Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University

April 28, 2016

This week we’re excited to highlight the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University, home of former CFI Outreach intern Zach Ashton. However, in the spirit of successful leadership transitioning, Zach made sure the new group president, Michael Thompson, was able to talk with us. Read on to see what Michael has to say about why the group got started, his group’s most impressive activities, and where he sees the secular movement going in the future.

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What’s your “atheist/secular conversion story,” if you have one? I’m Michael, a junior and information technology major at George Mason University. My secular story isn’t particularly unique, but like many others I had doubts about the claims of Christianity for many years. My junior year of high school, I finally sat down and read the Bible to see if it would restore my faith or give me a better understanding of God. Needless to say, it had the opposite result.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? The SSA at GMU has been around for quite some time! We’ve had years of inactivity, but about three years ago, Alex Krupp stepped up and got a lot of secular people together to reform GMU’s SSA into a much larger community of people. At the time (and even now) there were groups for every type of religion imaginable but there was no campus group or community of secular people. President Krupp, alongside a few others, felt that had to change.

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites? In the years since our founding, we’ve held a ton of events. Some, like our Baptize an Atheist event, were used to raise money for charity. Others, like our Young Atheist Convention, were made to promote secular ideas and spread useful information. We’ve historically worked with others as well, just this year co-hosting an Environmental Festival in North Plaza right near the core of our school.

Group photo of SSA at GMU

Talk up your group. What’s something that you’ve accomplished that you’re really proud of? Our most ambitious project was, without question, the Young Atheist Convention held last year. For that event, we got together a ton of secular speakers, a comedian, and invited people from many different schools (and the greater community) to meet up and hear how to become active as a member of the secular community. We’ve also done a lot with the non-secular community at Mason, from putting up Ask an Atheist tables to setting up tables right across from campus preachers to show that we exist and welcome anyone to join us or ask about whatever they’d like to know.

What do you see as the mission of your organization? GMU’s SSA was originally created as a place where secular people could go and hang out with other like-minded people. To this day, as the only secular student group at GMU, that remains our single biggest goal. Our other goals include promoting the separation of church and state and communicating with other groups to develop understanding of the secular community.

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? CFI is a group that we’ve heard a lot about from members of the SSA at GMU. Former executive board members, like CJ, used to invite us out to local CFI meetings. While we haven’t worked much with CFI in the past, rest assured we have a lot of promotional material from CFI and will gladly assist in “fostering a secular society” at GMU.

What is your vision for the secular movement? While the secular community has come a long way, I envision a secular movement in the future that’s much more active and vocal about speaking out against the use of religion in government and law. We’re now a significant number of people in the US, yet we still have scores of politicians justifying everything from discriminatory laws to miseducation in science with pseudo-intellectual religious views. If we can foster a bigger sense of community and activism, I know we can end these battles for everyone’s benefit.

 

 

About the Author: Stef McGraw

Stef McGraw's photo
Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers

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S3RC! - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

S3RC!

March 9, 2016

The following is a reflection about the Southeast Secular Student Regional Conference, a student-run event proudly sponsored by CFI On Campus!

On February 20th and 21st, the first ever Southeast Secular Student Regional Conference (S3RC) was held on Florida State University's Tallahassee campus. The event was hosted by the Secular Student Alliance at Florida State University, and cosponsored by the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Florida and the Secular Student Alliance at the University of West Florida. The primary focus of the conference was regional community-building among secular students and secularism-oriented groups, but the conference pleasantly marked a secondary accomplishment: the strengthening of diversity among the Southeast secular community. The conference was attended by people from all over the American South, including North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and host state, Florida.

S3RC Group Photo

In the American South, secular communities are hard to build, and diverse secular communities even more so, even when the populations are present. With the guidance of many incredible speakers, attendees of the 2016 S3RC were exposed to many of the issues facing the regional and secular community in general. Speakers included Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, internet and debating sensation Matt Dillahunty, former American Atheists president Ed Buckner, Mandisa Thomas of Black Nonbelievers, filmmaker Jeremiah Camara, and Jason Heap of the United Coalition of Reason.

Midway through the conference on Saturday, attendees had the opportunity to interact with speakers and each other at a social. After this year, we hope to have a rotating location at different universities in the region so as to make the conference accessible to as many people as possible. Some of the other speakers were Emily Mumford from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dave Churvis of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Hiba Krisht of Ex-Muslims of North America. Other organizations present at the conference include the Center for Inquiry–Tallahassee; Florida Atheists, Critical Thinkers, and Skeptics; Atheists of Florida; the Humanist Society of the Suncoast; and the Coalition of Reason-Tampa Bay.

 

About the Author: Sam Farooqui

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Sam is a junior at Florida State University studying psychology and French. She has been the vice president of the Secular Student Alliance at FSU since the group’s inception in 2014. Her hobbies include defending the weak, attacking the strong, attacking the weak, and denouncing the prevalence of tomatoes in most modern cooking.

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Darwin Week 2016: Reacting to Change & Evolving - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Darwin Week 2016: Reacting to Change & Evolving

March 1, 2016

The following is a reflection about the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers' annual Darwin Week lecture series. CFI On Campus was a proud sponsor of Darwin Week 2016!

Student groups are fickle things. Many are ultimately temporary, due to either the graduation of founders and unsuccessful transitionary periods or simply the dropping off of a trend. Case in point, you won’t see many Students for Rand last until 2020. For older organizations like the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers, events like Darwin Week show the changing perspectives and opinions of the members over time. Given that we are talking about an event that has to do with Darwin, it is apropos to say, “Evolution”, I suppose. I was not around to participate in the first Darwin Week, nor will I be around to participate in the last one. But I do know that Darwin Week will keep changing to fit the needs and goals of not only UNIFI, but the student body as a whole.
UNIFI members 'evolving'

Darwin Week’s grown and changed over time with the needs and goals of UNIFI as an organization. Looking back at past Darwin Weeks, we have shied away from the atheistic militancy of the old. Old, of course, being 2011. You won’t hear about the Christian groups on campus dreading UNIFI’s annual Blasphemy Rights Day commemoration/celebration/riots, depending on who you ask. Additionally, our campus events and discussions have also seemingly moved away from straight secularism and atheism and moved into more general topics such as politics, bioethics and other still pertinent issues that aren’t as directly connected with secularism. But the result remains the same—Darwin Week, and UNIFI, are changing.

This is not inherently bad. Last year’s Darwin Week had a keynote give a talk dedicated to the Ebola virus. Given the media frenzy of late 2014 about Ebola, it’s not surprising that we capitalized on that. After all, as an organization we are cursed with the need to stay relevant. With Darwin Week being our biggest event, it defines our relevance and current perspective on things. This year’s Darwin Week theme was based around “Skepticism” in many areas. While I doubt that the theme was picked around any specific event, it does seem appropriate given the current presidential election in which candidates are making claims and not providing evidence. Seems as perfect a time as any to promote skepticism as a value.

Looking to the future, I can’t predict Darwin Week to a tee. But what I can say is given past local and campus issues, Darwin Week will probably reflect them. It’ll probably reflect what the officer team wants to promote as UNIFI’s image, because Darwin Week is essentially the face of UNIFI for many of the uninitiated student body.

 

About the Author: Oliverio Covarrubias

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Oliverio Covarrubias is in his second year at the University of Northern Iowa. This is also his second year working with the campus secular/freethinking group UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers. He has served as the Director of Finance for UNIFI under the leadership of Aaron Friel (President), Natalie Kaufman (Vice President).

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Dr. Darrel Ray at UCF - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Dr. Darrel Ray at UCF

February 26, 2016

On February 8th, the Secular Student Alliance at UCF (SSAUCF), an affiliate of CFI On Campus, hosted Dr. Darrel Ray for a speaking engagement. Dr. Ray, who is well known for his work in psychology, gave a speech entitled “Sexy Evolution: What do ducks, chimps and humans have in common?”

Audience of Dr. Ray's talk

The event turned out to be very successful with around 70 students and members of the community showing up to hear the talk. The talk lasted a decent bit over an hour and it was followed by a Q&A session. The event ended up running much longer than originally planned as people were fascinated by the talk and had lots of questions for Dr. Darrel Ray. Eventually, because our room reservation ended, the event ended but people were able to continue their discussions well after that. Afterwards most people attending the talk went out to dinner together, including Dr. Ray, where they continued to discuss the speech.

Events like these can be hard for a student group to host, as they often require a lot of coordination with the community and funding. Luckily, SSAUCF is fortunate to have some great community partners, including the national Secular Student Alliance, the Central Florida Freethought Community (who had a huge role in getting Darrel to the area) and the Center for Inquiry, who helped promote and organize the event.

Dinner after Dr. Ray's talk 

 

About the Author: Ben Karpf

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Ben is a University of Central Florida student studying mechanical engineering. He first got involved with the secular movement during his freshman year of college when he joined the Secular Student Alliance at UCF, a CFI On Campus affiliate, and he is now president of the club.

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Religions are responsible for their unclear teachings - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Religions are responsible for their unclear teachings

February 18, 2016

Since adolescence I have been taught that I am held accountable for what I tell others. As a child, if I told my younger siblings that a boogie man was in the basement, my parents held me responsible for dealing with their night terrors or overly aggressive relationship with the basement staircase. Reasonable parents would address a fear-mongering child like me by telling me to verify my claims before they might scare others. As adults we are similarly expected to think before we preach; ironically, this type of accountability is rarely applied to the self-declared preachers of churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship. When faced with the problem of violent religious extremism, the institutions extremists claim to be part of often in turn claim those very groups to be non-representative outliers. In other words, they suggest that because hateful deviants fail to represent belief systems in a marketing-friendly manner, their association with the “peaceful” teachings of mainstream religions must be nullified and rejected. I find at least one viewpoint to be helpful in exploring such a problem: product liability law. This legal framework demonstrates how an undeniable contract, denoted in holy scripture and distributed by clergy as a divine bond between sinner and creator, exists between religious bodies and extremists committing horrific acts based on the doctrines and teachings of those religions. For success, eternal or otherwise, religions must be held responsible for the terrestrial results of any unclear or harmful orders found in said doctrines.

Product liability—that the producers of a product are held responsible for direct damages induced by that product—is directly related to how religions function. Organized religions produce worldviews, often dogmatically, which are essentially “purchased” by members of those faiths. People buy into religious dogma with the understanding that obedience to these instructions will yield terrestrial and heavenly rewards. Whether interpretations of these instructions result in something trivial (like disinterest in grilled catfish) or something abhorrent(like genocide), culpability needs to be assessed and asserted. Within Christianity there are numerous examples of Biblical references to self-sacrifice and later reward. Even in the New Testament (the less controversial testament showing a kinder, less megalomaniacal side of God) we see a producer-consumer type of relationship. Here God asks us to offer ourselves by praising him (Hebrews 13:15), and in turn we shall receive eternal salvation (1 Peter 1:5). 1 John 3:23 says that we are to believe in Jesus and love one another to gain entry into heaven. Love, however, takes many forms depending on the context. Love is commonly expressed in non-violent or peaceful ways, but these options do not form an exhaustive list. Within the Bible we are told by Jesus to “harm no man” (Luke 3:14), but this same loving God also reminds us that non-believers will face “fire” and “perdition” on judgment day (2 Peter 3:7). When we consider doublespeak like this it is easier to understand how “fighting the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) can mean both defending the meek and exploited (like women and minorities), but also eliminating heretics (like abortion-performing physicians) in order to purify God’s earth.

Many religious leaders say those guilty of atrocities done in the name of religion are radicals not connected to the institution. But did these radicals generate their ideas and association to, say, Islam or Buddhism, in a vacuum? Is it a coincidence radical Islamists revere the same Allah as non-violent imams? No, because the religion responsible for the creation of this figure (and the promises he makes as a condition for obeying him) instigated much of the killer-making process. In this sense, religions are responsible for both the peaceful and violent products they inspire.

If radicals are not apt representations of a religion, but instead faulty products of the system of belief they try to uphold, isn’t their producer still liable? When Barack Obama says extremists are misguided, or Pope Francis says they are religious deviants, we can make a logical connection: these misinterpretations and deviations come from doctrines which are susceptible to being misinterpreted. Events like the Second Vatican Council demonstrate how unclear doctrine is a concern that must be addressed; if similar lack of clarity inspires thousands to kill in the name of God these doctrines certainly have not been made clear enough. Religions are producers much like manufacturing companies. The products they distribute can be wondrous, or they can be toxic hazards. Imagine if religions were taxed like manufacturers and sold their texts explicitly as instruction manuals for reaching heaven (much like “get rich quick!” or “lose 50 pounds drinking lemon juice!” scams). Ambiguities within these texts would be held as liabilities and not as excused discretions in judgment. Extremists acting as self-appointed representatives of faith are not the only faces of religion, but they are religious ambassadors nonetheless. As atheists, secularists, and agnostics we must hold religions accountable for the messages they disseminate, rather than shamefully agreeing with their leaders that moderate belief is the only form of piety. Religious violence is a polarizing, multifaceted phenomenon. Solving it must start from within religious institutions by holding them accountable for their products, whether they are effective or dangerous. While asking for a recall of Bibles, Qurans, and Bhagavad-Gitas like faulty microwave ovens is a bit ambitious, we should still strive to neutralize their negative influences. This can—and should—be done through firm diplomatic pressure toward countries tolerant of religions evading responsibility for their teachings. Through political accountability perhaps religious leaders will think twice before delivering unverifiable sermons based on misleading doctrines.

 

About the Author: Peter Wood

Peter Wood's photo

Peter is a graduate student in Geography at Florida State University. He is an active volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Big Bend and the Secular Student Alliance at the Florida State University, a CFI On Campus affiliate. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Peter began engaging with the secular community during his tenure in Tallahassee. As an undergraduate student, Peter competed for the cross-country and track teams at Oklahoma State University. He enjoys hotel breakfasts and Brazilian cinema.

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Affiliate Group of the Week: University of Kansas Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: University of Kansas Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics

January 19, 2016

The University of Kansas Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (or SOMA, for short), has been a fantastic and very active group for its many years as a CFI On Campus affiliate. We talked to Taylor Cameron, president of the group, about why she got involved with SOMA and the impact she sees the organization having on campus: Tabling for SOMA

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 Taylor Cameron, and I’m a third year undergrad at the University of Kansas. I’m studying Slavic Languages & Literature (with a Russian emphasis) and the history of art. I “came out” when I was a senior in high school via Facebook status. That was an awful experience, but I do not regret it at all. I had begun to reject religious ideology when I was a sophomore in high school, I think. I am so glad to be free of the harms of religion. That in itself is worth all the “family” and “friends” I lost after I came out.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? I am pretty sure it was founded in 2004. We don’t know much about the beginnings of the group because it kind of had a rocky start. It started out as the Society of MILITANT Atheists. I’m told they were very unreasonable and not easy to work with. I’m not exactly sure when they changed the name and the mission of the group.

What is your group’s name? How did you decide on that name? Do you have a logo to go with that name? Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (SOMA); the group had gone by that name for years before I became president. We did ponder changing the name to something that had more emphasis on secularism and less on atheism, but our group isn’t so much a political group but more a community that welcomes non-religious members. This is our logo:

SOMA Logo 

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites? We hold a social coffee night at a local coffeeshop every other Tuesday. On the other Tuesdays, we have speakers come lecture about specific topics. For example, this Tuesday we are having a secular therapist speak about coping with grief without religion, and the previous talk was given by a graduate of neuroscience, who argued that religion was not a mental illness, as some atheists claim. We have a ton of fun! We haven’t held any fundraisers yet, but we are planning to soon because we want to hold our annual secular conference in April called Reasonfest.

Talk up your group. What's something that you've accomplished that you're really proud of? I’m very proud of our diversity in the group: we have several ex-Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, etc. We have equal amounts of men and women plus an age range of 18-60 years old. We are also very racially diverse. I am so proud to show students on campus that we are just normal people because the word “atheist” is still scary. It is a great feeling to have conversations with religious students to explain to them that we only want equal rights and to discuss topics in respectful and educational ways that benefit all of us. I think SOMA has achieved positive feedback from the rest of the student body.

What do you see as the mission of your organization? Our mission is to create an environment wherein secular, non-religious, skeptical, or simply curious students can voice their concerns about religious ideology and meet others who share the same beliefs.

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? I attended the SSA conference in Ohio last July, where I spoke with several CFI members (including you, Stef!) We receive publications from CFI as well as awesome stickers and promotional items that we give out to students on campus.

SOMA members with speaker Darrel Ray

What is your vision for the secular movement? My vision is for America to rely less on religion as a way to justify discrimination. I very much dislike how some people use Christianity as a tool to put down the non-religious/people of other religions. It is hateful, and it is not right. My vision is for religious people in America to realize that atheists/agnostics/humanists, etc. are able to have morals and to do good without the belief in an omniscient deity. It’s simple for me; I just want equal rights.

