KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (SOMA) Wins Best On-Campus Event
July 6, 2011KU SOMA's Reasonfest won this year's award for Best On-Campus Event. This is President Conrad Hudson's account of the event.
This year's award for Best On-Campus Event went to KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (SOMA) for their event Reasonfest. The following is President Conrad Hudson's account of the event!
With great enthusiasm the officers announced the first annual Reasonfest would take place May 5th & 6th 2011. That enthusiasm was shared by group members, shortly after that announcement an internal fundraiser raised more than $350. Officers created a list of fun and soul-destroyingly embarrassing tasks they were willing to do for the sake of the group. Members then bid at this "Soul Auction" to decide which things they would have to do. Through a combination of generosity and light-hearted schadenfreude every officer was bid to the maximum which resulted in two on-stage hair cuts (long-haired woodsmen were made horrifically respectable and respectable philosophers were made into Gregorian monks!), the college human trick trifecta (milk, cinnamon, saltines), an April Fool's reconversion by prominent youtuber Evid3nc3 that received over 20,000 views, and my personal favorite: a death metal cover of Justin Beiber's "Baby", among others.While we were in the process of speaker selection a decision we made the previous semester to contact all the religious groups on campus to offer to debate or work together paid off when the law school Catholic group St. Thomas More Society contacted us with hopes to sponsor a debate on God with local theologian and author Dr. John Mark Miravalle. We contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation where Dan Barker agreed to represent the decidedly 'con' side of “Does God Exist?” for day one. Not only did we work fantastically together but thanks to our combined efforts we filled the entire auditorium.
My goal for individual presentations was a mix of topics that were informative, balanced, and challenging. Thanks to the generous support and enthusiastic cooperation of multiple national organizations we were able to have each on of our speakers be nationally respected and influential leaders in their field. Before even having contacted Dan Barker to debate for us, I was looking forward to having the Freedom From Religion Foundation's co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor use her experience with the National Day of Prayer to present the keynote address, America Doesn't Have a Prayer, an overview of the recent legal battle on the National Day of Prayer and the facts which should persuade every American, religious or not, that the government has no right to be in the business of prayer. (Due to a death in the family Annie Laurie was unable to join us, or able to give her workshop on women in the freethought tradition based on her book, No God's No Masters. We agreed and insisted that she should stay there with her family, and were lucky that Dan Barker could step in at the last minute and present the keynote for us).
The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry provided James Underdown, Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles, and an experienced debunker, talk about How Modern Paranormal Investigations Refute Biblical Miracles. Many people are happy to accept or reject biblical miracles as either dogma or patently ridiculous, but paranormal investigators look at such claims in the modern world all the time and can go even further to tell us what evidence and explanations apply to such miraculous claims.
We were lucky enough to have star clinical psychologist and researcher Darrel Ray in our own back-yard having just completed the nation's largest secular sex survey with SOMA member and now Director of Member Recruitment, Amanda Brown. The largest ever survey of secular persons' sexual experiences in and out of religion (12,000+ people responded to 69 questions, which was indeed a coincidence) and reported the unsurprising result that your sex life gets better when you leave behind religion. Not because you can be a hedonistic pervert, but because religious and non-religious people both share the human sexual experience but many religions try to convince people to be ashamed of it. (http://www.atheismresource.com/2011/sex-and-secularism-a-fascinating-study-from-darrel-ray-and-amanda-brown)
Recent SSA board of director's chair and prominent Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta joined us to discuss what secular students across the country are doing right. His talk was an engaging and exciting look at the amazing things secular groups are doing all around the country and why they are so important in a society that often demonizes secular citizens.
Philosopher, and Center for Naturalism founder Tom Clark discussed and challenged the audience with the implications of worldview naturalism and a lack of contra-casual free will. Surprisingly to some, it means a more just and empathetic society with all the freedoms, joys, challenges, and surprises we hold so dear.
We marketed aggressively, reaching out to fellow student groups, writing op-eds, placing ads on campus radio and newspapers, posting large color and b&w fliers on campus and off, tabling, canvassing, and chalking. We also worked with professors on campus to announce the event and offer credit for attending relevant discussions. Thanks to SSA's project grant we were even able to hang a huge banner on the front of one of the university’s most trafficked building for the entire week leading up to Reasonfest, inviting people to discuss the idea of whether God exists.
