I'd already heard rumours of a student protest taking place - targeting Professor Dawkins because of his assocation with A C Garyling's New College of the Humanities, so I wasn't surprised to see a police presence outside the building where the old UK Comic Art Conventions (UKCAC) used to take place, as well as a slowly growing crowd of protestors (their Facebook group had just over 100 names saying they'd attend).
After getting inside and standing in a queue for a bit, we were allowed into the hall and I found a seat and watched my fellow humanists, rationalists and assorted others arrive. I think the last time I sat in this hall was to see an interview with French comic legend Moebius. Suddenly there was a commotion at the doors and I looked over to see the security guards trying, in vain, to keep a mob of slogan-shouting students at bay. They inevitably failed and a crowd of about 15 protestors (with more just outside) rushed in and took to the stage. Because their slogans weren't really that clear, I think most people assumed they were a religious group of some kind, but word soon got around as to their true cause.
Their occupation lasted about half an hour, delaying the talk by 15 minutes. They were monitored by two or three policemen and throughout the 'siege', they were engaged in discussion with various audience members, many who went down to see what they were about or to implore them to leave. A couple of audience members were disappointingly short-fused to the point of rage with them, but mostly it was lively and shouty, but peaceful. At one point a member of the audience started shouting out lines from The Life of Brian - "You're all individuals!", which got an immediate answer from a good 50% of the crowd "Yes! We're all individuals!". Then several people took off one of their shoes (none of us had gourds) - very funny. At one point, as a general reaction to the confrontational manner of the invading students, practically the entire auditorium stood up and turned their backs to the protestors' shouts and taunts. Another highlight was a chap getting up on stage, complete with backpack, asking the protestors to leave as he had travelled all the way from Romania to see this talk, to much applause from the hall. Soon enough police reinforcements arrived and the protestors were taken out, without too much kerfuffle, it has to be said. So, an exciting start to the evening!
I didn't go to university and can, rather annoyingly, see points on both sides of the argument concerning Grayling's New College. I don't think all the facts are in yet, and there's been a lot of Daily Mail-style ranting about it from people who tend to have a visceral reaction before knowing a lot about it. Politically, I do lean heavily towards a world of public services and social equality, and have some uncomfortable feelings about an institution that plans to charge £18,000 a year in fees, despite the greater number of full-fund scholarships this will allow. I think the root of the problem is the government's stance on education and privatisation of services, and picking on one example, high profile as it is, is not quite aiming at the right target. I wasn't annoyed by the protest, though their accusations that the paying audience were implicitly supporting a two-tier educational system was completely misplaced and rather offensive.
There were a couple more protests during the talk. Early on Richard Dawkins commented how both he and Myers were "interested in science" at which point someone shouted from the back "and in profit making!". The interloper was quickly taken out by police (who were now standing at every exit) as Dawkins made it clear that every penny he earns from his lectures he gives to charity (I did wonder if this was the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science rather than something like, say, Oxfam - not that the RDF isn't a very worthy cause!). Some way into the talk a young couple got up, hand in hand, from the front row and stood in front of the stage reading out their protest to Dawkins almost face to face. Dawkins told them rather firmly that he would take questions at the end, and they too were escorted out. Sure enough, at the end, despite the last question having been taken, a girl leapt up and took to the microphone and with much civility asked if Dawkins, as a humanist, would withdraw his support for the college. To his credit, the professor gave a fairly lengthy answer to this, with some good points, but also some not quite so good ones. He did strongly imply that he voted Lib-Dem at the last election because of their stance on student fees (a stance, sadly, since U-turned). It's a difficult issue, and no doubt one that will continue to attract attention and discussion - and protests - for some time to come.
The talk itself was absorbing and excellent. My favourite part was the first 20 minutes or so where the two biology greats discussed evolution, particularly how it might work in an extra-terrestrial environment (would it still be Darwinian?), and also the number of times certain traits (for instance, the eye, sonar, claws etc.) have evolved independently. Much of the rest of the talk concerned the question of religious belief and how the two of them are perceived in relation to their work in that area. They talked about what would constitute evidence for a supernatural claim, and how the natural world provides wonder enough without the need for faith-based belief as well as the indoctrination of children into the ideas of belief without evidence. There was about half an hour of questions at the end.
Overall, it was a memorable evening and highly enjoyable. I wish there had been more talk on evolution, even if in relation to its power in dismantling theism, but it was definitely worth the trip up. The main topic of conversation on the way out was the protest (as is the bulk of this post) so you have to admit it had an effect! Having said that, the BHA website report doesn't mention it, but that may not be so strange considering A C Grayling is the incoming Association President! (Edit: Not any more - he's resigned before taking office.)