Anything else you want to add? Belonging to a non-religious community has definitely been life-changing. I have made so many friends by joining SOMA. I did not realize how oppressed I was in my small, conservative hometown until I was welcomed into such a liberal and secular place. I now call Lawrence, Kansas, home because of this. I feel like I have never been more at home in my entire life. SOMA at KU is so important because we are the only atheist/agnostic group on campus. So many more students are actually non-religious than they let on, but identifying openly as Christian is a much better way to network and become successful. We need to change that. It is imperative that non-religious students have a place to belong and feel like they won’t be negatively affected by their religious beliefs.

 

About the Author: Stef McGraw

Stef McGraw's photo
Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers

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Starting the semester off right - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Starting the semester off right

January 11, 2016

Editor's Note: These are some great suggestions to start off your spring semester, and we at CFI On Campus hope that you incorporate them into your group's plans, if you haven't already. If you have other organizing advice to share with Course of Reason readers or are looking for more ideas for your group, email us at oncampus@centerforinquiry.net!

I'm president of the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers & Inquirers (UNIFI), and our group has been a campus affiliate of the Center for Inquiry for just shy of a decade now; I hope that means that we’re doing something right. A lot of what I’ve learned has been passed down from my predecessors, and a lot of it comes down to planning your semester well. Here are three tips that have helped UNIFI maintain itself as an organization.

1. Plan and reserve venues for your events

This may sound silly, but reserve all of your venues up front. UNIFI hosts weekly events, and we use the same time and place for those. This was overwhelmingly favored when we surveyed them - and you are surveying your members, right? I digress. If your university offers the opportunity to reserve those venues, do it now! It’s much easier to cancel or postpone a meeting than to decide to put one on at a moment’s notice. And scheduling those events now is a little bit of a “lifehack”, it ensures that you’ll be hosting events throughout the semester. Groups have inertia; get rid of any friction down the road in getting ready for an event by planning for them now.

2. Get in touch with your members the first week and advertise

We’ll be reaching out to returning students right away, making sure we invite them to our events and reminding some that have “fallen off” that we exist. You can’t just have events and hope people show up—you have to remind the world that you exist every semester. For us, that means tabling, postering, and messaging people individually, not just posting an event on our page and hoping people will show. If we waited until people heard of us, we’d be long gone as a group. Actively soliciting people to join and return to events is necessary!

3. Plan your leadership transition and talk it up

Who’s going to replace you in your organization? Are you working with them already? Do you have up and coming members who have shown promise to apply or run for leadership positions? You need to have a plan, and getting your members excited about the opportunity to lead is key to your group’s long-term success. As we use an appointment system, determining my successor is one of my most important jobs. Even if your group holds elections, you should be asking your most promising members to run, and don’t be afraid to have a voice in the process. If you’re graduating, you have wisdom and experience your group can use. Don’t wait until someone asks to start conveying that.

That brings up one bonus tip: stay in touch with your leadership. UNIFI maintains communication between all past presidents and the current one. Building alumni connections is how you grow your group for the long term, so get started by building those connections in your leadership team today.

Good luck with your semester, and remember to plan, engage, and transition!

 

About the Author: Aaron Friel

Aaron Friel's photo
Aaron Friel is a quasi-traditional student in his fourth year studying mathematics and computer science at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Before joining the student body at 23, he spent six years working as a software and IT consultant. He came to UNI after hearing about the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers and attending their open mic discussion forum. He's now president of UNIFI, and organizes the campus' progressive coalition, bringing student orgs together to collaborate on progressive causes. He has a passion for progressivism and technology and believes in the power of combining the two. Find him at www.facebook.com/aaron.friel.

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Illini Secular Student Alliance - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Illini Secular Student Alliance

December 21, 2015

This week's Affiliate Group of the Week is the Illini Secular Student Alliance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. CFI On Campus has been connected with them since their founding, and they've historically been one of the most active campus affiliate groups. Social media chair Max McKittrick gives us the low down on what the group is up to now, as well as his personal story about how he got involved in organized atheism.

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What’s your “atheist/secular conversion story,” if you have one? I'm Max McKittrick, the social media chair for ISSA, and I'm a grad student in information science at UIUC...hopefully I'll graduate next December! When I'm not spreading heresy and promoting reason on campus, I spend my time TAing, cooking listening to vinyl, and playing Super Smash Bros. competitively. My favorite food is empanadas; I estimate I've eaten over 2000 empanadas in my life so far. As for my Atheist Origin Story, I'm lucky enough to not have anything too dramatic to share...my parents probably wouldn't self-identify as atheists, but my family never goes to church, and religion was never an important part of my home life when growing up. Like many other kids in the same situation, I had a natural progression of increasing levels of skepticism to God and etc. the older I got, and never looked back.

ISSA members at an apple orchard

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? ISSA as a group started in ~2007, and has been chugging along since that time. We've had changes in leadership since then, but the group was originally founded by the great Chris Calvey, the Johnny Appleseed of college secular groups, as Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers at UIUC, and has subsequently rebranded as ISSA. We have club members and officers from a wide variety of backgrounds, so I cannot speak for everyone in the group, but my personal involvement was spurred by a close high school friend of mine who dropped out of school to start a family at 19. She had been in an engineering program at a major university but had gotten heavily involved in the Catholic scene on her campus, and decided that education was not what Jesus wanted for her. Her parents were happy with her decision, but myself and many other of her friends were shocked and confused. I think providing a community that encourages students to do the exact opposite of that is one of the most important services ISSA and other campus secular groups provide.

What is your vision for the secular movement? In terms of my own personal vision for the secular movement, I think that building community and providing groups and events that showcase the wide variety of types of people that identify as secular/nonreligious/atheist/etc. is one of the most important things for any CFI affiliate to do...especially college groups. Not everyone is able or willing to join a "secular movement," but I think secular groups can easily encourage ordinary college students to be less involved with religious groups on campus just by providing non-religious alternatives to the opportunities and events those groups are normally associated with.

ISSA logo

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites? ISSA has historically been involved with some events that are now national mainstays of other secular campus groups, and I think that's something all of our officers are very proud of! We were the group that pioneered Ask an Atheist Day, which is now National Ask an Atheist Day, and promoted by the SSA and many other fine folks. This event is so interesting every year, as there are so many students on campus who are not distrustful or biased against atheists but are just genuinely confused and wondering what we do with ourselves. ("Do you really eat babies?" is a question we get asked every year, but so is "what do you do on Sunday morning, then?") Our group is still plotting our next dastardly scheme, but many of this year's activities have focused on building up our core membership to historic levels, and hosting social and service events for our members.

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? CFI On Campus has been a fixture with ISSA through our activities over the years, and they have provided and continue to provide valuable support for us! The CFI goodies help us recruit young blood at UIUC's annual quad day, and are invaluable for recruitment, because everyone loves free swag. CFI's generous donation of some secular books also provided a valuable boost to ISSA's Freethought Library, where our members can check out books on a wide variety of secular and atheist topics. We weren't able to send members to the CFI summer conference last year, but we hope that our officers are able to make it this year!

 

About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Ward Melville Secular Student Alliance - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Ward Melville Secular Student Alliance

December 11, 2015

Not all CFI On Campus affiliate groups have had to fight for their existence like the Ward Melville Secular Student Alliance has. Thanks to their perseverance (including getting CFI, among other organizations, to write letters to their school board), this impressive high school club finally was awarded recognition in September of this year. Led by go-getter Thomas Sheedy, they're off to a great start by representing the secular movement in a positive manner at their high school and in their community at large. Read what Thomas has to say to learn more:

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 Thomas Sheedy. I'm a senior attending Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, NY, where I will be graduating in June 2016. I've been an atheist for two and a half years and have been an avid supporter for the atheist/secular movement. My dedication to the cause convinced me to form the Ward Melville Secular Student Alliance, where I am president. I left my Roman Catholic faith in the spring in 2013 when I watched a Bill Maher stand up clip where he claimed that you can drill out Catholicism just like how he got Mercury drilled out of his system.

Thomas Sheedy at FFRF Convention

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? I wanted to start a secular group at Ward Melville ever since I entered high school, however in the beginning of my sophomore year I had no support. In April of 2014, after witnessing the the start of my school's Christian Club, I received support from the adviser of my old Model Congress group, Mr. Ira Sterne, and we were set to begin the club for the 2014-15 school year. On my first day of junior year, Mr. Sterne told me that most of his time was dedicated to another building in the school district and that he would not have the time to be the club's adviser. After months of myself and my supporters trying to find an adviser, we gave up and went to one of the vice principals. We were told that we would need a teacher to volunteer to be the adviser and if no one replied to the district's email requesting one, we would not have a club. Sadly, there were no positive replies and we gave in and started to plan for the 2015-16 school year. At the end of my junior year, I found an adviser and we filled out a club application for the 2015-16 school year. On July 12th, I was informed that the Ward Melville Secular Student Alliance was not included in the new list of clubs. I was appalled by this decision as we met all of the requirements to form an after school club. I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance, the Center for Inquiry, and several other organizations where I asked for their support. After being stalled for a year and a half and an emergency Board of Education meeting in August, the district reversed the decision and my club was accepted. I thanked the Superintendent for making the right decision on September 9th and we had our first meeting on September 24th.

Talk up your group. What’s something that you’ve accomplished that you’re really proud of? On October 10th, 2015, I accepted the Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, where I also had the privilege of being the Honoree at their 38th national convention in Madison, Wisconsin. The WMHS SSA was also represented at the Progressive Vision for Long Island Conference at Stony Brook University on November 7th, 2015. Our Director of Public Relations was able to interact with many different progressive and secular groups from Long Island and the state of New York. We also plan on engaging in many other events throughout the school year.

WMHS SSA Tabling

What do you see as the mission of your organization? Our goals are:

  1. The promotion of a free environment, for all students who wish to speak freely.
  2. To promote an open community for Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, Skeptics, Naturalists, and Secularists. Students of any religious faith are also encouraged to attend.
  3. Becoming an engaging partner in the Three Village Community through charitable work and public service.
  4. Advocating for the separation of church and state.
  5. Emphasizing the need for students to get involved in the secular movement.

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? CFI On Campus is an organization that I'm highly impressed with. I attended the CFI Leadership Conference over the summer where I was able to meet students leaders from across the North American continent. It was the first secular conference that I have ever attended. I hope to continue working with CFI On Campus organizers by providing Stef and Cody with all of our future event plans. I am also part of the CFI On Campus Student Advisory Committee where I share my experiences and suggestions from a high school student's perspective.

WMHS SSA at LI Progressive Conference

What is your vision for the secular movement? The secular movement is a promising movement, one that is exciting, broad, and filled with many different organizations, all of whom are equally important. I like groups to be in alignment with one another. CFI affiliates are affiliated with CFI, where CFI is a voting member organization in the Secular Coalition for America. The Secular Coalition has state branches where local groups that are affiliated with other national groups have the opportunity to align themselves with the state branches in an effective manner. The one thing we can't do is to stay apart from one another. You can be a firebrand or a diplomat, a member of American Atheists or the American Ethical Union. ​ As long as we are all organized and not attacking each other's skepticism, then we are moving in a positive direction. Atheist advocacy is what I like the most.

 

About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Oregon State University Advocates for Freethought and Skepticism - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Oregon State University Advocates for Freethought and Skepticism

November 17, 2015

We have another Affiliate Group of the Week that really came on our radar at this past summer's Leadership Conference! (Hint hint, if your group hasn't sent reps to a Leadership Conference, it's a great way to make your group even better and get better connected with CFI On Campus.) Alex McFadden of the Oregon State University Advocates for Freethought and Skepticism gives us the low down on why he decided to leave religion, his group's trick to handling campus preachers, and how he's proud of his group's positive impact on campus.

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What’s your “atheist/secular conversion story,” if you have one? I'm Alex McFadden! I'm a senior at OSU studying biology. I am from Canada, and I moved with my sister to the US when I was 12. I was raised Roman Catholic as a child, but it was never strictly enforced on me. Religion was a part of my life, but I didn't really have to think about it critically. When I came to the US, it was very surprising how many different denominations I noticed. In Canada, the Christianities are less stratified, so seeing all the different Christian churches with contradictory views was surprising. For me, the big "conversion" stemmed from my church's views on LGBT rights (notably, the total incompatibility of LGBT rights with their views). From there, it was hard to reconcile real, good people that I knew to be good with the idea that LGBT people must be sinners. This sparked critical thought, and it all started rolling from there. I have been publicly atheist since I was 16 or 17.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? Our university has hosted secular groups before, but our group was founded in 2009 or so and for a few years they existed as a small club where 2-3 people met a few times a month. We got official club status in 2014-15, and that's when we feel we really began. I don't know the founders that well, but from what I understand, a lot of this club's formation is owed to a large number of philosophical religious clubs that had no atheist or secular counterpart. This is also where it got its name.

What is your group’s name? How did you decide on that name? Do you have a logo to go with that name? Our club's name is Advocates for Freethought and Skepticism, because that's exactly what we do! We welcome anybody who desires to think rationally and base their decisions on such. This way, our club does not explicitly exclude religious ideas, and allows us to consider all positions before settling on the one that seems the most reasonable based on evidence. We're not interested in abolishing religion or keeping religious folk out of our club, and our name reflects that.

AFS logo

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites? The best event that we do is Street Preacher Bingo. OSU has Free Speech Zones, where preachers can come with their signs and tell everyone they're going to Hell. In the past, OSU has had issues with these preachers (and the reaction to them) escalating to violence, so we thought of a way to get the tension down while encouraging critical thought. We have little bingo cards that we made with logical fallacies and obvious bigotries on them, like "Circular Reasoning" or "Misogynistic Rant". We gave them out to students, and for bingos, we gave out Jolly Ranchers! The immediate result was much less tension, and instead more engagement to determine if the preachers' thoughts were fallacious. It's grown more popular due to social media, and last spring we had our first blackout bingo!

We also do lots of community service—Habitat for Humanity, food pantries, food drives, etc. We also participate in debates and help organize debates with our resident Christian apologetic group, Socratic Club @ OSU.

Talk up your group. What's something that you've accomplished that you're really proud of? We've built an environment where secular people feel comfortable talking about their views, and that environment doesn't always exist on campus. For a lot of our members, this is their favorite part of the club: we go off topic, we talk about our lives, we commiserate, and we provide emotional and practical support to each other. A lot of people don't get why atheists might want clubs, and for a long time as an atheist I didn't either. Seeing the impact of this kind of club has completely changed my opinion, though. People miss that kind of thing when they leave an organized religion and don't often find it again, so I feel proud to have helped with that.

What do you see as the mission of your organization? To promote rational thought, the separation of church and state, and the organization of secular people.

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? We had heard of CFI having affiliated clubs near us, and wanted to know what that was all about. So we affiliated with CFI, and came to the 2015 Leadership Conference, and that's when we heard about CFI On Campus (as well as all the other work CFI does). We hope to use CFI especially as a tool to help us grow our club and learn about logistics of managing our club as it grows.

What is your vision for the secular movement? I hope that religious and nonreligious people can both feel like the education they get does not come with a side of religious bias, and that the government they elect doesn't have to be religious in its nature. That's lofty as far as goals go, but that's why we all have to push for it, and push hard.

Anything else you want to add? Just a quick thanks to the CFI and all the groups and people who have helped this group get started and grow over the last few years. This is the first time we've felt like we really had tools to keep our club afloat, and CFI and the Leadership Conference are big reasons for that.

 

About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.

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A Rational Defense of Irrational Disbelief - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

A Rational Defense of Irrational Disbelief

November 10, 2015

That atheists in general are painstakingly educated - by their own selves or otherwise - in theology and religion is not a brand new revelation to anyone even vaguely acquainted with them. As a South Asian ex-Muslim atheist of the diaspora, the experience of this was different for me than I saw it being for a lot of other atheists. Ultimately, what it helped me see was that the constant conflation of intellectualism and secularism is, in one word, incorrect, and in another, unnecessary.

Woman mosque leaving 

Regarding the sacred texts, the Bible is very accessible to a substantial portion of the Christian and ex-Christian populations. That’s not the case with the Quran; growing up, I learned how to read Arabic, but never to understand what exactly it was I was reading. It was a similar story for any other Muslim I knew - back then in Pakistan and largely even now in the US - as it was and is for multitudes of people all across the world, and certainly across the Indian subcontinent. The comprehension that should have been was fairly neglected, so that it could be replaced by obedience and modesty and such, as is often the case. The intellectualism that is generally seen as necessary for people to become secular and the vernacularization that is necessary for holy texts to become accessible was and is missing.

Sectarianism is more visible within Christianity, even when it isn’t part of official education. Catholics are aware of Protestants are aware of Jehovah’s Witnesses are aware of Anglicans and so on. The first I heard of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence was more than five years after I first stopped believing (although, admittedly, I did start disbelieving very early). Many people are aware of Sunnis and Shias and maybe they’re even aware of Sufis, but it’s hardly ever broken down into, say, the different schools of Sunni jurisprudence: Hanafi, Salafi, Hanbali, etc. There are schools within Shia and Sufism and Ahmadiyya also, and that is still not the complete picture. Maybe you could blame the Western gaze for the broad strokes, or the need for a semblance of Muslim solidarity in the post-9/11 world, but this is something that persists even in homogenous communities entirely populated by Muslims.