In addition to the academic content of event, we also wanted to highlight two things that our community finds so valuable: doing good and having fun. We combined both in events buffering the festival on either side. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church found out that atheists were questioning the unquestionable in their own neighborhood and announced they would be protesting us in a press release denouncing such a blasphemous concept (they are not a fan of Catholics either). There have been many rumors about how they found out about the event, but most people it may have had something to do with the personal invitation Reasonfest coordinator Conrad Hudson gave to Shelly Phelps by handing her a flier. When I asked myself for a quote about it, he said, "I thought it would be a question she would appreciate an answer to." This rabbit grew up in the briar patch of the Phelps Clan, so I saw nothing but positive in this. Soon after we discovered their intention to protest the event one SOMA member made a comment that would become SOMA's official sound byte regarding their presence: "I'm glad they are here. It means they aren't somewhere else hurting a grieving family with their hatred."
Another upside to the attention they provoke is the opportunity to use it to do some good. Last year a campus activist arranged a huge counter-protest that involved dozens and dozens of hilarious light-hearted and irreverent signs, to show support for Queers and Allies Brown Bag Drag, that raised hundreds of dollars for Planed Parenthood. We partnered with that activist to again bring out signs and supporters to raise money for a worthy charity. More than $600 was raised and the crowd enjoyed the heartfelt sermon we arranged to urge them to "choose the greater evil" and worship not the vengeful & capricious god of Calvinist theology but rather bow to a truly fearful and destructive deity, Cthulhu. After a reading of the Necrinomicon, a sign was called for and those who felt his unholy spirit felt compelled to embrace same sex partners in public displays of affection. It was fun, it raised money for a good cause, and broke down prejudices of LGBTQ couples. Westboro sure does know how to do some good in the world!
To wrap up Reasonfest we all met at a local club to socialize and reflect on the event and were pleased to partner with the venue to give a portion of each person's cover charge to the Douglas County AIDS Project to fight the impact of HIV/AIDS in the community. Again the combination of providing social bonding experiences for community with raising money for issues it faces proved very successful.
The two day attendance was well over 700 people and those involved reported an incredible amount of value from it. Having a large event really energized our membership and volunteers who were absolutely indispensable. They chalked sidewalks, hung fliers, collected donations, directed traffic, wrote articles, collected surveys, designed publicity, and did it all wearing a smile and their Reasonfest 2011 shirts identifying them as "Reasonable Staff."
Youtube videos of the debate and talks have already received thousands of views at youtube.com/openmindedatheists, with SOMA's banner proudly displayed in the background. One of the most exciting and unexpected benefits has been to connect with members of the community willing to financially support our efforts, to educate and unite the community with events like these, which are always free to both members and the public. We sold more than $1000 in merchandise and raised a similar amount in donations allowing us to cover the cost of the event, and providing seed money for Reasonfest 2012.
In addition to the members and audience this event was for, I want to thank our sponsors:
- Secular Student Alliance
- Center for Inquiry on Campus
- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
- Freedom from Religion Foundation
- Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
- And all the support we received from our university for their commitment to free speech and student engagement.
The next month I once again attended the annual Center for Inquiry's Leadership Conference in Amherst, NY. Last year's leadership conference was a key motivator for Joey and I to expand the ambition of SOMA, and I was excited to report back our activities and get training and insight alongside old friends. I was not disappointed, the trainings were incredibly valuable, and there could not be a more inspiring group of people that the leaders of groups all over the country. After an amazing three days of insight and fun, I was overjoyed to receive the 2011 CFI Best On Campus Event award for Reasonfest '11. We as a group are incredibly humbled and thankful for this recognition and hope our story inspires even more groups around the country to put on similar events for their local community and student bodies. My times at atheist/skeptic conferences have often been the most enjoyable experiences of the year. We are committed to keeping Reasonfest free and open to the public so that students and community members alike who lack the time and means to travel across the country or pay high registration fees are able to add such experiences to their own lives. Join us next year at Reasonfest '12, you have friends here at KU and we're working hard to make it valuable, enlightening and entertaining.
It was an outstanding year, and with more people than ever excited to be involved in the "best god-damned group on campus" I'm confident next year will be even better!