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Page last updated at 14:27 GMT, Thursday, 17 February 2011
Humanist and secularist Durham students take on reason
Paul Taylor
By Paul Taylor
Former president of Durham University Humanist and Secularist Society

Reason Week logo. Photo: Durham University Humanist and Secularist Society
Reason Week aims to promote and discuss humanism and secularism

The last decade has seen religious observance continuing to decline in the UK, especially amongst young people.

At the same time, chart-topping books by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have raised the profile of non-religious beliefs systems.

Despite this increased publicity, many people perceive non-religious stances such as Humanism as purely negative in nature, offering no alternative to the communities provided by the religious groups it criticises.

Durham University Humanist and Secularist Society (DUHSS) has been holding a series of events (collectively dubbed 'Reason Week') to dispel this impression and raise money for charity in the process.

A relatively new society, DUHSS has existed in various forms for a little over a year, providing a community and a platform to explore topical issues in religion, politics and science.

Although targeted primarily at the non-religious, students of all convictions are made welcome and a diversity of opinions is always evident at the regular 'think and drink' discussions held in some of the quieter student bars during term time.

Head to head

Although most humanists are also secularists the two terms are not synonymous.

Humanism is an atheistic philosophy which affirms the value of reason and views ethics as emerging from shared human values and experiences rather than a divine law-giver.

Secularism is a political position advocating the separation of church and state.

Durham Cathedral. Photo: Ashley Corr
Durham University sits cheek by jowl with the city's cathedral

Secularists argue that it is unjust for a democratic government to privilege religious groups, for example by funding sectarian 'faith schools' or guaranteeing senior Church of England bishops seats in the House of Lords.

Durham is home to a number of active religious groups and there are regular events targeted at students.

This atmosphere motivated the creation of DUHSS as a platform from which the claims of these groups could be critically analysed and responded to.

Reason Week has been its biggest event yet, with seven days of evening events ranging from charity film evenings to talks by prominent Humanist figures such as the philosopher A C Grayling.

The whole thing was scheduled to coincide with the Christian Union's own week of events.

This is believed to be the first time in the UK that a non-religious student group have gone head-to-head with one of the Christian weeks which are regularly organised on student campuses.

The intention is that increasing awareness of non-religious philosophies will give students more confidence to challenge the claims of proselytisers than they would have had previously.

With future events in the pipeline including addresses from a Muslim academic and the chaplain of a Cambridge College, Durham University Humanist and Secularist Society has established itself as a fixture in the city.

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