While this may seem like a critique of how secular communities receive and disseminate information about Islam, a worthwhile one that does need to be made, it isn’t that. Rather, I offer here a critique of the assumption that secular communities need to educate themselves about every religion that exists, and especially those we used to see ourselves as part of, so we can be sure we’re not damning ourselves to the horrific fates prescribed in various different texts. This is a common and entirely disingenuous assumption or prescription, since children aren’t born experts or theologians, yet they’re generally, with very little exception, pushed into a pre-formed ideology, made into identity, made into irrevocable destiny. I myself was decidedly not as educated about Islam before I stopped believing as I became after I did stop. This was used as a reason to undermine my decision to stop engaging in all the trappings of the religion, which is likely why so many of us do find it necessary to know for sure before accepting disbelief. The tactic is entirely a gate-keeping one, from both ends: the religious often ask if you’re sure you know enough, before flipping back to the question of whether you have enough faith, both questions at odds with each other; and the seculars abhor the idea that someone might have made the decision to join what they consider their community through any avenue but those predicated on reasoning alone, which cuts out everyone who doesn’t want to undertake all this and simply disbelieves. It shouldn’t be this way.

This assumption isn’t entirely something pushed onto atheists by the religious. It’s often a burden taken willingly. Here we hit upon something that was immediately off-putting to me upon my entry into the secular world: the insistence on intellectualism. The secular community, perpetually on the defensive, needs to be told that it’s okay to not rationalize disbelief. It is possible to feel in your bones that you don't believe. It doesn't necessarily have to be an intellectual endeavor. You don't have to scrounge around for the right answer to know when another answer is wrong. That is not to say that anti-intellectualism is okay or commendable in the least, but when you look at the scientific method itself, the one thing almost universally espoused by (at least intentional) skeptics, the objective isn’t to find the right answer - it’s to get rid of the wrong answers. That’s how I came to atheism myself: it’s not necessarily that science pulled me, but that religion pushed me away (even if I do choose to go along with the loaded-ness of the binary assumption involved here). There are other problematic features to this assumption. Not only does it promote an erroneous oppositional binary between science and religion, but it also often neglects the dishonest, sensationalist practices that go on in the scientific world of journals and publications in the name and promotion of intellectualism, many of which can’t simply be explained away by pointing to the media - it is entirely possible to be scientific and tout intellectualism and still be carried away by subjectivity. One is not automatically the source from which all objectivity flows just because one says, “Science, bitch!” I mention this because the appeal to presupposed objectivity is the main point of referring to science in opposition to religion. (See Nietzsche for more on this.) I’ll save my thoughts on sensationalism in contemporary science/academia for another time.

For a young brown ex-Muslim, the contrast is amplified, since the discrepancy between what the general Muslim population knows and what ex-Muslims are “supposed” to know is greater than the respective knowledge for, say, Christians in the West. On one hand, you are pressured to know everything about the religion before you can be allowed (allowed!) to defect. On the other, once you do, it becomes yet another obstacle to others who have some doubts about Islam, because all they see is that you have to acquire religious knowledge on par with scholars, which seems like a lot of work just so you can get to a position where you have to fend off the Western right, evade the Islamist fundies, and defend yourself from accusations of Islamophobia from the general left when you’re honestly just talking about your real life experiences with Islam and how they’ve hurt you. This is all before you get to possible vitriolic and maybe fatal opposition from people you actually love and have known all your life, sometimes people who bathed you as a child and who have the expectation that you’ll probably bathe them when they eventually reach a similar state of vulnerability. It seems like you need to devote your life to one potentially minuscule aspect of your identity, which often is and has been the case. It seems more beneficial to just shut up and enjoy whatever you currently have, however bad that might be.

In the face of that, commitment to normalcy is in itself a revolutionary act by virtue of how difficult it is to achieve. It’s very important to show secular Muslims and ex-Muslims who are just being mundane, not entirely defined by Muslimness and their efforts to either defend or escape it. You shouldn’t have to feel like you have to be an expert to be able to decide you don’t believe. There are plenty of other obstacles to overcome and they won’t be overcome simply by diligently trying to prove the position that led to defection, as the recent murders in Bangladesh can attest. The task is thankless and it’s probably better to get our priorities straight.

Tl;dr: 1. Science and religion are not opposites; 2. Secularism does not inherently mean science; 3. One should not have to show their science-y credentials to be taken seriously as a nonbeliever; 4. The insistence that seculars have to be well-versed in science and the academia therein is wrongheaded and inherently privileged; 5. This gatekeeping is a big part of why secularism exists in certain populations and not in others; 6. It’s something we do fairly consciously, but shouldn’t; 7. Many parts of the population are actually harmed by this insistence on what could be called a "party line" at this point.

 

About the Author: Sam Farooqui

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Sam is a junior at Florida State University studying psychology and French. She has been the vice president of the Secular Student Alliance at FSU since the group’s inception in 2014. Her hobbies include defending the weak, attacking the strong, attacking the weak, and denouncing the prevalence of tomatoes in most modern cooking.

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Secular Student Alliance at the University of Texas at San Antonio - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Secular Student Alliance at the University of Texas at San Antonio

November 4, 2015

This week's Affiliate Group of the Week is the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The CFI On Campus team got to know three members of the organization—Jesse Silva, Jeffrey Anderson, and Jose Nieves—at the Leadership Conference this past summer. It deserves to be mentioned that those three spent days on a bus traveling from San Antonio, Texas to Buffalo, New York and back in order to attend the conference, which shows an incredible amount of commitment to making their group great. To learn more about this awesome organization, we asked Jose Nieves some questions:

UTSA SSA group photo

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 Jose Martinez-Nieves. I'm studying computer science at The University of Texas at San Antonio, TX.

I was raised Catholic, just like my dad, uncles, aunts—basically my whole family since as far back as you can trace it. Growing up, I always took my belief in God for granted. My sophomore year of high school, I read On The Nature of Things by Lucretius after hearing Christopher Hitchens reference the book during a debate against William Lane Craig. I would say that reading that specific book challenged my perspective in a constructive way, and I'd recommend it to anyone. Shortly after, I began to question my religious devotion to God, considering instead Buddhism and other Eastern Orthodox religions. Finally, I settled on atheism because it seems, to this day, to be the most logically consistent orientation.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? Our group was formed immediately after the dissolution of the Atheist Agenda, another group on our campus, in 2012. Generally, there was consensus among the officers that their goal was to move toward less abrasive, more encouraging methods of creating discourse, and they deemed a name change necessary to distance themselves from their inflammatory past. Specifically, an event called Smut for Smut, during which students could exchange holy books for pornography, was the primary source of considering the change.

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites? We've participated in so many events, its hard to name them all. From community service to fundraising, I'm certain I'll leave some of them out. My personal list of favorites:

  • Stone a Heathen
  • Graveyard of the Gods
  • Guest Speaker Matt Dillahunty

Upcoming is my personal favorite event, the second annual UTSA Religious Forum. We will be discussing morality joined by various religious student groups. I love this event because it embodies what I think is our most important quality as a group: that we are open and encouraging of discussion on controversial topics.

Talk up your group. What's something that you've accomplished that you're really proud of? I joined this group looking for people with similar humanistic motivations. I continued to grow fond of the members and as time passed, I saw us grow in number and resolve. Now, as we continue to grow, I'm constantly amazed at the amount of community involvement. I am most proud of our community service efforts, because it is indicative of our propensity to help others in need. I am so proud to be able to contribute to this organization and the secular movement as a whole.

What do you see as the mission of your organization? Our primary goal is to serve as community support for nonreligious and freethinking students here at UTSA. We also strive to promote scientific literacy and facilitate interfaith dialogue here at UTSA.

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? I first encountered CFI at the Texas Secular Convention. There, I networked with representatives and later visited CFI in New York for their annual Leadership Conference.

I am excited to work together with CFI to improve our group's outreach and contribute to the secular movement as a whole.

What is your vision for the secular movement? Ideally, I envision transforming the climate of thought surrounding religion and politics to be grounded in evidence-based reasoning. Eliminating systematic discrimination of any kind, and especially religious discrimination, is among the most important goals of the secular movement.

Anything else you want to add? I'd just like to thank Stef and the rest of CFI for consistently supporting the UTSA SSA in all its endeavors.

 

About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.

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CFI Affiliates in Florida Raise $10,000 for Suicide Prevention at Community Walk - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

CFI Affiliates in Florida Raise $10,000 for Suicide Prevention at Community Walk

November 2, 2015

On Saturday, October 24, the Secular Student Alliance at Florida State University held an Out of the Darkness Community Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. SSA at FSU worked with the Center for Inquiry–Tallahassee to organize this event, the first of its kind in the city. The walk brought together over 100 participants and raised over $11,000 for the benefiting charity. For a first time event in a mid-sized market, the experience was a huge success.

SSA at FSU Suicide Prevention Walk 2015

As treasurer of SSA at FSU and a former CFI Outreach intern, it was incredibly rewarding to see this event come to fruition for both of these organizations. Mental health is a central concern to freethinkers, skeptics, and secular humanists, but is often underrepresented as an area of service. The reality is that suicide is appallingly underfunded when compared to other causes of death. Among US citizens between the ages of 18 and 34, suicide is the second leading cause of fatality. A large reason why suicide is rarely discussed is because of its associated stigma. Talking about self-harm is uncomfortable and painful, but even greater is the toll suppressed feelings take on society at large.

The primary goal for this event was to fundraise for an incredible charity. After several months of work, we surpassed our fundraising goal, and helped bring people together to share stories, emotions, and friendship. Beyond this, the organizing secular groups had a simple, subtler intent: to show, rather than say, how secularism is based on love, morality, and caring for fellow human beings without discrimination or preconception. The utility of secular evangelism is a contentious topic of debate. In Tallahassee on October 24, that debate was appropriately left for another day. Going forward, it will be inspiring to see similar events grow throughout campus and community secular groups. Religion, pseudoscience, and dogma are historically notorious for toxically affecting mental health. Serving our communities to bring attention, funding, and support to those within the realm of influence of mental illness (that is, all human beings) is an invigorating opportunity. Conducting this service as representatives of secular humanist ideals will only aid our ambition of helping others in times of need.

 

About the Author: Peter Wood

Peter Wood's photo

Peter is a graduate student in Geography at Florida State University. He is an active volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Big Bend and the Secular Student Alliance at the Florida State University, a CFI On Campus affiliate. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Peter began engaging with the secular community during his tenure in Tallahassee. As an undergraduate student, Peter competed for the cross-country and track teams at Oklahoma State University. He enjoys hotel breakfasts and Brazilian cinema.

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Stony Brook University Skeptics and Secular Humanists - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Stony Brook University Skeptics and Secular Humanists

October 28, 2015

SBU Skeptics and Secular Humanists giving out free books Welcome back to our Affiliate Group of the Week series! This week, we're highlighting a fantastic group that we really got to know when two of its members attended our Leadership Conference this past summer. We asked SBU Skeptics and Secular Humanists President Vinny Metas some questions about his group and his personal story with regards to freethought; this is what he had to say:

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 Vinny Metas, currently attending Stony Brook University in New York. I’m a senior graduating in 2016 and the current President of SBU Skeptics and Secular Humanists. Identifying now as an agnostic-atheist, I was raised Roman-Catholic before rejecting my faith.

From past to present, it was never really a challenge for me to be openly secular. I was attracted to counter-culture, I had a few Wiccan friends growing up, and the cross country team I joined had several antitheist upperclassmen, although no one ever used the word. My social circle watched Religulous in our friend’s basement midway through high school and to the contrary of many people's experiences, I never felt alone in being an atheist.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? Our club began in 2008, long before any of its current members attended the University. Speaking for the current leadership, our motivation has been to change the format of the club, focusing more towards community-centered activism and humanistic leadership than years previous.

I have thought about why a club such as ours is still necessary on campus, and what first comes to mind are the people who pick up our handouts that define the words ‘Atheist’, ‘Skeptic’, ‘Agnostic’, and ‘Humanist. Even though not every person we talk to on campus will consider leaving their religion or attending our club meetings, it interests me when someone I’ve never met is curious enough to learn what our labels mean. It shows how little exposure someone may have had to a subject that is quite passionate to our members. If the least we accomplish is introducing to our peers what ‘atheism’ signifies in the words of their classmate atheists, that’s a result we’re still pretty happy with.

SBU Skeptics and Secular Humanists tabling

What is your group’s name? How did you decide on that name? We decided on ‘SBU Skeptics and Secular Humanists’ leading into the fall semester, in place of the previous club name ‘SBU Freethinkers’. The new name looks to bridge together the inclusivity of ‘skeptic’ with the specificity of ‘secular humanist’.

Continually our club faced the challenge of communicating to other students what a “freethinker” was. Oftentimes, other non-believers on campus would hear about SBU Freethinkers and fail to recognize that our club was openly nonreligious. While we didn’t want to be ‘the atheist’ club (realizing how many students would be excluded), it began to feel more and more that ‘freethinker’ had too broad of a definition.

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites? We organize a mix of more formal sit-down events such as our Interfaith Panel alongside the tongue-in-cheek casual events that include our annual Pastafarian dinner. Each year, we devote one day to the worship of His Noodly Appendage, oftentimes ordaining a member of our leadership into the Pastafarian ministry so that they can perform marriages at our events or preach a sermon during the dinner.

I think our most clever spectacle went widely unnoticed. During my freshman year, we entered ourselves into Stony Brook’s ‘Roth Regatta’; a boat race along the pond outside one of the dorm buildings. We named our boat ‘Church and State’ and midway through the race, we separated the boat into two smaller boats and rowed the one named Church back to the starting line while State finished the race. [Editor's note: This is maybe one of the most clever things I've heard of a group doing.]

Talk up your group. What's something that you've accomplished that you're really proud of? Last year, we organized Stony Brook’s first ‘Interfaith Panel’ consisting of representatives from each of the main religious demographics on campus. By opening a dialogue between other clubs and students, we were able to reach out to undergraduates of widely differing ideologies consisting of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Atheism. Knowing that it was the atheist/secular demographic who prompted this discussion to take place, our Interfaith Panel exemplified the openness and willingness of Stony Brook’s nonreligious student body to communicate with the religious body in a setting where each party would have the opportunity to both talk and listen.

We cautioned not for this event to turn into a debate, but to instead serve as an educational seminar—a chance for the religious faiths to debunk misconceptions about their members and for us to draw attention to the stigmatism and persecution faced by the nonreligious.

What do you see as the mission of your organization? I would like to see SBU Skeptics and Secular Humanists become an organization of secular community leaders. While acknowledging the importance of building an all-inclusive secular community, it is equally as important to reach back into the general public with proactive community involvement of our own. While our club stresses skepticism as a personal philosophy, I would like to see our club known more for the action it takes and how it sets a positive example of nonreligious humanitarianism in the minds of others.

To me, atheism is a personal condition, and one that needn’t be forced onto others. While I’d like to see skepticism adopted by the general public, we view the first step to be the abolition of hatred and animosity towards the nonreligious; what better way to accomplish this than to show what good can be done in the name of non-belief?

SBU IBRD

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? SBU Skeptics and Secular Humanists have affiliated with CFI since before the current leadership’s appointing. It has only been recently that we have utilized the resources of CFI in our week to week activities. Since our club had primarily focused on debate and discussion in past years, the practice of speaking to other students about the club and holding activities during the day are new experiences for us. In particular, using the recruitment materials provided by CFI, we have been able to double the size of our general body meeting attendance from last year.

This past August, the former vice-president Bobby D’Angelo and I were fortunate to have attended CFI’s Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY. We were a prime example of a club on the edge of dissolution, but after learning about the success reached by CFI’s other affiliate clubs, we received enough feedback to bring about the short-term success we’ve managed so far this year. In the upcoming months, we plan for Skeptics and Secular Humanists to begin widening its involvement with nationally-recognized secular holidays. Knowing that Carl Sagan Day is just around the corner, we will look towards CFI to inspire and encourage what activities we may plan.

What is your vision for the secular movement? I would most like to see the secular movement continue to advocate for all people who value the separation of church and state. My hope is that the secular movement does not find itself too politicized in the future, but continues to stress the commonality between secular people rather than further marginalizing our under-represented demographic. I have met many religious people who share common secular values with our movement, and maintaining their support should not be undervalued. As nonbelievers, we often pride ourselves in having open minds and being nonjudgmental in our character, but I hope most of all that these traits will be reflected in the outcome of our actions. I am an advocate for incremental change and an optimist about the long term effects that the secular movement will facilitate by encouraging an openly secular youth and an open-minded generation of skeptical adults.

 

About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.

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My Entry and Escape From Organized Religion - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

My Entry and Escape From Organized Religion

September 15, 2015

For reasons of safety, this post has been edited to maintain anonymity of the author. 

Year one of college. I was a naive freshman looking to join every club that threw itself at me. Tunnel vision clouded my senses and I ignored the possible consequences that could come. I thought I was immune to irrational thought. It turned out that I was wrong.

Wall demolition 

My first semester was relatively awesome. I lost a lot of weight, made lots of ambitious friends, and had tons of fun. Once the second semester began, I was invited to join a mysterious Christian organization that was run by a powerful church which aimed to build branches on every college campus. At first, everything was great. People seemed friendly. Games were great. The food was great. Everything seemed fine.

