And lo, the students created Reason Week
Students’ lack of interest in Christian Union events is not evidence of apathy, but of an appetite for reasoned argument, argues Paul Taylor.
It was the fifth week of Durham University’s Epiphany term and, with an inevitability that would make Sisyphus wince, the Christian Union were out in force to promote their annual ‘main event week’. This year the snappy title was “Rescued?” It was hard to venture out of your door without encountering a sea of red and yellow hoodies complete with a very professional looking graphic of a helicopter swooping over a stormy sea. Passing students were invited to talks held at the student union building where the CU do their best to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus and, perhaps more outrageously, the possibility of a free lunch: the hospitality and culinary talent of CU members remains an undisputed fixture. The talks and arguments were also largely unchanged from last year, right down to the analogies (one rambling story has had its somewhat dated reference to the Big Brother House replaced with a more generic locked room but is otherwise identical to its predecessor).
There is only one major deviation from the sequence of events in previous years: for the first time there is an organised sceptical alternative.
In the wake of the CU’s ‘Life Week’ last year, the newly founded Durham University Humanist and Secularist Society met in one of the quieter student bars for a discussion evening (imaginatively titled ‘Lol, that’s weak!’; puns aren’t really our strong point…) About a dozen people attended. The company was convivial and the arguments engaging, but even after a few too many drinks nobody was fooled into thinking that our event was in any way comparable to the large-scale presentations and blanket publicity achieved by our friendly rivals.
Things couldn’t be more different this year. With some much appreciated funding coming in from the AHS and our Newcastle-based neighbours, the North East Humanists, an entire week of events took place stretching from a Darwin Day bar crawl on Saturday the 12th of February to a debate in association with the Durham Union Society on the Friday entitled “This house believes the Church has failed Christianity”.
As far as we know this was the first time any Reason Week type event has been scheduled to go head-to-head with a Christian event week on any UK campus and the results have been astonishing. In stark contrast to the intimate pub gathering from a year ago we had nearly two-hundred students and staff crowding into one of Durham’s largest lecture theatres to hear A C Grayling speak on the theme of reason.
Publicity for our events also reached a new level, with posters and leaflets distributed around the city, and a feature article on Reason Week and the society appearing on BBC Wear’s website.
Most gratifying of all has been the feedback: non-believers and liberal Christians alike seem to have welcomed our challenge to the hegemony of the Christian Union. In the run up to the “Rescued?”, an article appeared in the student newspaper publicising the CU’s events and charmingly suggesting that non-Christians were being wilfully ignorant, “[sticking our heads] in the sand”. The success of Durham’s Reason Week showed that, far from being ignorant or uninformed, there is a strong contingent in the University whose doubt is founded on reasoned argument rather than apathy. After such a show of force they can no longer be swept under the carpet (a manoeuvre that comes naturally to students of all creeds…) but must be engaged with seriously.
Paul Taylor is a member and former President of Durham University Humanist and Secularist Society.