Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week #10: Colorado State University Leaders in Free Thought

January 31, 2013

Stephanie Kaiser, current president of Colorado State University Leaders in Free Thought, shares stories from this week's Affiliate Group of the Week.

Up this week is the Colorado State University Leaders in Free Thought (CSU LIFT). Stephanie Kaiser, the group's president, agreed to answer some of our questions and share their biggest successes.

CSU LIFT

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What's your "atheist/secular conversion story," if you have one?
My name is Stephanie Kaiser, and I attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. I'm a sophomore studying Music Therapy and I am President of the secular group Leaders in Free Thought.

When I came to CSU in fall 2011, I was thrilled to find out that there was a freethought club. Though at first I could not attend many meetings due to class conflict, I gradually became more active in the group through the year.

As for my background, I grew up in New Mexico, where I was raised Catholic. When I was 16, I was confirmed in the church. By about three months later, I had become an atheist. This began with just a conversation. One of my atheistic friends initiated a discussion with me one evening about the details of what I believed and the darker parts of history behind the Catholic religion. He was not aggressive, but very straightforward. The more we talked, the more I realized how little of what I believed made logical sense. Gradually, I began educating myself by reading more about atheism, religious history, and learning about logic. I don't remember the exact moment that I realized I was no longer a believer, but I do recall the sense of freedom I'd never felt before.

The next school year I was obsessed with philosophy and how humans reason—frequently I'd be in the back of class, writing furiously about so many ideas that I'd never fully considered. Trust, government, morality...I kept asking myself how the influence of religion, knowledge, scientific progress, and one's cultural backing could change someone's values. I began to realize the importance of evidence and critical thinking in all situations. Though I still have many questions, I can say with confidence that atheism has been liberating.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you to create the organization? What is your group's name? How did you decide on that name?
The group was founded in 2009 by Seth Yoder and his friend and classmate Jeric Harper. Thanks to their hard work, the CFI and SSA, and the support from freethinking students and faculty, Seth and Jeric managed to create CSU's first secular group (among some thirty or forty religious groups). Here is the story of how the group started, told by Seth:

"So Jeric Harper and I worked together at the McKay lab (a plant evolutionary genetics lab on campus). One day Jeric tells me he's reading The God Delusion and he's really digging it. When he's done he asks me if I'd like to borrow it, and I said sure. Dawkins's writing must have ignited some sort of activist ethos within us that we didn't know we had, because a few days later Jeric and I were at CB & Potts discussing how to get involved in this "New Atheism" movement. As we were drinking and watching a UFC fight, Jeric mentioned that there were absolutely no skeptical/atheist/freethinking student groups on campus. So we decided to start one. I think this was sometime in late spring or early summer of 2009. Anyway, we were both very excited about the idea of starting such a group but at the same time we did not know how to even run a group, much less start one.

"Luckily Jeric had contacted the Secular Student Alliance and they sent us some materials that were very helpful for people like us who had a lot of drive but essentially no experience. Jeric also contacted the Center for Inquiry and they sent Joel Guttormson from Metro State Atheists in Denver to help us out. Joel was actually quite instrumental in getting us off the ground. He helped us with group activities and speakers and he would almost always drive up from Denver to attend whatever event we might have.

"But I'm getting ahead of myself.... So during the summer we did what you would kind of expect; we hung flyers up all over campus and all over town and made a Facebook page. We got some positive reactions from the flyers and not as much pushback as I expected. Plus we had over 100 people join the Facebook page before the summer was over, which was more than I had expected. Some DJs from KRFC also noticed our flyers and invited us on the radio to talk freethought for a bit and plug our new group. That was a ton of fun for the both of us. We also got emails from CSU professors and faculty (some anonymously for professional reasons) thanking Jeric and I for starting the student group. I took those communications as a sign that perhaps there was a real need for some social group where people could be completely open about their secularism/agnosticism/atheism and talk about their experiences and all that good stuff. I felt very grateful to be a part of it all.