As the semester went on, I uncovered some unusual behavior within the church. People were separated by gender everywhere to prevent "temptation". Homosexuals were talked about badly and people were deathly scared of secular media. The church leaders controlled every aspect of the older students' lives, especially the ones who didn't escape early enough. A lot of the older students and alumni claimed that they were living a happy and healthy life, but what I saw was the opposite. The all nighters, delicious but unhealthy food, and brainwashing clearly had a negative impact on their health. A lot of what went on at the church was driven by dark, guilt-fueled psychology tactics. Love bombs, a lot of care and affection, were used on newbies. This created a psychological longing for more, essentially a mental leash. When you became a "mature sheep", the true colors of the leaders emerged. They try to determine the person you can marry, where you work, and where you live. If you didn't follow orders, you would be verbally assaulted to "correct your behavior". Some were strong like I was and managed to snap out of it. Others, however, surrendered their autonomy to make their own decisions; they became puppets who couldn't think for themselves. It took me a whole semester to leave. I couldn't waste my time, energy, and money on a damaging delusion anymore. I had gained back the weight I lost, my GPA had fallen, and I had alienated some of my best friends. I barely scraped by the GPA requirement to stay in my school's Honors College. It took a tremendous amount of willpower and strategy to leave the church. Their powerful persuasion left a deep scar in my mind.

What enticed me to join? Two gentlemen from top universities invited me one day. Their amazing credentials and work titles gave me the impression that these guys knew how to work with God to get what they wanted in life. They were successful and intelligent. Before I trusted anybody's advice, I first looked at what they had done. These guys seemed to be credible. Both were respected scientists in their respective fields and used sophisticated rhetoric to reconcile religion and science. I was hooked onto their every word. As time went by, they talked badly about people who were in pursuit of health and wealth, claiming that those things were evil "idols". What hypocrites. I thought that they were insane. Students I talked to at the church were virtually all STEM majors, which initially led me to believe that God and the church were legitimate. People boasted about their major while simultaneously preaching that health and wealth were evil. Picture this: future doctors who will make a lot of money while healing people were denouncing why they chose their major. That's pure insanity!

This wasn't my first negative encounter with organized religion. My family is Catholic and I grew out of it, managing to dodge all the useless magic rituals they had in order to attain a ticket to a nonexistent conformity-based theme park (Heaven). The cult-like church I was in is my second experience with organized religion delusion. It will definitely be my last. During my mental imprisonment at the cult-like church, guilt and feelings of obligation prevented me from leaving. Their deep-rooted manipulation was hard to let go. Once I left, I felt like I defeated a powerful enemy in a video game. The victory felt liberating. I blocked all contact from them and that was the end of it.

I hate being controlled by other people and entities, especially those who try to stop me from fulfilling my dream of becoming a famous filmmaker. I am a libertarian atheist, like my hero Penn Jillette (creator of the show Bullshit!). There are no gods. There are no masters. My experiences, thoughts, and fate are my own creation. I derive meaning from facts and experiences, not a fiction book. Humanity must progress using technology responsibly without the help of some fairy sky father who breaks his own alleged rules. One day, organized religion will cease to exist and everyone will be educated how to think, not what to think. Until then, the world will continue to be a beautiful but cruel place. Hopefully, religion will meet its Revelation during my lifetime and cease to be a memory. Pun intended.

 

About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.

Comments:

#1 Mike (Guest) on Tuesday September 15, 2015 at 1:59pm

I am sorry to hear that they turned out to be actors.
I know that feeling, bro.

Atheist booth at Balboa Park has also recognized these evangelical actors on Saturdays.

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2015 Leadership Conference Reflection: Alexis Avery - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

2015 Leadership Conference Reflection: Alexis Avery

September 4, 2015

Before attending the CFI Leadership Conference, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and now I can say I had no idea how much of an impact it would have on my ideas on skepticism, activism, and involvement in the movement. I never realized how big of a community skeptics, secular humanists, agnostics, atheists, etc. have. During the conference, there were well-informed speakers who went up and gave us tips on how we can grow our clubs on campus and how we can make sure they continue to be active after we are gone. There were so many ideas that we could use on our campus—I was trying to write them all down! (After a while I realized that maybe I should just wait and ask to get a copy of the presentations.) During the breaks and meals I was so excited to meet new people from other college campuses. I was surprised whenever I met someone who would share the same excitement and enthusiasm as I had.

It is hard to pinpoint my favorite part of the conference, so instead I will talk about the part of the conference I found most useful. There were several speakers who emphasized the importance of being politically involved, but some speakers really helped me understand why it is a good idea to get politically involved and how to get politically involved. Desiree Schell gave us the tools we would need to learn how to campaign productively. Michael De Dora showed us how easy it is to call our U.S. Senators and gave us reference materials on how to lobby. James Croft showed us pictures of how he partakes in rallies and how we can positively impact rallies as atheists. On a side note, almost every speaker gave us reference materials specific to what they were helping us learn.

Besides learning how to become better with on campus activities and become more politically active, I met so many fantastic people. I was able to learn about what events they have held on their campuses that have worked for them, and how their organizations are formed and formatted. Before coming to the CFI Leadership Conference, I was happy and comfortable with being a part of the atheist/skeptic movement. After the conference I realized that I should be more open about being a secular humanist. The community needs to know that not having a religion doesn’t make you a bad person. The people that attended the conference and the staff that helped with the entire event are some of the most funny, intelligent, and caring people I have encountered. I would encourage anyone, if they are interested, to attend, because it is a great experience.

 

About the Author: Alexis Avery

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Alexis Avery is studying sociology at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. She runs for the USAO cross country team, is involved with Secular Humanist Association, and Prism.

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2015 Leadership Conference Reflection: Aaron Bayes - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

2015 Leadership Conference Reflection: Aaron Bayes

September 1, 2015

I have been a big fan of CFI since I started reading Skeptical Inquirer as a kid. When I eventually started a skeptics club on my campus, CFI was eager to help; they sent boxes of swag and connected me with amazing guest speakers. This summer, they were gracious enough to invite me to the CFI Leadership Conference at CFI headquarters in New York state. I really wanted to go, but I figured that it was too far away as I live in Vancouver, Canada. Imagine my delight when CFI offered to pay for my travel expenses! In my mind, it would have been both foolish and rude to decline.

This was my first time at CFI headquarters, (or New York for that matter) and I had high expectations; I would not be disappointed. Being picked up by a van with the CFI logo was my first real contact, and it was there that I met the first CFI staffer, and three of my fellow attendees from Oregon. Before we left the airport, I knew that I had found my people, and that this was going to be an amazing weekend.

The schedule at the conference was, to put it lightly, “busy”. There were no complaints, however, as everyone seemed to like the pace. When we went past the end of scheduled events each day, it was because half the audience was still dying to add something to the discussion, and the other half wanted to hear it. And if people were tired at the end of the day, they sure didn't let it show. Let's just say that skeptics really know how to have a good time.

Conference attendees calling their senators

The individual events on the schedule were equally impressive. There was a wide range of topics, including how to organize campus and community groups, plan activism and events, and how to be a more persuasive speaker. We also touched on how our common values intersect with politics, law, medicine, culture, and so on. The speakers did a good job of engaging the audience with activities, from designing a mock campaign, to actually calling politicians to voice opposition to a terrible bill. (It didn't pass!) Despite the overwhelming amount of subject matter, it tied together nicely and it wasn't hard to see how all of it can apply to what we do back home.

I should also mention that the good folks at CFI did a wonderful job of meeting our basic needs. The dorms at the University at Buffalo were clean and comfortable, and the staff was very helpful. Meals were provided at CFI headquarters, and all throughout the food line people could be heard praising the quantity, quality, and variety of food being served. The ice cream social was a special treat as well. We had three nights and four days of this royal treatment, and for only $99! In Vancouver, you couldn't live in a dumpster for so little money!

At the end of it all, you could tell people did not want it to be over. A number of us actually stayed for an extra day. That gave us a chance to check out all the fun touristy stuff at Niagara Falls, which is just a short CFI shuttle ride away from the conference. Bonus!

Now that we have all gone back to our corners of the world, you might wonder if the attendees have kept in touch with each other. Absolutely! I know I'm not only speaking for myself when I say I made more social media connections in that one weekend than I have in the last several years. The group chat we set up always has at least a couple people on at all hours of the day and night. My Facebook feed has been forever changed, and for the better. I love seeing what other people and groups are doing for the cause. All of this is how I know that the CFI Leadership Conference was not just an amazing weekend, but an event that has had a very positive and lasting effect on me. I can't wait to see everyone again next year, and hopefully you as well.

 

About the Author: Aaron Bayes

Aaron Bayes's photo

Aaron was born and raised on the Canadian west coast where he developed a love of science and skepticism as a child. After high school, he joined the US Army, was deployed overseas in Iraq, and was deployed domestically after Hurricane Katrina. Since then he started a skeptics club at the University of the Fraser Valley while earning a degree in psychology, which has since turned into a more public group, the Fraser Valley Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists. Currently he is working on a degree in nursing at Douglas College, where he continues to pursue his efforts to promote scientific literacy and secular values.

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Humanists Against the Confederate Flag - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Humanists Against the Confederate Flag

August 26, 2015

On June 17, 2015, white nationalist Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot nine members of that church’s black congregation. Upon being arrested, Roof was discovered to have made numerous online postings about his racial views, including photographs of him draped in the flag of the Confederate States of America. As such, the past few months have seen the reigniting of a debate which has been going on since our Civil War: is it right for southern states to continue waving their flag of secession and slavery?

BarsStars

Following the shooting, South Carolina took the initiative to remove the Confederate flag on display at their state capitol grounds. Many other states were likewise pushed to do this, and presidential candidates from both parties called for the end to the flags. Of course, many were upset by this, arguing that the Confederate flag represents the South’s heritage.

Roof justified and defended his racism using his Christian religious views. It was hard to believe that mainstream humanist and atheist organizations seemed to overlook this, as it was a great opportunity to address the constant criticisms of atheist groups by racial justice advocates about the lack of diversity in our movement. Luckily, one exception to this silence was the American Humanist Association, which supported the flag’s removal.

The question of race relations in America has been a concern for Humanists since our foundations. Many early anti-slavery activists, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Edward Coles, and William Lloyd Garrison were non-theists who attacked religion for its justifications for slavery. Indeed, while religion was an important tool for many abolitionists, using Christian morality to condemn slavery, the Biblical verses about slavery (such as Colossians 3:22) also served as justification for southern slave-owners. In the slave states, slavery was heavily associated with Christianity. Clergymen made it clear that slavery was a system ordained by God; a hierarchy existing within nature itself, and that to question it was to question God. It was for this reason that Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, attacked Christianity as a central pillar supporting the institution of slavery.

As the antebellum era went on, the slavery debate became ever fiercer. The early republic saw numerous reform movements emerging, many of which were created to fight slavery. Suffragettes and humanists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton started their feminist careers fighting for the abolition of slavery. And likewise, so did many other humanists. Future president Abraham Lincoln was known in his youth as being a Painite Deist, and he was attacked for this by political opponents. Robert Green Ingersoll, known as the Great Agnostic, was by far the most outspoken anti-theist of the time, taking part in numerous public debates against the existence of God. And like the others mentioned, Ingersoll got his start in politics by supporting the rising anti-slavery Republican Party, even gathering together a regiment of soldiers and fighting in the battle of Shiloh on the Union side.

Contrast Ingersoll and many freethinkers’ support for the anti-slavery cause with the Confederate States of America’s Constitution, which explicitly invokes the favor of “Almighty God”.

Indeed, with the energies brought upon by their anti-slavery work, many non-theists became radicalized and it is largely for this reason that the era immediately after the Civil War became known as the Golden Age of American Freethought. The freethinking activists of this time period carried on their anti-slavery sentiments into support for racial equality, often opposing segregation and Jim Crow. W.E.B. DuBois, perhaps the greatest advocate of racial justice during this era, was likewise a staunch humanist and socialist.

Even into the modern civil rights movement, humanists held an important position. While Martin Luther King Jr. may have been the one to actually march on Washington DC, the idea for said event came from African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph, a signatory of Paul Kurtz’ Humanist Manifesto. Likewise, the poet and radical civil rights activist James Baldwin expressed his discontent with religion and called for a non-religious route to morality.

The Humanists of history clearly took a strong stance against racism. It is the duty of Humanists today to carry on their work and stand against the racial injustice which remains alive in America today. Thus, it is the duty of Humanists to oppose the Confederate Flag’s official display, and I urge my fellow Humanists to do just that.

 

About the Author: Ned Borninski

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Ned Borninski studies History and Political Science at the University of Michigan and also serves as the Vice President of the Secular Student Alliance there. Having been interested in social issues from a young age, he looks forward to joining a new generation of activists. When not working, studying, or protesting, he enjoys role-playing games and reading a good book.

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2015 Leadership Conference Reflection: Nicole Niebler - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

2015 Leadership Conference Reflection: Nicole Niebler

August 18, 2015

What did I enjoy at the 2015 CFI Leadership Conference? So much! Seriously, I can’t quantify how much leadership training and information was packed into that weekend, and I think my lack of sleep over the weekend can attest to that. I don’t have the space, and you probably don’t have the time to read all of the things I’ve learned, so I’ll just share some of my favorite parts of the conference.

During a talk by CFI’s Director of the Office of Public Policy Michael De Dora, we were reminded that a bill to defund Planned Parenthood was being voted on in the Senate the following Monday. At first, I was confused as to why we were being informed about it because it wasn’t directly related to secular leadership, but I was pleasantly surprised when it was explained why we were being educated about the bill.

Nicole and other AHA at UW-Madison leaders accepting their CFI On Campus Award for Best Outreach

Earlier that day we had a discussion about whether or not we, as secular student activists, should be actively taking part in other activism. We didn’t all come to the same conclusion, but it was super helpful to discuss with other secular leaders. The conclusion my fellow leaders from Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I came to was that we should be taking an active role in other issues that we and our members care about. We came to this conclusion because we should show that we care, and actually do something about what we aren’t content with in society. That conclusion will definitely carry through to our organization this year and years to come.

I had never called a senator before, but was intrigued to do so when provided with the opportunity at the conference. I really enjoyed the concept of calling our senators, as well as the execution of the call itself. It made us all activists on the spot, and allowed us to do something most of us had never done before. Calling a senator for the first time made me feel more comfortable about doing it in the future by myself as I won’t be nervously contemplating it for some time before actually calling. Not only did I feel like I made a difference at the time, but it also gave me the confidence to call my state senators on my own.

Besides the on-site activism that took place, I thoroughly enjoyed the social aspect of the conference, and not just because it was a ton of fun, but because it was a great opportunity to network. We all ended up creating a Facebook group, which has been helpful for leaders to post questions and for other leaders to answer questions. Each group has great things to contribute, and that will definitely help us all in the future. Now, we have a community that we can reach out to when we’re stuck or in need of some secular leadership help on the spot.

To any secular leaders that weren’t able to, or just didn’t attend the conference this summer, come next year! It’s incredibly helpful and a blast to go to.

To all of the people I met at the conference, each and every one of you are awesome! Seriously, I had the best time talking to and spending time with you all.

 

About the Author: Nicole Niebler

Nicole Niebler's photo
Nicole Niebler is a 19-year-old junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in dietetics with a global health certificate. She was born and grew up in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. As of July 1, 2015, she took the title of the first female president of Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics at UW-Madison. She likes to read poetry and perform at open mic nights. Nicole also plays on an ultimate frisbee team, and enjoys creating new recipes for baked goods.

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Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of US Secular Humanism - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of US Secular Humanism

July 7, 2015

With the recent passing of the 239th Anniversary of the United States’ Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, it is important for Secular Humanists to look back at history and learn from our forefathers, especially those whose thoughts helped develop what we call Humanism today. Of course, in the United States, one such figure would without a doubt be Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson 

Jefferson’s importance cannot be overstated. As the author of the Declaration, it was he who wrote those immortal words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this single sentence, Jefferson summarized some of the single most important humanistic values: all humans are equal, and our rights must be protected from those who would seek to impose tyranny upon us, be they kings, aristocrats, priests, or faux-democratic despots like Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon.

With the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson rested his argument for American resistance to the English Crown not on economic or political issues, but on morality. All authority must be questioned, and if “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide New Guards for their future security.” Humans have a right to think freely, and to question others’ claims. In short, what Jefferson and the Declaration were advocating was freethought.

While some naysayers might argue that Jefferson was simply summarizing the popular views of his time, his decision to rest the cause of American Independence on these moral and philosophical grounds; presenting the ideas in clear, understandable language, has become a rallying cry for those of humanistic inclinations today in the United States and around the world. Indeed, Jefferson himself expressed the hope that the Declaration would not be seen as simply a document separating the United States from England, but rather a statement for the future about what the goals of this new nation were to be.

