Are Science and Belief in God Compatible? - the Secular Alliance at Indiana University
May 6, 2014Hosting a large, campus-wide event had been on my wish list for some time, especially since that would offer our group, the Secular Alliance at Indiana University, greater visibility than our usual events. The opportunity landed neatly in my lap when a group four people—three faculty and one PhD student—contacted multiple student groups expressing interest in speaking as a panel on the topic of science and god. They were clear that they did not want it to be a debate, but rather a dialogue. I'm on the fence as to the effectiveness or utility of public debates, so I was happy to go along with a panel discussion. I was direct in sharing my interest in coordinating just such an event, and soon took charge. I had spent considerable time in the past trying to put together just such a panel with no success, so it was a nice change that one came to us pre-formed!
We wanted a large, auditorium-style classroom and first reserved a room that seats 170. Since we had so many organizations working together (including CRU, née Campus Crusade for Christ) I opted to "upgrade" to a larger room that seats over 270. It was optimistic, as I had faced the failure of a large room (418) with few attending (5) as an extreme embarrassment. This time, however, we had a coalition of organizations represented, and I felt this would give us a much broader appeal than previous events held only by the Secular Alliance. Along the way we picked up Better Together at IU (an interfaith group), the Biology Club, CRU, Hillel (a Jewish center), the Muslim Student Union, and the Physics Club. It was exciting to work with so many groups as it made the "Alliance" part of Secular Alliance all the more real.
After considerable discussion, we settled on the title of Are Science and Belief in God Compatible? It was innocuous, when some prefer provocative, but still clear about the panel's topic. The panelists asked me to moderate, something I had never done before, and I agreed. With the title, date, time, and participatory groups settled, I was able to move onto more pressing concerns: food. We planned on pizza, but then another fortuitous opportunity arose when one of our officers mentioned a connection to a local restaurant that offers vegan food. I'm not vegan, but I felt that such food would be the absolute best option for such an inter-/extra-faith event as anyone could partake regardless of special dietary requirements. It was a bit more expensive, but with funding help from the Indiana University Student Association, we were able to cover the costs. It was a nightmare to get funding from the IUSA, however, in that poor communication and lack of activity on their part meant the event approached and passed before I had an actual check in hand to pay a considerable catering bill. There were many days of emails, calls, and office visits to get that funding, culminating in a bizarre and threatening email about penalizing our group for "wanting special treatment" but apologies from administrators and the funding we were awarded helped me move on from that.
The day of the panel finally arrived, and I have this advice: if you have reservations for equipment or catering, make sure to call near the day of the event to confirm, as the tables for the panelists and food I had requested where not there and the separate drinks catering had neglected to add our event to their calendar. That could have been a mess.
The panel itself started late for the best reason, in that we had a rather full room right before start time and continued to have more people coming in! I had to ask people to scoot inward so that there would be more available seating as we had a large number of people looking for seats. Having people standing in back helped set up a cosmic joke, when during introductions one of the nontheist panelists was talking about god not acting in the world and the lights went out! The room burst into laughter at the divine interference, but my suspicions were that someone standing had leaned against one of the push-button light switches on the back wall. Either way, it gave the event a shot of energy which went well with the already cordial and humorous panelists. They were clearly having a good time discussing the topic, which gave the panel a much more positive effect over debate. For someone such as myself who spends his time reading books on the topic of science and religion, the panel didn't cover new ground. Others like me wouldn't gain much in new understanding, but what they would gain is a better appreciation for interfaith alliances. It also wouldn't hurt that a successful panel would reflect quite well on the Secular Alliance. Those who aren't sure whether science and religion are compatible were presented differing opinions through respectful dialogue. My role as moderator was mostly to segue between panelists and point to audience members during the Q&A, and I saw this as an opportunity to portray our group as being dedicated to fair discussion.
Serving food after the panel meant we could transition from the formal event featuring the panelists to one of continuation of ideas by the attendees. After ending the Q&A, I encouraged everyone in attendance to enjoy our food and continue the discussion together. Many commented on the delicious catering so I was thrilled given the anxieties over funding. I was approached by a woman with two children, who told me she was impressed by how the panel went and my moderation of the panel. She identified as Christian, and went on to share the misgivings she had prior to the panel about the atheist leader of a secular organization injecting bias or being hostile. It was great validation to feel I had achieved my goal of being perceived as unbiased. When working on building a coalition, I feel it is not the appropriate time to criticize others' beliefs.
The panel was a great success, and the Secular Alliance gained some invaluable publicity as a result. I care deeply about growing our secular student organization, and hope that future planning and events are bolstered by this success. Watch the video from the event:
About the Author: Orion DayOrion Day has been active with the Secular Alliance at IU since transferring to Indiana University in Bloomington in 2009. He is now the Director of the SAIU and has a great interest in developing new models for secular activism on college campuses. As a secular humanist, he cares deeply about education, volunteering, and forming a supportive community.
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