A C Grayling: An antidote to the prevailing superstition

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The launch of a national federation of atheist, humanist and secular student societies is one of the brightest things to happen this winter.

It is a good augury for the future that some of tomorrow's leaders are making a commitment to rational and ethical outlooks free of superstition. It promises hope of a world where faith – ultimately the opposite of reason – and dogma will not distort public debate in the interests of sectarian prejudice but where everything from public policy to the personal making of good lives will be the work of free and open minds.

Among the notable things about the launch at London's Conway Hall, attended by students from all over the country, were these: that a high proportion of those attending were science students, and a main reason why atheist, humanist and secularist groups are springing up in our universities is that they are a response to assertively proselytising religious groups, many of them externally funded and encouraged.

Why so many of the new activists among non-religious students should be scientists is obvious. Science is as much a mindset as a body of knowledge; its premise is that thought is to be guided by publicly testable and rationally consistent evidence. The discipline of this approach makes short work of the foundation of today's religions, which lie in the ignorance of people living several millennia ago. This critical, evidence-based, enquiring mindset also thinks afresh about the good for human lives and societies; it is this responsible motivation which most naturally accords with science at its best.

The other reason – the response to aggressive proselytising by religious groups – is prompted by a typical scenario: religious groups at freshers' fairs fastening on new students who are, perhaps, away from home for the first time, overwhelmed and nervous in the scary environment of university, surrounded by people making loud efforts to appear sophisticated, and in need of a friendly hand. The hand ceases to be friendly when the fresher wakes up to the limitations accepted in the moment of vulnerability. The non-religious groups aim to give a cheerful welcome and support without the baggage of having to think someone else's thoughts and follow someone else's rules as the price of fellowship.

The author is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London

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