Following this idealism, Jefferson was the strongest advocate of democracy during the early years of our republic, denouncing the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote, and supporting the expansion of suffrage. When his opponents tried to push through the Alien and Sedition acts, which effectively made it illegal to protest against the US Government, Jefferson submitted his Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, calling for Americans to stand up against the trampling of their First Amendment Rights. And, as many of us are aware today, Jefferson was a religious skeptic who was one of the strongest defenders of separation of church and state in the United States, being the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. A strong advocate of universal public education, Jefferson was the creator of the nation’s first secular educational facility: the University of Virginia.

But one area about Jefferson which many Humanists do not seem to be aware of are his views on economics. Jefferson was a staunch opponent of the wealthy aristocracy, having pushed through the ban on primogeniture in Virginia, removing some of the last vestiges of feudalism. He also denounced Alexander Hamilton’s plans for a National Bank, as such a step would take economic power away from local, democratic legislatures and into the hands of the undemocratic national government. But, most importantly, Jefferson emphasized the importance of helping the poor. Commenting that the poor were the “most numerous of all classes,” Jefferson advocated land reform, granting free land to the poor in return for their farming of that land. This position was not at all popular with the wealthy landlords of the time, but it was the driving force behind Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States. Here Jefferson shows us that a Humanistic moral system must include sympathy and concern for those who are less fortunate in society, and hopefully the eventual abolition of poverty itself. After all, the people are who government is supposed to exist for in the first place.

It was out of his concern for the lower classes in society that Jefferson endorsed the French Revolution. Although that revolution later spiraled down into a bloodbath, Jefferson saw what many could not, and that was that the French Revolution was born out of a deep need to change society, to restructure social relations, and to help the masses who suffered under the oppression of monarchist rule. It was also for these reasons that Jefferson denounced the corporatism of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party. The beginnings of early capitalism were in motion at this time, and Jefferson stood as a humanizing influence on the rapidly industrializing world. In addition to the unequal relationships between labor and capitalists, Jefferson also emphasized the damage capitalist industrialism had on the environment, criticizing over-forestation among other environmental hazards. He even went so far as to comment, “A change in our climate, however, is taking place…snows are less frequent and less deep.” Jefferson rightfully predicted the influence profit-motivated industrialism would wind up having on the world: ecological crises which threaten the livelihood of all humans. As the effects of climate change continue to make themselves known, humanity would do well to learn from Jefferson here.

Now, all of that is great, but what about Jefferson’s views on slavery? What about his racism? Jefferson did remain a staunch opponent of slavery throughout his entire career, making numerous covert proposals to abolish or at least limit the institution in his days in the Virginia Legislature. Jefferson also advocated public education in part because he hoped it would encourage skepticism and freethought which would cause the questioning of and gradual overthrow of slavery. However, it is also true that when fighting to oppose Hamilton’s economic policies and the anti-democratic conspiracy he saw behind them, Jefferson made alliances with southern slaveholders. Despite his idealism, as a politician and as President he was pushed into pragmatic policies which opposed Hamiltonian capitalism at the expense of allowing slavery to continue. This could be said to be his greatest failing.

Although it can be tempting to place blame upon Jefferson’s shoulders for this, it is important to keep matters in perspective: Jefferson’s political career would have been over if he had freed his slaves, or made any move against the south’s entrenched slave power. But, more than his actions, Jefferson’s words did more than any other person to undermine slavery’s power. How could a nation based upon the premise that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights” continue to allow human beings to be kept in slavery? In the idealistic proclamations of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had enshrined the moral goals to which the nation aspired. And thus, opposition to slavery was acting in exactly the Jeffersonian democratic spirit which the man did so much to create in this country.

Jefferson, although great, was also flawed, and he was unable to achieve everything he wanted to. Hamilton’s capitalism ultimately won out, and still today our republic is dominated by the extremely wealthy. And of course, slavery continued for another forty years after Jefferson’s death, and its heritage can still be seen in the racism that remains alive in America to this day. But, where he was truly right was in his ideas, Jefferson emphasized the importance of democracy, of the environment, and of people and humanity ourselves instead of religious commandments or capitalist profit.

Although Jefferson failed in his efforts to protect the United States as a secular and humanistic democracy, his rich heritage of ideas give us a staging point from which to pick up the fight. Like Jefferson, the Humanists of the future will stand against religious ignorance and capitalist greed, to try and build a better, more democratic, more humanist, republic.

 

About the Author: Ned Borninski

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Ned Borninski studies History and Political Science at the University of Michigan and also serves as the Vice President of the Secular Student Alliance there. Having been interested in social issues from a young age, he looks forward to joining a new generation of activists. When not working, studying, or protesting, he enjoys role-playing games and reading a good book.

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How to Keep Your Secular Group Alive through the Summer - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

How to Keep Your Secular Group Alive through the Summer

July 2, 2015

At the end of every school year the dreaded student group sustainability conversation comes into play. The group outlines their priorities for the summer, creates a conference schedule, sets goals for the coming year. And by the time summer ends, everything has come to fruition, just as planned.

Except it hasn't.

At least in my experience, there are always unexpected complications that inevitably deride the hopeful productive and progressive summer so clearly outlined and engrained in the minds of officers and members alike. This can be terrifying, especially for a small group on the verge of extinction.

Although there is not a universally successful system, there are summer organizational systems that seem to function well in conjunction with the busy schedules of forever-adventuring college students.

The system I've found most successful is simple: a system of definitions and interpretations. By setting definitive goals and sharing those with the group before the summer begins, each member has a vision in mind for the coming school year and can dwell on and think about that vision throughout the summer, allowing for a creative outpouring in the first fall meeting rather than an awkward silence of stunted imaginations. And by ensuring that each officer has a clear idea of their position and the duties it entails, a system of accountability and responsibility toward productivity is set in motion. Of course, this all depends on trust. But really, if the members had enough trust in a group of people to elect them as officers, hopefully those officers can hold true to their responsibilities. And if not, well, they probably won't be officers for very long.

Really, the system can be happy-dance extremely successful or fall to the deepest depths of failure. But if you have faith - no pun intended - and trust in the elected officials and the interests of the members, the odds begins to shift in positive favor.

For me, I trust every officer of Furman University Secular Student Alliance. We are all in difference places - some on different continents, some sailing the seas, some without any means of communication. But we all have a common goal in mind: the progress, growth, and kinship of a secular community within our academic home. And with that goal in mind, I have no doubt that we will make a productive difference at the end of the summer and throughout the year.

 

About the Author: Kristen Murdaugh

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Kristen Murdaugh, proud advocate of coffee, is a student at Furman University where she is pursuing a triple major in Vocal Performance, Music Theory, and German Studies. She is a quasi-open existential atheist and humanist, and serves as Director of Public Relations in her campus secular organization, Society of Free Inquiry (SoFI).

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In Defense of New Atheism - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

In Defense of New Atheism

June 30, 2015

On the morning of December 2nd, 2014, I woke up to find many of my activist friends sharing a recent article from Jacobin Magazine on social media. The piece, written by one Luke Savage, was titled New Atheism, Old Empire and featured the provocative subtext “The ‘New Atheists’ have gained traction because they give intellectual cover to Western imperialism.” As an atheist and leftist activist who is very strongly opposed to imperialism, not to mention one who has become increasingly disappointed in some of the public statements of New Atheist spokesmen such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I decided to give the article a chance.

Guillotine 

Calling itself the “leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” Jacobin has posted a lot of very laudable articles questioning the Washington Consensus that American corporate capitalism is and always will be the leading economic force on the planet. Naturally, as a regular reader of Jacobin, I was curious what they would make of the so-called “New Atheists.” Unfortunately, I was very disappointed in Savage’s piece. Since last December, in my interactions in online activist circles, I’ve often seen this article passed around, often in an attempt by left wing activists to distance themselves from the New Atheist movement.

In short, Savage’s argument can be broken down to the following:

 

  • New Atheists' criticisms of Islam tend to lend support to American Imperialist interventions.
  • New Atheists' criticisms of Islam are wrong as they primarily come from people who are unfamiliar with the religion and its history.
  • New Atheists are a club only for rich, white, old men.
  • New Atheist opposition to religion misses the point that most people do not believe their Holy Books are literally true.
  • New Atheist critiques of religion ignore important societal factors such as socio-economics which have more of an impact on world events than religion. 

 

It is important to point out the overall fallacy Savage is committing here, ironically the same one he accuses the New Atheists of committing towards the religious: The assumption that because certain members of a group say one thing, then all people in that group are in agreement. One of the reasons New Atheism is unique as a movement is that it is in part more of a culture than a movement. There are no defined goals and no defined platform. There is no Pope of New Atheism. New Atheism tends to consist of a wide variety of people who all have an interest in building atheist communities and protecting the rights of atheists from religious threats. There are New Atheists from the right-libertarian tendencies of Penn Jillette, all the way to the anarcho-socialism commonly found in the college affiliates of the Center for Inquiry On Campus and Secular Student Alliance. The conflation of all New Atheists as being simple followers of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris is highly misleading.

Thus, while Hitchens and Harris may have said outrageously Islamophobic comments, that is entirely a different question to whether or not Islamophobia is central to New Atheism. And I would argue it is not. Numerous New Atheists, from Dawkins, to PZ Myers, to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, all condemned American Imperialism in the Middle East. Even Hitchens was careful to state in his works that he did not support discrimination against Muslims. It is one thing to criticize a religion’s philosophical points. It is something entirely different to engage in bigoted attacks against all members of that religion. Prominent New Atheist Greta Christina made it explicitly clear in her work Why Are You Atheists So Angry that she was not attacking the people who are religious; in fact, she views them as victims. There is a line between criticizing an idea and criticizing the people who profess that idea. Disagreement is not intolerance.

Of course, even this attitude is viewed by Savage as being patronizing. New Atheists falsely view themselves as trying to save people from the irrationality of religion, when in fact religion is not irrational at all. He quotes prominent critic of New Atheism Terry Eagleton:

“Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.”

Thus, atheists miss the point when they read the scriptures; religion is not meant to be interpreted literally. Yet Savage and Eagleton betray their own fundamental misunderstanding of religion here. It is of course true that not everyone interprets his or her religious book as being entirely inerrant. But religious fundamentalism is a powerful force. These books are said to have been written or inspired by God; how could they truly be simple books of metaphors? They are the word of an omniscient being himself. The Bible and the Quran do not clarify within that they were meant to be read as either truth or metaphor. As such, there is no single interpretation, and for every person who gets one message out of scripture, another person is walking away with a completely different message. And one of the most popular interpretations has always been that, as the word of God, the holy books are literally true and inerrant.

Savage also criticizes New Atheists for over-associating world events with religion. Here he is effectively taking a Marxist historical materialist route: religion and similar ideologies do not impact world events, rather they are the “sigh of the oppressed creature; the opiate of the masses.” Of course, Savage’s school of historical materialism was effectively debunked a century after Marx by Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which Weber pointed out the importance Protestant religion, an idea, had on the material conditions of capitalism. Similarly, Savage ignores the importance religion has had in shaping social forces. Islam, while not the sole force driving terrorist actions from the Middle East, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the geopolitical situation when so many of the written words of Abrahamic scriptures correlate exactly with the actions of the terrorists. Material conditions and ideas impact one another greatly, and an attempt like Savage’s to reduce the world’s problems to being solely the province of one of these oversimplifies a complex issue. I, for one, prefer Richard Dawkins’ approach: when producing a documentary for the BBC on religion, Dawkins requested the name of his documentary be changed from “The Root of All Evil,” commenting that it was ridiculous to claim religion was the root of all evil. For all that he can be criticized on, Dawkins’ nuanced understanding of the complexities of religion and politics and how they relate to each other stands in stark contrast to the stale materialism of Savage and Marx.

Finally, Savage attacks New Atheism for its attempts to comment on a wide variety of cultures while lacking the diverse background necessary to do so. As he points out, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are all wealthy white men with little experience in Islam or the other religions they are criticizing. Here though, Savage seems to have mixed up the chicken and the egg. The media pays so much attention to Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins in part because they are rich white men. There are numerous female atheist activists and atheist activists of color. Rebecca Watson combines her feminist activism with New Atheism, while Greta Christina gives a similar take regarding gay rights and that movement’s relationship to religion. The previously mentioned former Muslims Heina Dadabhoy and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are also very prominent in New Atheist circles. Bria Crutchfeld has become increasingly prominent as a leader of the African American community of New Atheists. All of these people have wide followings; it is because the traditionally racially-biased media only pays attention to white men like Dawkins and Hitchens that their position in the movement is more visible than those of the women and people of color.

Ultimately, while atheists spend most of our time fighting the machinations of the religious right and its attempts to take over the government, we must remember that anti-atheist prejudice and fallacies can come from the left just as easily. Perhaps it is fitting that Jacobin Magazine published Luke Savage’s article. Jacobin’s name originates in the Jacobin Club, a radical group during the French Revolution. When the Montangard faction of the Jacobin Club, led by Maximillian Robespierre, came to power in the midst of the revolutionary Reign of Terror, they announced a ban on atheism. Following that, the many secular activists within the revolution found themselves suddenly locked up and sent to the guillotine. This kind of anti-atheist activity can seem appealing for revolutionary groups; atheists are a small, educated minority, much like the Jews in the early modern period. It can become easy to place blame for the oppression of the mostly religious masses upon the shoulders of these godless iconoclasts.

But, as an atheist and a leftist myself, I warn the left not to take this route. Atheists and anti-theists are not the enemies of the left; we are crusaders against social injustice and inequality just as socialists and feminists are. And the day when New Atheists and socialists make common cause to tear down the oppressive capitalist system which justifies its power through religious falsehoods could not come sooner for me.

Internal criticism of the New Atheist movement is sorely needed. But it is not needed from faux-leftists who regurgitate anti-atheist overgeneralizations. 

 

About the Author: Ned Borninski

Ned Borninski's photo
Ned Borninski studies History and Political Science at the University of Michigan and also serves as the Vice President of the Secular Student Alliance there. Having been interested in social issues from a young age, he looks forward to joining a new generation of activists. When not working, studying, or protesting, he enjoys role-playing games and reading a good book.

Comments:

#1 Don (Guest) on Thursday July 09, 2015 at 7:10pm

I'm impressed with this thoughtful analysis. Thank you, Ned.

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We’re all in this together - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

We’re all in this together

June 25, 2015

This post was originally featured on the climate change blog Today's Apathy = Tomorrow's Agony.

Pale blue

Above is the famous “Pale Blue Dot”: a picture of Earth from 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) away. I make sure to look at it at least once a month, or after an argument, to remind me how small we are and how insignificant our differences are. Now I’m sharing it with you, because many of us still need reminding.

The Pope made waves with his encyclical on climate change last week, and though some non-Catholics (and non-believers) have praised his stance on climate change, there are quite a few who cannot get past their differences with the Pope. In my research for writing last week’s article on the Pope’s encyclical, I came across all kinds of pushback: either saying that “he needs to stay out of politics” (it’s a sorry state of affairs that addressing climate change is now “politics”), or using one of his other quotes as if to say that the immense step he just took for climate change awareness, and ultimately towards a solution, is meaningless.

I am nonreligious. I am also politically liberal. I know, it’s quite a shock for a liberal to write about climate change.

There are many things the Pope has said that I disagree with profoundly, but that does not make his action any less valid or laudable.

One of our goals at TATA, much like at the Center for Inquiry, is to cut across party lines, religious lines, ethnic lines–whatever kind of lines separate us from a solution. We’re not going to get there if we’re afraid to give “the other team” some credit when they do something right. If you’re religious and you read this blog, you’re just as welcome here as anyone else. Conservatives (the oft-labeled “enemies”): you’re welcome here too. For once, let’s focus on what we have in common. If you want to work on fixing this problem, I don’t care how you feel about gay marriage, Obamacare, abortion, or God. You’re part of the solution, and that’s what matters.

To quote the champion of science and humanist hero Carl Sagan in reference to the picture above, “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the ‘Pale Blue Dot': the only home we’ve ever known.”

 

About the Author: Kyle Medin

Kyle Medin's photo
Kyle has been devoted to the cause of environmentalism ever since high school. Now he is a senior studying political science at Florida State University, with plans to study environmental law after graduation. He currently works with Progress Florida, a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering progressive values in the Sunshine State. When he’s not fighting to preserve our natural surroundings, he’s playing guitar with his band, “the Reaganomics Quartet”, or writing for his climate change news blog, “Today’s Apathy = Tomorrow’s Agony”.

Comments:

#1 DougEBarr on Thursday June 25, 2015 at 11:35am

"We're all in this together" and so the only goal for TATA, C4I and all the rest of us is to get rid of the "lines" we keep having to cross to get to the other side. "In real life there are no sides." http://thelastwhy.ca/poem/

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Most People’s Anti-Islam Anger Isn’t Helping Anyone - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Most People’s Anti-Islam Anger Isn’t Helping Anyone

June 17, 2015

Tensions between Islam and the West have been rising for some time, and it seems to be getting worse.

Along these lines, the Ex-Muslims Forum (@CEMB_Forum) recently tweeted something I found thought-provoking: 

EMF tweet

For those who have been exposed to or raised within Islamic culture and practice, the shock value of such a claim may be minimal. To many Westerners (like those comprising many secular groups in the US and Canada) the notion of withholding criticism of religion seems counterintuitive. “Islam is backwards like any organized system of dogma,” you might moan. Or, just as likely, “If we back off now that means they win!” Such cries for fervor and the vaguely defined “freedom of speech” end up hurting the ultimate cause of ridding the world of pain, injustice, and intellectual dishonesty.

