before they’re proven, and it’s clear to her that homeopathy works. I didn’t get chance to reply, but the way I see it they’ve already tried to prove it and failed, so it’s not like it works and just hasn’t been tested. If they somehow prove it does work, I very much doubt that it works in the way they say it does. I spoke to her flatmate later in the day and she said they’d had a similar conversation the previous night with some of their vet friends. Apparently they were skeptics, but they did a unit on acupuncture on horses or something.

Plenty of other people have expressed the opinion that if they’re benefitting from the placebo, we shouldn’t intervene, but I have a problem with lying to people to make use of the placebo, particularly in such a mumbo-jumboish way, as I’ve posted previously. One thing my acquaintance did say is that it works on eczema, and that’s not the placebo effect. I’ve had a quick look online and there doesn’t seem to have been much research or dialogue on that issue. So, thing’s I’d like to see more of are alternative medicine and placebo usage on animals, on very young children and on eczema. If you know anything about that, or where I can find some more information, let me know.

Homeopathy 4

January 15, 2009

It appears the homeopaths at the University are on the warpath. We got back to University this week and the EUSA Vice President Society and Activities (a paid sabbatical position at the student union elected by the student body), Naomi Hunter, sent out an email welcoming us all back and informing us all about the things going on in the coming weeks. It all looked fine until I came across this little gem:

“If you are feeling a wee bit sluggish after the New Year festivities,
get yourself over our very first Wellbeing Fair! There will be lots of
freebies, advice, makeovers, hair consultations, reflexology,
homeopathy, massage, good food and smoothies. The fairs take place on
Monday 19th January, 11-3 Potterrow Dome, and Tuesday 20th January,
12-2 in KB House.”

Now I was initially in two minds about this development. On the one hand, they appear to be promoting homeopathy and reflexology. On the other, they’re putting them next to hair consultations and makeovers as a feelgood kind of thing, which is essentially what it is. Maybe this shows that EUSA know it doesn’t really work… So although I wasn’t particularly happy, I thought a protest about it was a bit out of order.

Anyway I’ve changed my mind. I was speaking to Stuart about it today at the Refresher’s Fair and he made the very good point that regardless of whether EUSA know it doesn’t work, or that it’s right next to a hair and makeover stand, they are lending a platform for homeopaths and reflexologists to peddle their nonsense. The homeopaths aren’t going to make out that it’s a load of rubbish and that they’re only doing it to make people feel better, are they? More likely they’ll be saying “come in next time you’re feeling a bit unwell, I might be able to cure that cold…” or something similar. The Fair is a way for them to clamber into the student consciousness, why else would they do it? That is undoubtedly a bad thing. I’m not trying to suggest that they’re going to rip students off, but as I’ve previously posted I have more objections to homeopathy than that.

So I think a disappointed letter to EUSA and handing a few leaflets out at the Fair itself is in order. More on this (and perhaps other alternative medicines) in later posts.

Humanist Society Update

March 5, 2008

A plug first . Today and tomorrow are the EUSA election days. If you’re a student at the University of Edinburgh, I don’t care who you vote for but it’s very important that you vote. Don’t leave the decision in the hands of the politically-minded cronies in the various party headquarters, pull your finger out and go and vote. It’s a shame that, yet again, the elections are so male-dominated and that there isn’t such a diversity of choice, but there’s bound to be someone who says something you agree with.

I haven’t got a lot to say today seeing as I’ve mostly been writing essays or working for the past few weeks, so I’m just going to try and update the outside world on what we at the Edinburgh University Humanist Society are up to. I should be doing another essay so I really am just procrastinating.

This coming Friday is the last in our series of “God’s Warriors” video showings in Appleton Tower. Starting at 6 sharp, this week will concentrate on ‘God’s Christian Warriors’, perhaps tacking the sticky issue of Christian fundamentalism in the US. I urge you to come and see for yourself. It’ll be followed by a discussion, and in the past 2 showings these have proven to be refreshingly open-minded.

Talk at the moment is about the upcoming AGM (date TBC but at the moment we’re thinking late March/early April) and nominations for officer positions next year. It’s a little awkward because out of our active membership, several people are leaving the university, and so won’t be able to take positions. I think one of the main aims next year will be to attract some new blood, as I know we’re going to have similar problems this time next year. I for one will be going on my year abroad and other people will be either graduating or finishing off post-grad courses.

Recently we’ve been trying to get an honorary humanist chaplain at the Chaplaincy, with our preferred candidate being Tim Maguire from the HSS. This would be someone that any person at the university with humanist tendencies could go to for advice or counselling, rather than the Advice Place or any of the religious chaplains that exist already. In particular, we were keen to get more of a voice on issues relating to inter-belief events at the university and in the wider community, and although not in an evangelical sense, we thought Tim would be particularly useful when someone is considering leaving their faith, as some of us have found it quite distressing in the past.

Nevertheless, Di at the Chaplaincy has suggested that Tim take the slightly different role of humanist contact, which half-suits us at the moment because we don’t know how well used a humanist chaplain would be, and until we know we can’t really demand a chaplain, but at the same time we’re out of the loop just slightly on Chaplaincy issues. We’ll see if Tim gets much use as a humanist contact and try and raise his profile a little if possible.

The next thing on the agenda to consider is what we’re going to do during Fresher’s Week. Gordon Aikman, the current EUSA Vice President Societies and Activities, has given us until Monday to decide on what we’re going to do and give him some details. Suggestions today involved some kind of debate or discussion about what to do if your friend is a nutcase, something else which would involve going out and informing people about humanism (something similar to the prayer contest was mentioned, during which we tried to use scientific experimentation to find out which deity was best to pray for for divine intervention – IIRC it turned out to be Emmeline Pankhurst, the women’s rights campaigner who famously threw herself in front of a horse), and my own suggestion was a walk up Arthur’s Seat, not an awful lot to do with humanism except for an appreciation of nature, but it’s a good way to get people together.

So that’s what we’re up to at the moment.