"As for the name, there's nothing of great significance to it. I basically wanted something that sounded all-inclusive and non-antagonistic. I also wanted an acronym that would be short and simple. My family was visiting my wife and me at the time I was wanting to come up with a group name, and we just brainstormed for a bit on what the group could be called. We settled on Leaders in Free Thought or LiFT. I think it fits the bill nicely. My runner up name was RiFF, or Religion is Far-Fetched, but that was obviously too ridiculous.

"Those are the nuts-and-bolts of how we got started. The first couple of months were kind of rocky because we didn't really know what to do or discuss during our meetings, but that's another story."

How many members does your group have? What kinds of events do you hold?
We have over 200 people in our Facebook group, and last semester we had between 20 and 25 regular members at meetings. First and foremost, we provide a community and discussion forum for freethinkers. We have had several wonderful speakers come to campus; most recently we had John Loftus, and last year we had Greta Christina and Phil Plait. We even had a Q & A session with Brother Jed when he was visiting CSU. Our group has also sponsored debates and partaken in multi-faith meetings. Additionally, we have a lot of social events, such as movie nights, to help the group bond. We are hoping to do more community service in the coming semester. 

LIFT students 
LIFT students put on their successful "Ask an Atheist" event.

As an example, could you share one thing your group accomplished that you're most proud of in the past year?
We're very proud to be growing our membership and to have developed a leadership board with four officers. We had a very successful "Ask an Atheist" event last semester, in which we made giant signs with "I am an Atheist/Freethinker/Existentialist, ask me anything" and stood out on the campus plaza. Thanks to high participation by club members, our group got a lot of attention from this, and many great discussions were conducted between our members and a diverse range of students. The event helped several students build confidence in sharing their perspective in a civil manner, as everyone was very respectful without fear of being honest about rational thinking and secular ideas. We had many people that simply thanked us for being out there. 

How did you hear about CFI On Campus? How have you worked with CFI On Campus in the past, and how do you hope to work with us in the future?
Seth and Jeric first started working with CFI when the group was founded. The online resources are very helpful, especially because all of our leadership (myself included) are new at running groups. The CFI updates and newsletters on current events related to secular life have been helpful for us to stay in the loop and to have fodder for discussion in our meetings. We hope to continue utilizing the great support that groups like CFI and the SSA provide—you all have helped so much to allow secular communities bloom, and CSU really needed it. 

Is there anything else you'd like to add? What's your vision for the secular movement?
My hope for the future of the secular movement starts with our community organizations. Through history, these types of organizations have helped initiate social and political change all over the world. Secular groups have allowed the freethinking population to thrive by unifying and growing a community to the point that it has a voice. And these groups can stem from something as simple as one conversation. This is how we will bridge the gap between individuals, to groups, to masses, to encourage them to further educate themselves instead of by brute force—it doesn't matter how small we start, so long as we plant seeds. Planted seeds of curiosity, a craving for knowledge, and a desire to question, in those that have not yet realized they are trapped. Lack of understanding and lack of awareness help feed the beast that drives fear, apathy, and violence. But through our groups we not only connect with other secular minds, but inspire other people to begin to seek answers.

On a timeline it is difficult to know when we will see the end of indoctrination in schools, religious influence upon government, and faith-motivated violence. It may not happen during our lifetime. But we can try, and I hope we continue to keep pushing.

Every group and voice matters. Whether it's in a town, a university, on a YouTube channel, a radio show, the arts, writing, a political party, you name it, we're all contributing something. Though the members of the secular movement have a diverse range of goals and backgrounds, in the coming years our path will become clearer as we converge more. There will be conflict on the way, but as atheists, skeptics, rationalists, freethinkers—whatever you call yourself—we are truth seekers. We are louder and larger now than ever, and the world can't ignore us anymore.

If you know of a group that you'd like to see featured here, please let us know at oncampus@centerforinquiry.net.

 

About the Author: Sarah Kaiser

Sarah Kaiser's photo

Sarah Kaiser is a field organizer for CFI On Campus. Prior to her work at CFI, she got her start in the freethought movement as the co-founder and president of the Secular Alliance at Indiana University, where she helped organize a nationally recognized atheist bus ad campaign and large campus speaking events. As an atheist, a feminist, and a small part of the universe's way of understanding itself, she is thrilled at the chance to help advance CFI's mission. On Twitter: @sarahebkaiser.

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