The tension within secular circles between those trying to advocate for Muslims (e.g. Ben Affleck) and those critical of Islam (e.g. Sam Harris) has been growing in recent months. This seems unlikely to be settled anytime soon. Rather than add more to this debate, I would prefer to recognize how narrowly representative such animosity is. How often do we find two (or more) people with little direct connection to Islam discussing its intricacies with authority? Sure, absorbing and contributing to scholarship does not require a Muslim childhood. Yet in able to aptly represent the psychological, sociological, and other hard-to-define components of life as a Muslim (or former Muslim) one must have more experience than reading Malala Yousafzai.

Beyond just secular circles of debate, we see those opposed to Islam generally falling into one of two groups: right-of-center “nationalists” (http://mashable.com/2015/05/28/phoenix-mosque-muhammad-cartoon-contest/) (often ex-military NRA members with ties to Christianity) and militant atheists (such as Richard Dawkins). A third category can possibly be included: pragmatic centrists/apolitical entities mitigating security threats (http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/05/29/3664065/dc-metro-bans-issue-oriented-ads-anti-islam-group-requests-run-poster-muhammad/). Excluding the third option, these groups hold the commonality of presuming that all things deserving criticism need to be criticized vocally. The two groups certainly hold important differences (the latter tends to hold views based on logic, whereas the former is more likely to be faith-based), but their actions have similar implications.

Anti-Islam rally

Relentlessly attacking Islam when far-removed from its impact is effective…at motivating the perpetrators within Islam (Daesh, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Shabaab) to further hurt those they already oppress. A comparable circumstance may be a white, undereducated man living in a trailer home earning low pay at a menial labor job. Considering his lack of skill at the workplace, his employer berates and dehumanizes the man as a “typically moronic redneck,” for example. Such humiliation and struggle pushes him toward substance abuse and possibly alcoholism, which in turn contributes to domestic abuse of his wife and child and hubristic defense of his “cultural identity”. Rather than view the man as victim of hostility toward the underprivileged, he is generally chastised for his misbehavior. Though certainly unacceptable (and illegal), his physical violence is also a consequence of deeper suffering.

“The biggest victims of Islam are Muslims” is something I have heard in recent weeks. Such a statement is an appropriate lead-in to the many layers of political and cultural complexity within the world of Islam. Religion aside, the sufferers of injustice often end up morphing into tyrants themselves, motivated by religion or otherwise. Acknowledging this duality of roles seems confusing, and it is, but doing so is necessary for responding appropriately as an outsider.

Discussions on Islam, Muslims, and the “clash of civilizations” between the West and areas heavily influenced Islam can become incessantly unending. The main point here is that for many Westerners (especially those who aren’t Muslim) attacking Islam, or any religion for that matter, does not always help the cause one is trying to further. This is not to say that Islam should instead be defended by secularists, but rather that intellectual scrutiny needs to be carefully placed.

Photo credit: Troy Farah 

 

About the Author: Peter Wood

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Peter is a graduate student in Geography at Florida State University. He is an active volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Big Bend and the Secular Student Alliance at the Florida State University, a CFI On Campus affiliate. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Peter began engaging with the secular community during his tenure in Tallahassee. As an undergraduate student, Peter competed for the cross-country and track teams at Oklahoma State University. He enjoys hotel breakfasts and Brazilian cinema.

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Secular parent challenges school board on Christian presence in classroom - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Secular parent challenges school board on Christian presence in classroom

June 15, 2015

Amber Barnhill recently addressed her local school board regarding the presence of religous-themed material and events in the public education system in her community. Amber has shared her experience with Course of Reason and recounts it below, along with her original letter to the school community and reactions to her stance through social media.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent three letters to my children's school this past year referencing administrators promoting, leading, and organizing religious clubs and events, preaching to students, inviting local pastors to preach to students, recruiting children to the religious club, wearing and selling religious t-shirts, crosses in class rooms, religious references and admonitions in letters to parents, reference to God in the school song, the promotion of Christianity by the school's social media, and prayers at football games. Other issues not addressed by the FFRF include Boy Scouts recruiting in class rooms, the school librarian setting up book fair tables specifically to promote Christianity, prayers at board meetings, prayers at award ceremonies, and other religious instruction from administrators to students. Aside from all of that, the Elementary campuses hosted a Duck Dynasty day as well as a Duck Dynasty fund raiser where students sell DD items. After the FFRF's first letter, my children's principal and two other administrators sent out a letter to parents with grossly inaccurate information as well as illegal and divisive instructions to students. This letter exacerbated the local hostility exponentially and I've since been bullied and/or threatened by literally hundreds in the community (a community comprised of not much more than hundreds to begin with).

After being verbally accosted at the last book fair because of yet another false rumor spread by a school staff member, I knew something had to give. I decided to write an open letter to the school district. I spoke at the last school board meeting, handed each board member a copy of my letter, and asked that it be placed on record. As someone who struggles with social anxiety and has no public speaking experience, this was one of the scariest things I have ever done. My hands started shaking while I noticed one of the board members looking as if she wanted to come over the table at me. Fortunately though, my voice remained clear, I was able to make my point, and the feedback I received was unexpectedly positive. I truly believe the majority of contention over these issues is due to nothing more than misunderstanding which has prompted me to begin organizing a community forum event to give parents an opportunity to ask specific questions about the separation of church and state and hopefully clear up many of the misconceptions surrounding this issue. As difficult as challenging these norms can be, I cannot in good conscience sit quietly by and watch the leaders at my own children's school literally teach the students to hate and fear each other.

 

To the HJISD Community,

As my children's first year at China Elementary comes to a close, I wanted to touch base with those who have expressed concern over our family's secular values in hopes that the close of the year will also bring with it the close of the year's worth of misunderstandings and ill feelings. I hope that you will read this letter with an open heart and an open mind.

The animosity in the community has been exacerbated to the point that I cannot attend a school event without fear of confrontation and/or essentially being treated like a leper. In order to create a healthy educational environment for the students of HJISD, it is imperative that these misunderstandings be corrected.

Earlier in the year, parents were informed that someone was attempting to "discontinue all HFC and FCA groups as well as any spiritual events held on the HJ campuses before and after school hours."

In stark contrast, the FFRF letters stated, "Students, not faculty, must be in charge of organizing student-run club events.... Explain to (the coach) that he cannot be running the HJ FCA student clubs or organizing the Fields of Faith for them.... If the students want to form any religious club at China or Sour Lake Elementary, let them do it on their own terms within the guidelines set by the district."

The fact is that the FFRF attorney asked to disband the HFC at the elementary because it was not organized (created) by students, not because it was a religious club. He then suggested letting students start their own religious club appropriately. No one mentioned disbanding older HFC groups, the FCA, or stopping ANY of the religious events or activities as parents and students were told. The ONLY thing complained about was inappropriate leadership, nothing more. The inaccuracy of these claims and the gravity of their impact cannot be over stated.

As for the Christian books being pulled from the book fair, neither myself, nor the FFRF said a word about that. If I had, I'd have asked that the books be displayed objectively, as the law requires, not removed all together. I don't condone censorship; rather, I promote diversity with objectivity.

The students rights to organize religious clubs and events on campuses are protected under the law. They can pray wherever they like, wear religious apparel, carry their Bibles, talk about their beliefs, or meet at the pole every single morning if they wish. No one can take those rights away from them and no one is trying to do so aside from the few overly zealous adults who simply cannot let them organize/lead their own clubs and events themselves.

I am thrilled to see young people learn to exercise their freedoms, to learn leadership and organizational skills, to speak in front of and find encouragement among their peers. I was excited to see the Kountz cheerleaders gain such an incredibly educational and personal growth experience in fighting for their beliefs. It wasn't well thought out, but I admire their courage and ambition nonetheless. I myself attended SYATP and HFC as a teenager and found encouragement from my then like-minded peers.

The letter goes on to admonish that students put on "armor" and proclaim, "you intended to harm me," while they "take a stand." The HJISD board policy states that school staff should "develop mutual respect" among students' diverse beliefs, NOT teach them to spiritually/verbally arm themselves against each other. This mentality is extremely detrimental to campus moral and student welfare. Students should never be made to feel anxious or challenged for exercising their religious rights, nor should they be taught to bully each other via a perceived war on their religion.

I have always believed that most Christians are not hateful, but exemplify Jesus' true teachings on compassion and love. Because of this, I am absolutely astounded by the mass bullying that I and others have received as a result of this incident. I have never seen such anger and hatred.

Fear, perpetrated by misinformation, causes otherwise good people to act out of character and against their own best interest; therefore, causing both religious and non-religious alike to associate Christianity with hate and to recoil from it entirely. Having spent the majority of my life as a Christian, one thing I learned is that Christ is most effectively shared by how we live and how we treat others, not by how loudly or publicly we pray.

Asking a teacher to obey the law is not persecution. I expect all persons in authority over my children, particularly the office of teaching, to uphold a certain level of morale which means obeying the law and dealing honestly. I also expect statements made to the community by those in positions of authority over my children to be truthful and accurate; although, gossip by such persons should not be carried at all.

As a previous educator myself, I believe we all ultimately have the same goal, that our childrens' learning environment be one that fosters critical thinking, morality, and mutual respect. Contention is unavoidable when challenging popular ideals; however, for the sake of the students, I hope we can eventually learn to approach these issues rationally rather than emotionally. Faith is very powerful for those who have it, but not required of anyone.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Parent

 

 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
  
  
 
 
 
 
 

About the Author: Amber Barnhill

Amber Barnhill's photo

Amber Barnhill is a fundamentalist cult survivor, seminary graduate, and ex-Bible-thumper who has started her life over as a single mom of two heathens pursuing a degree (a real one this time) in Mathematics and Sociology. Amber spoke out about the separation of church and state while still a Christian and has since became an activist in her community recently being awarded an activism scholarship from the American Atheists organization.

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Reflections on Freethought Festival 4 - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Reflections on Freethought Festival 4

June 10, 2015

This article was originally posted on http://wiscatheists.blogspot.com/.

Every year, the student leaders here at AHA organize our annual conference, the Freethought Festival. Freethought Festival 4 was held March 13-15, 2015 at the beautiful DeLuca Forum in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

Freethought Festival 4 lecture 

Like all other freethought conferences, at Freethought Fest we advocate for secular values, such as freethought, science, and skepticism.

What's the best part of Freethought Fest? It's completely free, and anyone can attend.

Our keynote speaker this year was Susan Jacoby. Susan is the author of the 2008 New York Times best-selling book The Age of American Unreason, which tackled the issues associated with American anti-intellectualism. She began her career as a reporter for The Washington Post, and has since been a contributor to a variety of national publications, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and The Nation. She has written ten books in total including The Age of American UnreasonFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. At Freethought Festival 4, Susan gave a dialogue titled "The Conscious of a Freethinker," which touched on issues like consequentialism and free will.

In addition to Mrs. Jacoby, AHA welcomed dozens of speakers from throughout the secular community.

Among those speakers was sex educator Lindsey Doe, who hosts the well-known YouTube channel Sexplanations. Other speakers included bloggers Ed Brayton and Heina Dadabhoy, Freedom From Religion Foundation attorneys Andrew Seidel and Patrick Elliott, authorCandace Gorham, activists Debbie Goddard and James Croft, and comedians Jamie Kilstein and Tommy Nugent. We also hosted two panel discussions, one featuring speakers on the topic of Issues Facing Women in Secularism, and the other featuring students on the topic of Religion and Morality.

All of our FTF4 videos are now on YouTube, which you can go view now:

 

Throughout FTF4, we attempted to tackle important issues within the secular community, but also important issues outside of our movement. At this years conference, we wanted to host conversations focused on real-world issues. A few examples include James Croft, who spoke about racial tensions in Ferguson, Debbie Goddard, who spoke about student activism, and Candace Gorham, who spoke about why so many Black women are leaving the church. Our diverse lineup of speakers brought many different perspectives into these conversations, which added value in many ways.

I hope, at least in some small way, that our conference made a positive impact on the lives of our attendees, on the community in Madison, and on the freethought community in general, while reminding people that they can have a tangible impact on social change within their lifetimes.

If you joined us at Freethought Festival 4, we hope you enjoyed yourself, and see you at Freethought Festival 5!

Lastly, we are currently in the planning stages for FTF5, and we'd like to hear from you. If you'd like to give suggestions about how we can improve the conference or who you'd like to see speak, please fill out 
this brief survey.

Freethought Festival is funded by student segregated fees through an annual operations budget received by AHA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

About the Author: Sam Erickson

Sam Erickson's photo
Sam is an undergraduate senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies Economics and Political Science and hopes to go to Law School after taking a year or two off following his undergrad. He has spent the last two years of his life running Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics, a secular student group at UW-Madison.

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Dangerous Definitions - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Dangerous Definitions

June 9, 2015

Too often I see people arguing that words have intrinsic definitions. They like to argue things ‘by definition,’ claiming that something is true because it says so in the dictionary, or because they can define a word however they want, as long as they use it consistently. I see this argument a lot when discussing things such as if atheism is a religion, if marriage is only between a man and a woman, or “if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?” The thing is, words don’t mean anything objective. This might sound odd, because words have definitions and when people disagree on what a word means, they often go to the dictionary to prove what the word “really” means. However, though the dictionary might be exhaustive, it is not authoritative. Dictionary editors are historians of usage, not legislators of language.

Our brains take a lot of shortcuts, and from these come a lot of problems. I am not saying these shortcuts are bad, or that we should necessarily try to avoid taking them, but it is important to understand when we are taking them. The shortcut I want to talk about here is the mind projection fallacy. This is the natural tendency for people to attribute properties they assign to things as intrinsic properties of those thing. For example, think of the stereotypical scale that men use to rate women from 1-10. In stereotype world, you go to the bar with your buddies and look at the different chicks and say stuff like “That chick with the blond hair is at least an 8,” “Nah man she is definitely only a 6,” and so forth. Without even realizing it, these guys are attributing their personal views of how attractive the woman is to be a property of the woman herself. If an alien came into the room, how would it rate the woman? I doesn’t take longer than a second to realize that it would rate her a 0, just as we would rate a slug or a tree as a 0. Would a non-humanoid alien, with a different evolutionary history and evolutionary psychology, sexually desire a human female? It seems rather unlikely, to put it mildly. But we humans so rarely think about this type of thing that without consciously considering the alien’s preferences, it seems obvious to us that the alien would recognize the woman as sexy. We see this from the numerous movie posters of Attack of the Monster-esque movies. This type of oversight, and ability to suspend disbelief, shows how warped our view can be from this bias.

monster movie poster with woman

We make this same type of mistake with words all the time, when we assume the concept we link to a word is the same concept everyone else links to that word. This leads to some typical debates, from the classic “if a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?” to “is atheism a religion?” Instead of arguing whose definition of ‘sound’ or ‘religion’ makes more sense or which is used more often or what the dictionary says, don’t use that word at all. Instead try describing the concept that word links up to for you. I would bet both people would agree that when a tree falls in a forest, acoustic vibrations occur, and also that there is no one experiencing these auditory experiences. One person will say that counts as a sound and the other one will say it doesn’t, but both agree on the actual reality of what’s going on. The trick is, it doesn’t matter what you call it (outside of legal matters and mathematics). Once you realize that’s happening, you can just say “who cares if we call atheism a religion or not, if we both agree on what atheism is.”

 

About the Author: Zach Ashton

Zach Ashton's photo
Zach Ashton is a rising junior at George Mason University working towards a B.S. in economics and a concentration in politics and philosophy. Zach is an Outreach intern for the Center for Inquiry, the outreach coordinator for GMU's SSA, and was a former intern for the Secular Coalition for America.

Comments:

#1 Scott Snyder (Guest) on Tuesday June 09, 2015 at 8:31pm

Although I appreciate what you're saying Zach, I actually disagree w/ you to a large degree. Unlike the Bible or Koran, I think a dictionary is about as good of a literary reference as you're going to get. It establishes some basic ground rules for discourse, but also will evolve with the passage of time as new terms and also slang and urban vernacular work their way into common parlance. If anything, I think the real problem is people NOT using a dictionary; not being aware of what a word or phrase really means, and misusing language to suit their own objectives, which they can get away with easily since so many folks also don't read dictionaries and are consequently ripe for being scammed. Of course people will always have their perspective on things regardless of how well you try to box in definitions etc. but if we can't count on some reasonably fixed relationships between words and meanings, we might as well get back to grunts and groans. Sorry to be critical of your position, but your piece runs up against a serious grievance I have w/ our society. I see the situation from a 180 degree point of view unfortunately. I'm obviously one of those who does consider dictionary definitions as the bottom line and who gets frustrated w/ others who can't really explain or justify positions or actions rationally but only twist language around to compensate for their lack of ability to articulate or comprehend. I'm not trying to disregard the importance of nuance and subtlety, but think about how much better things would be if people couldn't get away with misusing words/terms like "racism," "terrorism," "democracy," "enemy combatant," "free enterprise," "free market," etc. on the unsuspecting masses. I hope I haven't misunderstood your original intention; but anyway, thanks for contributing to CFI and thanks for allowing me to rant!

