Affiliate Group of the Week #5: Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo
December 13, 2012Our campus groups do great things every day of the week, and rarely get the recognition they deserve. CFI On Campus Affiliate Groups of the Week was started to help groups to get their name out there more publicly and share their successes with the world. Each week, we'll pick a group that's doing fantastic work to highlight.
Up this week are the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo. Nicholas Marcheggiani and Chris Burke, the group's current and most recent president, agreed to answer some of our questions and share their biggest successes.
The old (top) and new potential (bottom) logos of AAFW.
First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What's your "atheist/secular conversion story," if you have one?
Nicholas: My name is Nicholas Marcheggiani, I'm a fourth year student of Urban Planning at the University of Waterloo and the current president of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers club at the University of Waterloo (AAFW).
Chris: My name is Chris Burke, and I'm a member, and have been president, of AAFW. I'm a student of the Environment and Business program, and am set to graduate in April.
I was raised in a Christian family though no one in the family is overly religious. Most of the time, religion is that tradition that the family follows rather than a thing that defines daily life. I was confirmed as a member of the United Church of Canada by which point I had already decided that I was not religious. However, it wouldn't be until I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins that I truly started to identify as an atheist.
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?
Nicholas: The club was started back in January 2006, nearly 7 years ago. Our campus had a plethora of religious organisations representing all sorts of groups of every single ethnicity of every single religion, but not a single group representing secular students. We wanted to start a club for atheists, agnostics, and non-believers in general to get together as part of a society to engage in discourse, exchange ideas, and just enjoy each other's company.
What is your group's name? How did you decide on that name?
Chris: I can't speak to the original intent of the name, not being a founding member. However, if asked, I would explain that the name acts as a good catch-all for the types of people we are, and who we are interested in having join the club. It's a name that people will look at and immediately have a sense of who we are.
The name isn't popular with everyone though, and we've had a few people criticize us for it. Usually regarding the use of the word "freethinker". To them, it implies that religious people are not thinking for themselves. When someone brings up that objection, it gives us an opportunity to explain what "freethinker" actually means.
Nicholas: I do have to comment on how the name of the club acts as a conversation starter. When we are out on campus, representing the club we get lots of questions that I'm sure we wouldn't get if our name was something else.
"What's the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?"
"What's a freethinker?"
"What do atheists do in their meetings?"
How many members does your group have? What kinds of events do you hold?
Chris: Our group holds weekly meetings where we discuss a topic chosen beforehand, relating to religion, non-religion, science, skepticism, philosophy, and so on. Numbers at these meetings fluctuate but the average is probably in the 10 - 15 persons range. Our Facebook group is also very active with further discussions occurring frequently. 275 people are currently members of that group.
Nicholas: The weekly meetings are the main focus of the group. So far this term we've had discussion topics including:
- Is drawing Muhammad a good idea?
- The concept of the afterlife
- And many more...
We also try to do a social event once per week. We have card nights, pub nights, sushi, and other fun things.
Chris: A few times throughout each term, we will hold an "Ask An Atheist" event. This is where we set up a booth in our Student Life Centre, giving us a chance to engage with the university community. My most memorable moment from doing that event would have to be when someone came up to us saying that he had mathematical proof for the existence of God. He said he would come back to us later and provide it, of course he never returned.
This term has also seen a few group members involved in a "Bible study night". A professor is an active member of our club, and has been reading up on the history of the Biblical era. We get together at a local pub where we discuss this history in order to get an understanding of the stories in the Bible, what matches to actual history and what doesn't, etc.
As an example, could you share one thing your group accomplished that you're most proud of in the past year?
Chris: It's hard to name a single thing. I would say that we should be most proud of the number of social events we've had. We really wanted to foster the community of the club by having our members hang out more and I think that was an incredible success.
Nicholas: I've read the other affiliate group stories and these usually involve big speaker events. Clubs at the University of Waterloo aren't that well-funded and so we've never had access to the resources need to hold a big event. If there's something I'm proud of, it has more to do with the general growth of the club. I've been involved with the club since 2009. To see new faces coming out to meetings almost every term shows that after all these years interest still exists in the club, and I hope it continues to be that way.
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?
Chris: I think I first heard of CFI On Campus back when Cody Hashman approached me about posting some of my early blog work to the Course of Reason blog. Blogging for CFI On Campus has been the extent of my interaction as far as work goes. It's a work-relationship I wish to maintain into the future. We would also be interested in getting pointers on how to set-up, organize, and fund larger events.
Do you have anything else you'd like to add? What is your vision for the secular movement?
Nicholas: I see the secular movement as all sorts of things. It's a political movement, it's a social movement, it's a scientific movement, it's a philosophical movement. I would like to suggest that we keep the movement positive, not negative, and keep it pro-secularism, not anti-religion. Our group has had a lot of successes on campus raising awareness of the secular movement by promoting the positives of our group and engaging in genuine discussion with religious organisations on campus because we can derive value through discourse.
If you know of a group that you'd like to see featured here, please let us know at email@example.com.
About the Author: Sarah Kaiser
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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