#2 Zach Ashton on Tuesday June 09, 2015 at 9:40pm

Dictionaries to a horrendous job in helping to solve these arguments though, because the definitions in dictionaries are based off of how people use words. Lets take another look at the "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound" argument. When the two people look in the dictionary to see who's definition of sound is correct, person A's mechanical vibrations or person B's auditory experiences, they get a problem. "Aha!" says person A "Definition 1 says sound is 'mechanical vibrations transmitted through an elastic medium.'" while simultaneously person B says "Aha! Definition 2 says sound is 'the sensation produced by stimulation of the organs of hearing.'" Well bollocks, that doesn't help anything, as both definitions are in the dictionary, as it's intended to be.

I have a personal anecdote about the example you gave about the word "racism" too. Last summer, when I was starting my internship at the Secular Coalition for America, I believed that racism in america was not a significant issue. I agreed that it existed, there were definitely people in the south that hate black people and want interracial marriage to be made illegal. However 95% of people have no deliberate malice towards other races. I still believe this. The thing is though, is that the way I was using the word "racism" was not the same as how my coworkers were. My concept of racism required deliberate intent, and my coworkers did not. I spent at least a day arguing with them that racism was not a big deal and they quoted studies at my about how applications were less likely to get an interview simply because they included a black sounding name, and I argued how that was not intentional, and they said it doesn't need to be and then they showed be incarceration rates, and so on. I knew these studies they were showing me and I agreed with them that these things were bad. Once I realized it, I understood we were not arguing about the state of the world, and people's opinions about other races, but only what we called what. Once I realized that I stopped and agreed with them. I said sure, i'll call that racism. I was not attached to a specific definition, and as long as we agree on what is going on reality I have no problem changing what term I use to refer to different things. This was not a debate that would have been solved by going to a dictionary, because both of our definitions would have been found in one.

#3 Scott (Guest) on Wednesday June 10, 2015 at 8:15am

While I do think that there is a role for dictionaries, and that calling others on their misuse of standard terminology in order to gain rhetorical points is legitimate, I also think Zach's point is important for many debates. I can think of at least two relevant to CFI's core interests. 1) A lot of ink has been spilled over whether "God exists" is an empirical hypothesis, lacking sufficient evidence, or an analytic claim, false by definition. Richard Dawkins insisted upon the former while Massimo Pigliucci once castigated him for this, taking the latter position, and others have weighed in on this over the years. But of course, there are multiple definitions of "god"--some empirical and some analytic, so that both authors are correct, but for different conceptions of "god". And believers often equivocate between these definitions, so that when evidence or logic is used against one, their whack-a-mole belief gets repositioned. So arguments between atheists over which single definition of god is correct miss the point; once we agree that, however "god" is defined, there is none (unless it is defined, uninterestingly, as something which does or must exist, like "love" or "the ultimate laws of physics" but which is nothing like standard religious depictions of a personal creator), then our task is done.

2) Many atheists debate over the meaning of "free will"; Dennett insists that the best understanding of this is real, and compatible with determinism, while Sam Harris insists that free will can only mean libertarian free will, which doesn't exist. Harris, at least, seems to think this is an important debate. It is not; these authors (and others who take sides on this) are usually not disagreeing on any actual fact, just on how to use a term. "Free will" has multiple and inconsistent connotations as conventionally used, leaving us free to disambiguate it as we see fit, and make assertions using an explicitly stipulated definition as long as it contains some substantial elements of its ordinary meaning.

Having just lost a friend because she disagreed with me on my use of the word "intuition" (I was right, she was wrong, but more importantly she was wrong to think this was even worth debating), I found this post to be most helpful.

#4 Randy on Thursday June 11, 2015 at 3:16am

"Dictionary editors are historians of usage, not legislators of language."

This is, of course, a statement of the problem.

For some reason, in spoken language, we tolerate and even expect this. But in machine language, or in engineering drawings, which are still human languages, we do not. As you noted, even in legal writing, we do not.

This won't be solved on Earth, but perhaps if any of our descendents leave this planet forever, they will have a small-enough society to improve the way they treat language.

"If an alien came into the room, how would it rate the woman? I doesn’t take longer than a second to realize that it would rate her a 0"

You have made several assumptions about this alien, likely based on a narrow view of sexuality, and a narrow view of aliens. This is hardly better than assuming the alien would find a woman sexy.

"don’t use that word at all"

Surely you recognize that this leads immediately back to the same problem...

Either words have (accurate) meaning, or they don't (as much).

What you're saying is that SOME words have meaning, and the rest don't. And that's true. But it doesn't have to be. And it's not desirable.

"who cares if we call atheism a religion or not"

Atheists do. It's defamatory.

#3 Scott uses both "God" and "god". "God", being a proper noun, refers to the Christian god a.k.a. Yahweh a.k.a. El. In constrast, "god" refers to any god. "God exists" and "[a] god exists" are different claims.

The Harris-Dennett differences on free will illustrate why definitions matter. Harris uses a definition recognizable to pretty much everyone, and Dennett apparently doesn't care to. In addition to just talking past each other, it makes Dennett look little different from a theist.

#5 Scott (Guest) on Sunday June 21, 2015 at 11:18am

I'm able to post this finally after several days in which the CFI site was dysfunctional.

Randy: I apologize for my carelessness in inconsistent capitalization; but you are quite wrong in saying that capital-G "God" necessarily refers to "the Christian God" aka "Yahweh" or "El." Indeed, the claim that these three terms are co-referential is quite contentious; the pre-Hebraic Canaanites, among others, would surely disagree. Of course, given Zach’s point, you are free to assert that for purposes of some present argument you will use “God” exclusively to refer to any one of these; I would then understand what you mean and not fight you over it. But your claim is most ironic in the context of insisting that getting our definitions right is always a high priority. :-)

And again, Harris' conception of "free will" does not correspond uniquely to a conventional understanding thereof. A person who acts randomly, with no stable character, would fit the libertarian conception, but would surely be considered by most people to be an impulsive puppet, a victim of mental illness with less "free will" than someone whose acts arise from some stable pattern of deliberation and semi-persistent values. You can, of course, give different counter-examples to Dennett's understanding of free will, because like Harris, he must pick selectively from the conventional (and incoherent) understanding of "free will" to use it intelligibly. Dennett admits he is doing so, while Harris does not. If you think there is a substantive disagreement between these two, you’ve deeply misunderstood both of them.

I agree that we can no more let anyone define religion to include atheism, any more than they exclude same-sex couples from “marriage” by definition. When definitions have legal or moral ramifications, it is especially important not to concede ground when this will have harmful results. But there are times when they do not, and then we would make more progress in setting aside terminological disputes to get at the real issues.

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The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's magazine (available at http://www.csicop.org/si) is called...

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Kids, Religion, and India - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Kids, Religion, and India

May 26, 2015

Despite his recent controversies, Bill Cosby was on to something: kids really do say the darnedest things. Though through their innocence come not only incidental puns and comical misconceptions, but often unadulterated truth.

In a recently released video, directed by N. Padmakumar and published on Being Indian (a popular YouTube channel), several Indian adolescents discuss their views on religion as a 21st century institution. Though hardly the only video of its kind (just today Being Indian released the second of five “Kids Speak Out” videos) the candid discussion of belief systems with Indian youths offers a glimpse into the young minds of one of the most religiously diverse countries on earth.

Within this video viewers are exposed to two very important concerns: youth skepticism and South Asian irreligion. As idealistic as a Lennon-esque longing for a perfect, religion-free world may be, it is crucial that the skills associated with questioning what we are told are encouraged and supported from a young age. One component to this is exposure: exposure to not only many religions and dogmas, but also worldviews, ambitions, and even forms of bigotry or intolerance. Though children are likely best shown the diverse depths of humankind in gentle, small doses, the aspiration should be universal.

South Asia is a relevant example of how religious diversity, when confronted with lingering effects of colonialism in globalizing economic markets, is a frustratingly complicated issue. With recent homicides of non-believers in places like Bangladesh, it is sadly clear just how far the world is from widely accepting (let alone preferring) lack of religion as a legitimate mode of operation. Such scenarios in “developing” parts of the world may cause us in “developed” areas to slip into divisive mindsets. “That’s over there,” we may rationalize, “South Asian strife is based on poverty, not religion. The first world is different.” The question of whether some world regions simply “lag” on the path toward secularization is a hotly contested topic. What is certain, however, is that from rural Ohio to suburban Vancouver to downtown El Paso the potential for religious differences to cause harm exists. The advent of internet-based recruiting for extremism is one example of how even once remote parts of the world have morphed into neighbors of the West. South Asia is not the only vulnerable part of the world, but it does remind us of the far-reaching nature of such vulnerability. Rather than quarantine places and people thought to be threats, let’s first listen to them (or at least their offspring).

The argument that economics, and not adherences to religion, explain global chaos is part of common debate. Organized religious groups are often characterized not as the problem, but rather as beacons of charity saving the oppressed. Sometimes that is the case. Yet sometimes it is also true that genuine acts of kindness--whether inspired by fear of damnation or compassion for living beings--take place within systems of oppression driven (at least in part) by religious authority. Many adults purposefully blind themselves to this reality, so when the children we foolishly assume to be destined to similar blindness are captured challenging this status quo it is best we take note.

Religion, proclaimed one of the children interviewed for the Being Indian video, “is neither useful nor useless.” Though the old adage suggests kids are the future, perhaps their clear-mindedness is a more important part of the present than we care to acknowledge.

 

About the Author: Peter Wood

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Peter is a graduate student in Geography at Florida State University. He is an active volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Big Bend and the Secular Student Alliance at the Florida State University, a CFI On Campus affiliate. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Peter began engaging with the secular community during his tenure in Tallahassee. As an undergraduate student, Peter competed for the cross-country and track teams at Oklahoma State University. He enjoys hotel breakfasts and Brazilian cinema.

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The Nature of Naturopathy - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

The Nature of Naturopathy

April 15, 2015

This article was originally posted on illinissa.com.

Once in a while, the famous Facebook page I Fucking Love Science (IFLS) will post a meme or link condemning the pseudoscientific, such as this venn diagram:

When this particular meme was posted, the comments section was filled with confusion and outrage over the inclusion of chiropractic therapy. Many people said the practice saved them from having to undergo surgery or that it relieved chronic aches and pains which had plagued them for years. How could this popular, respected science page condemn a legitimate field of medicine that had helped so many? As my father is a chiropractor and has run his own small practice for years, my opinion of IFLS soured slightly whenever they posted something that painted chiropractics in a negative light.

Yet, I am committed to following the evidence wherever it leads, and the evidence has led me to some inconvenient conclusions about the realities of chiropractic. I started to become suspicious when I learned about the claims of homeopathy - a field my dad had spoken highly of in the past. I had always looked to my father as a source of knowledge on all things related to health and wellness, so I was shocked not only when I learned of the nature of homeopathy, but also when my father confirmed his support of it. He was very disappointed and confused when I told him I didn’t believe it was real. I told him about the friends I had met in college who had explained homeopathy to me and he couldn’t understand what motives these people could possibly have. They didn’t even work for “Big Pharma.”

For me, this was when the whole mountain of bullshit started to crumble. Once while driving me home for a break from school, he told me that my atheistic position had already been discredited nearly a century ago by D.D. Palmer - the founder of chiropractic. My father explained that the core idea of his profession was that there is an “innate intelligence” in all life and in all things. This intelligence was universal and god-like. He said this force kept all of life in balance. Apparently, the body “knows” how to take care of itself, and chiropractors simply help the body to do what it was designed to do. He described Palmer as “probably insane,” but said many great scientists were also “a little off.” He told me to research the “33 Principles of Chiropractic” for myself to better explain what he was talking about. He told me that these principles were listed in the very chiropractic textbook he studied in chiropractic college.

I googled these principles that night. What I found was outright depressing. The amount of nonsense I read in five minutes was so staggering I couldn’t even react big enough. These 33 concepts were loaded with phrases like:

In order to have 100% Life, there must be 100% Intelligence, 100% Force, 100% Matter.

…….Dafuq?

I wondered if there was any point in trying to talk to my dad about what I had found online. Was anyone who could read sentences like that and not catch the slightest whiff of bullshit worth trying to reason with? I eventually decided the answer was “no.” Through further research, I learned that Palmer (an active spiritist and magnetic healer) claimed not to have ‘discovered’ chiropractic per se, but that he “received it from the other world” from a deceased physician. I also found that early chiropractics had a faith-based aspect and that Palmer had many connections to various forms of pseudoscience.

My entire life I had been told that ‘alternative medicine’ had so much to give to the world, but it was being oppressed by conspiracies from the mainstream medical community. This was so the “allopaths” (the ones one might refer to as “real doctors”) could keep their monopoly on the medical field and push the “naturopaths” (homeopaths, acupuncturists, chiropractors etc.) out of existence. I believed this for the majority of my life, but a little research tore that belief to shreds very quickly.

The aforementioned diagram got by far the most heat for its inclusion of chiropractic, with far fewer commenters defending homeopathy, acupuncture, and other additions. Chiropractic seems to have helped many people. I know that whenever I was having back or neck pain, the typical adjustment from my dad left me feeling much better for at least a few days. People would stumble into his office barely able to walk due to back pain and leave upright and beaming with relief. Former patients of his have traveled from other states just to be treated by him once. There must be something going on here, right? Something... good?

Research has shown chiropractic to be a generally safe and effective treatment for acute lower back pain, neck pain, and headaches. It may also be moderately effective in treating osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. However, many smaller caveats are untested and there is potential for harm. In rare cases, manipulation of the neck can injure the spinal cord or overstretch the arteries of the neck, causing a stroke.

There are other treatments used by chiropractors and similar practitioners that seem less than scientific. For example, my dad also uses an “Energy Balancing System” called the EB PRO in his office. This device was “designed and developed to restore the body’s balance and energy levels through exposure to an ion field.” The patient sits in a chair and places their bare feet in an ankle deep container of water. Salt is added to the water as a catalyst. Then “the array” is placed into the water.

The array is small and cylindrical. It is attached by a wire to the EB PRO itself, where various buttons allow its use. According to the manufacturer’s website, the array creates an ion field by splitting the water molecules that pass through it, creating an “ion field.” This ion field is said to be therapeutic and to pull heavy metals and other impurities from the body through the pores of the feet. Iron, zinc, and copper erode from the metal coils of the array and form new compounds in the water.

Having seen many “foot baths” in person and having had one myself, I know that thin clumps of a light brown solution begin to float on the surface of the water after a few minutes. By the time the treatment is over, after about 20 minutes or so, the water is thick with this strange substance. It looks a little bit like very fine sand. In my dad’s office, it is at least implied that this…“brown stuff” is all the bad stuff this machine removed from the body through the feet. I cannot prove this is not what’s happening, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the information provided on this product’s website is lacking at best. It makes me wonder if my dad realizes the dearth of information concerning this device. Meanwhile, the total cost of the EB PRO and the stand it sits on is about $3400.

The EB PRO isn’t the only thing in his small practice that reeks of pseudoscience either. A bookshelf behind the front desk includes several books on homeopathy and one or two books by the medical con(victed) artist Kevin Trudeau. My dad sells various herbal and dietary supplements over the counter as well. Some of them seem to have merit, but a couple of the newer ones are obviously junk. One promises to “deliver oxygen directly to the cells,” just by adding a few drops of liquid to a glass of water each morning. Of course, “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” is written in the smallest of print at the bottom of the bottle’s label.

My father also used to own two lasers that were said to speed healing and treat a variety of ailments. To this day, I do not know that these devices were complete garbage, but they were made by the same company as the EB PRO and simply seemed far-fetched. I once saw an old man sitting in an exam room with one of the lasers aimed onto his shoulder in an attempt at pain relief or faster healing. He sat motionless for about fifteen minutes with two streaks of dull red light streaked across his bare shoulder. I remember being skeptical that anything effective was actually taking place. The lasers were eventually retired due to a lack of enthusiasm from patients.

With its handful of proven benefits and its close relationship with nonsense, how should we feel about chiropractic? My father prides himself on being the type of chiropractor who doesn’t screw people over. Based on what I hear from him, I think he’s telling the truth to a certain degree. He charges a modest rate and spends time with his patients to isolate the problems they're facing. This is compared with chiropractors who charge up to $100 for a few one-size-fits-all adjustments and get someone in and out in five minutes. My dad seems to genuinely care if his patients improve. That being said, he also refers patients to homeopaths, discourages certain vaccinations, and preaches a slight hostility to conventional medicine without much factual basis to back it up. If one small practice contains so many red flags, and that practice is an example of one of the good ones, should we give them any credit at all?

I say with extreme caution that we should. Perhaps I’m biased, but seems to me that in his batshit craziness, D.D. Palmer accidentally discovered something that helps people. If a chiropractor has helped you with back or neck pain in the past, I say put up a wall of skepticism and visit one. When you strip away the bunk, chiropractic serves a very small facet of medicine that is also attainable by physical therapists and conventional doctors. Yet, the smallness of that facet has allowed them to specialize in it and become particularly good at it. If the majority can put chiropractic in perspective, I predict it will eventually die out or be reformed to a more scientific approach. Whether or not its days are numbered, its connection to pseudoscience doesn’t mean we can’t reap the few benefits while also flatly rejecting the lunacy.

Special thanks to Mat King for editing this post.

 

About the Author: Alex Nelson

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Alex Nelson is a sophomore studying Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has been a scribe for the Illini Secular Student Alliance since November 2014.

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Another Successful Year: CFI On Campus affiliate groups in 2014 - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Another Successful Year: CFI On Campus affiliate groups in 2014

January 28, 2015

The CFI On Campus team is excited for the rest of 2015. From working on the 2015 CFI Leadership Conference (July 30 - August 2 in Amherst, NY) to continuing to develop resources and plan for the future of CFI On Campus, we're looking forward to an eventful and productive year.

But, of course, CFI On Campus isn't really about us–it's about the freethinking students who build community and advocate for skepticism and secularism every day on their campuses. And based on the incredible work they did in 2014, we're just as enthusiastic about what the future holds for freethinking students in 2015. While it's fresh on our minds, we'd like to highlight just a few of the many accomplishments of CFI On Campus affiliate groups in 2014:


 • The University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI) put on their annual Darwin Week which featured four days of lectures on science, skepticism, activism, and sexuality with speakers such as Nate Phelps and philosopher of science Elisabeth Lloyd.
 • Also in the vein of advocating for science and critical thinking, the Gulf Coast State College CFI On Campus hosted an impressive Carl Sagan Day (Carl Sagan Week?) which featured science speakers, a film showing, and trivia!
 • Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison and Purdue Society of Non-Theists both set up free speech boards on their campuses for International Blasphemy Rights Day.
 • ISU Atheist and Agnostic Society protested a campus preacher and showed support for LGBT students.
For Halloween, the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison once again displayed their God Graveyard, which featured tombstones with the names and images of gods that are no longer worshipped.
And we can't forget about the awards given to the following groups at our CFI Leadership Conference this past summer:
Most Improved: Furman University Society of Free Inquiry - For the past few years, their programs focused primarily on developing their campus community, with little outreach into the broader movement. However, in 2014, they put on an array of engaging programs at Furman, such as a live screening of the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, a critical discussion on the movie Zeitgiest, and regular ‘coffee with an atheist’ events. In addition, they have plans to reach out and become involved with student groups in their region.
Best Activism: Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics at UW-Madison - They posted a high quality display of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in their statehouse to demonstrate the ridiculousness of having religious groups be able to set up a display in an important government building.
Best New Group: Secular Students at Iowa - This year they helped organize a lecture with Richard Dawkins on the separation of church and state, held weekly discussion meetings on Science, religion, and secularism, and volunteered at the Hope Lodge, which offers long term housing to relatives of hospital patients. This put them on par with more well-established campus groups.
Best Branding: Secular Alliance at Indiana University - They have created a recognizable and unique brand for their group, which extends to their signage, tabling materials, campus chalking efforts, and online presence.
Best Programming: Freethinkers at Virginia Tech - They have had a diverse and consistent array of programming, including casual meetups at a local restaurant, breakfast discussion events, forums on topics like religion and politics, lectures from Virginia Tech professors, a secular support group, volunteering at a local food bank, and even group hikes.
Best Outreach: Secular Student Alliance at the University of Nevada, Reno - From engaging students with interfaith discussion groups and tabling consistently on their campus, to successfully petitioning the Reno City Council to not include a prayer commencement at their meetings and participating in service efforts like Relay for Life and hosting a winter clothing drive to benefit Northern Nevada families in association with United Cerebral Palsy of Nevada, the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Nevada, Reno has really put freethought and secularism on the map in their area.
Want your group to do awesome work like this in 2015? Contact the CFI On Campus organizing team and we can help you out!
 

About the Author: Stef McGraw

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Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Secular Society at Elon - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Secular Society at Elon

December 18, 2014

This week, we're highlighting the Secular Society at Elon as Affiliate Group of the Week. We met Broadway Jackson III, group leader and then-intern of the Secular Coalition for America, at our CFI Leadership Conference this past summer, and were impressed with his thoughtful contributions during workshops. He continues to contribute his thoughts from time-to-time on The Course of Reason, including the following run-down of his background, his group, and his view of the future of secularism.

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What’s your “atheist/secular conversion story,” if you have one? I’m Broadway Jackson III, a senior at Elon University majoring in International Studies and minoring in French and Political Science. I live just outside of D.C. in Cheverly, Maryland. My conversion story is more of a long progression than an event or anything like that. I learned in my younger years that prayer didn’t really work despite what I was being told at my local Baptist Church. My doubts were furthered by discovering that classmates of mine and even teachers growing up were agnostic; just by being there, these people made me more comfortable with the possibility of not believing in a god. As I got older, I tried to reconnect with the church but it was never able to light a fire in me or truly make me believe. By the time I got to college the facts settled for me: I did not believe in a god because I had no reason to and that was okay. I interchange my identification between an atheist and secular humanist but both resonate with me perfectly.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization? My sophomore year at Elon, 2012-13, there was the Irreligious and Pastafarian club which was a group for non-religious students at the university, but, at the time, I was unaware of its existence. During my junior year, a friend of mine, the former president, asked if I wanted to be an Event Coordinator of Student Atheists and Non-Religious at Elon, the new name for the club, and I wholeheartedly accepted.

What is your group’s name? How did you decide on that name? Student Atheists and Non-Religious at Elon, also known as SANE, was our name until this fall when we decided to become the Secular Society at Elon. We decided that SANE had an element of hostility that we didn’t think was useful for our organization as we tried to group from a small circle to a larger on campus. We also felt that being a secular society was far more open, which we wanted our group to be, than being just for atheists and non-religious students; secularism is for everyone.

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites? We have had a few events this semester and are excited for some future events next semester. This fall we had a witch come and speak to our group about witchcraft and tell us her story. We also had a Reiki healer come and talk to us about chakras, Reiki healings, and new age spiritualism.

Talk up your group. What's something that you've accomplished that you're really proud of? While we haven’t had the most eventful semester, yet, I am proud that we’ve had an increasing number of people per event and have increased our name as the home on campus for non-religious students.

What do you see as the mission of your organization? Our mission is to increase the visibility of secular students at Elon and to help create the pluralistic and inclusive community that our university desires.

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? I heard about CFI On Campus while interning at the Secular Coalition for America this summer. I also attended the CFI Leadership Conference this summer and learned a lot about how to make my group work as we grow in size. I hope that CFI On Campus remains a quality resource for advice in the future and to continue writing for the Course of Reason Blog.

What is your vision for the secular movement? I hope that the secular movement succeeds in becoming more politically active and finally reaches a point of normalcy in American culture. The day that people can believe or not believe in whatever they want is near but it requires more visibility of folks who are different. I hope that I can be a part of that movement and support a healthy and more open future for everyone.

 

About the Author: Stef McGraw

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Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Kettering Secular Skeptics - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Kettering Secular Skeptics

December 12, 2014

This week's Affiliate Group of the Week is the Kettering Secular Skeptics (KSS). We asked group leader Austin Edwards some questions about himself and his group; read on to learn about his New Age upbringing, how he got KSS started, and what his group has in store for the future:

I’m Austin Edwards and I am a junior at Kettering University. I’m studying Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Physics.

Growing up, I was raised by my mother who primarily followed New Age doctrine. Until about 12 years old, I suppose that I believed what my mom did. I believed that a pendulum could answer questions about the future, I believed that chanting spells and making concoctions would bring me things like love, good grades, and make all the lights green on the way to school. I believed that rocks had powers to control your “energy”, luck, and prosperity. I believed that people had auras and that I could see them. I believed that we have multiple lives and that I, according to my mom, had an old soul – wise and yet playful. I believed that the lady at the new age shop had healed my ear infection and that she could see my past life, where I owned a house in Ireland that I would eventually go back to in this life. Heck, I even thought for a brief period of time that I could stop a rolling pencil.

All the while, in the back of my mind, I had doubts about the efficacy of my actions and the actions of these other people who believed this too. Could the pendulum really know about the future (through spirit guides)? Could stones really grant me better luck if I kept them on me? Could there really be this thing known as chakra? Did chanting spells really make the lights green on the way in to school?

As I gained knowledge of the world (something my friends say I may still lack) and a stronger sense of causality, I began to understand that the things I was doing weren’t doing anything but making me look like a fool. I realized that the pendulum only worked if I was holding it. Further, it always seemed to side with what I wanted it to say… imagine that. I realized that the pencil came to a standstill because it had lost all of its momentum to the table, not because I made it lose momentum. I realized that the lights were going to behave how they will no matter if I chanted or not.

For a great while, I hadn’t really even thought about Christianity or God, only that they were probably just as worthwhile as the other stuff I formerly believed in. Then, in my last two years of high school I met two critical thinkers. One of them was an inundated Christian and the other was more of a deist. We had hours upon hours of conversation about God, Christianity, the meaning of life, etc. You name the big topic, we discussed it. From that I fleshed out that I was most certainly not in agreement with them and that I was confident that there was no God. Confidence is nice, but I had to be sure, so I began to look into it by reading books and talking to people. After high school I went off to Kettering University and met the other two founders of Kettering Secular Skeptics (KSS). We had much more than atheism in common; nonetheless it was a bonding commonality. One of the founders, Jason, has a girlfriend who goes to Michigan State. She mentioned that Michigan State had a club that was partnered with this organization known as “Center For Inquiry (CFI)” and she noted that I might enjoy the organization due to my keen interest in atheist matters. I looked it up and didn’t really understand what it was about. So, for probably another half a year I went on dreaming of some organization that would do everything that I found CFI does.

Eventually something roused my attention in CFI once more and I began to look into the organization more thoroughly. Upon discovering that CFI is exactly what I was looking for, I approached Lance and Jason about starting a club on campus. They were apprehensive about it, to say the least. How were we going to find the time? Who would even join? What would we do? There were a lot of questions to be answered and only one way to find out – to try it and see. Kettering University’s schedule works a little differently than most schools. Kettering University breaks the year into quarters. The first and third quarter, Lance, Jason, and I work at an internship in the field of our study. During the second and fourth quarter, we are at school studying hard. Each quarter is referred to as a “term”.

We began our club in the spring of 2014 with a discussion style meeting every Tuesday afternoon. We would bring some topic and present on it and then we would open the floor for the attendees to give their two cents. We mainly had our friends show up, but sometimes it was just us three.

The meetings were nice and informative, but they weren’t effective. Even when we got a free microwave and gave out free popcorn, the attendance was sparse at best and the ideas we wanted to promote on campus weren’t reaching anyone that we weren’t friends with and who already knew our positions well. We wanted more and the term quickly came to an end.

Over the last summer, we were informed of a leadership conference hosted by CFI and we gladly took off work to attend it. It was wonderful, as one of the founders, Lance, has detailed here. Lance, Jason, and I came away from that conference tired and as a result bickering on the way home, but overall full of a newfound direction and a plan for our club for the upcoming school term.

So here it is this fall term: revamped, renewed, and full of energy. We originally called ourselves Kettering University Center For Inquiry On Campus, but due to a battle with the student government about being recognized as a club and getting funding, we had to remove the affiliation in the name. We labored over finding a name, but eventually found Kettering Secular Skeptics to be quite fitting. We have actually found ourselves having to defend against the student government that it is necessary to keep “Kettering” in our name, but I digress.

Many names were tossed around. One of which I proposed was Kettering University Secular Humanists or KUSH. Little did I know, “kush” is a slang word for marijuana - and now you may see why my friends think I still lack knowledge about the world.

So what did this newfound direction and plan do for us? How did it take shape over these past few months? First, we got organized. We wrote a constitution, we found some core values to stand upon, and we built an organization that will allow for expansion.

We began with our mission. We decided that our mission is to encourage secularism, skepticism, critical thinking, freedom of inquiry, and humanism on Kettering’s campus and in the community at large; and to foster a safe environment where individuals can question beliefs without judgment. In that statement you’ll notice something. You’ll notice that we left out atheism. Mainly it was a marketing decision, but it was also about a principle. We are not on campus to convert people to atheism or even to promote it. We are on campus to encourage a diverse set of ideas - to encourage critical thinking about topics that are typically taboo. If, through doing so, people became atheists, then so be it, but that was not our goal. Too, as the argument goes, it is better to positively define yourself rather than to negatively do so.

We started off the term running. We went to the club expo in order to catch all of the freshmen’s attention. We hosted a weekly meeting at a local pub, and we even worked with Students for Free-Thought from University of Michigan Flint to bring in Dan Barker to speak on being “Good without God” halfway through the term. Now we are working with the Wellness Center on campus to bring awareness to sexual assault and gender equality matters.

We are shaking the core of this traditionally conservative private university, and we’re honestly not surprised. We’ve gotten a few nicknames, the latest of which is the Kettering Shit Starters, and we’ve gotten even more surprising looks when people hear of the positive things we are doing on campus. One thing that has really kept us going is that there are a large number of people who have come out of the woodworks saying that they are atheist and that they are overjoyed to find that Kettering has a club for secular students.

Having just started out this term, I think that the most impressive feat we were able to accomplish was gaining traction. With three people, no money but the money from our pockets, very little time, and a strong will we were able to not only attract attention to our club, but also bring in a big name speaker. We were able to make a name for ourselves at Kettering University, and we were able to challenge the religious and conservative student government enough to become recognized as a club on campus. Hopefully next term we will actually have a budget to work with and we will be able to accomplish even more.

Ultimately, I’m grateful for is how much networking we’ve been able to do. Whether it is through Center For Inquiry’s Leadership Conference, the local student groups, or even the like-minded people on our campus, we are building a movement and because of that we are making a difference. As Dan Barker pointed out during his speech at our campus, student groups like ours were all but non-existent some 30 years ago. Now, we are springing up left and right – from liberal public universities and high schools to private universities like Kettering University. So where is this movement leading? What is KSS’s vision for this movement? Our vision is to unite - to make a stand. We want to let people know that the “nones” are here and we aren’t going away. We want to ensure that the government stays secular, and that there is equality for people who are LGBT+. Furthermore, we want to ensure that women are treated fairly, and we want to encourage skepticism and critical thinking. Basically, our goal is to network at the grassroots so as to change the world for the better. And that is exactly what we are doing – all of us.

We are making a difference.

 

About the Author: Stef McGraw

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Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers

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Being Nonreligious During the Holiday Season - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Being Nonreligious During the Holiday Season

December 8, 2014

"So you're an atheist...but your family celebrates Christmas! Why would you do that? How can you celebrate that? It's about Jesus!"
"Well, why do you celebrate Halloween?"
"I...well...you've been asked this before, haven't you?"
Yeah, I've been asked that before. Most of us have. The above is an excerpt from an actual, extremely uncomfortable conversation with a former boss. The words might be different, but we all know the exchange. The gasp of disbelief, followed by the possessive horror that you, a godless heathen, would dare celebrate their holiday, the day of Jesus' birth!

It's always a little awkward, but I've found a couple ways to respond to it, depending on the person asking. I always open with asking about Halloween, though. It tends to stop people short and make them think "Why DO we celebrate that? Huh. Weird." Of course, there are those people who don't celebrate Halloween. In which case, it's doubtful that anything you say will convince them that it's alright for you to celebrate Christmas. And that's ok--your differing beliefs hopefully won't ruin the other's holiday. But if you've gotten them to pause for a moment, you can go two ways: family or history. If they're interested, talk about the solstice and pagan religions. If they're staunchly "the-bible-says-this-and-that's-how-it-went," I usually wax eloquent on the beauty of family time. The end goal is always the same: give someone a look at a life different from their own. I love Christmas. I celebrate the hell out of it. And I do so for the same reasons as the majority of Americans: family, tradition, and fun. I just take Jesus out of the equation. Many atheists do the same. Being open about why we celebrate the holidays (if we choose to do so) is another way to make us seem more human to the rest of the world. People questioning you might seem ignorant, annoying, or in your face, but try and treat each question like a sincere inquiry and respond as such. Even if someone is trying to put you on the spot and isn't really looking for an answer, actually giving one may make them think. It might open their mind to other viewpoints. It might even make them genuinely curious about the way you live your life.

So go enjoy your holiday, and don't be shy about why you celebrate!

 

About the Author: Rebecca Surroz

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Rebecca Surroz was previously an officer in the Illini Secular Student Alliance. After graduating from UIUC with a Bachelor's in Biology, she's preparing to apply to Accelerated Nursing Programs, which means struggling through class with the help of a lot of free noodles from Noodles and Company. She's always excited to get a chance to write for atheist and skeptic organizations!

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Affiliate Group of the Week: Furman University Society of Free Inquiry - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week: Furman University Society of Free Inquiry

November 20, 2014

CFI On Campus is excited to bring back our Affiliate Group of the Week series on the Course of Reason blog! This week we're highlighting the Furman University Society of Free Inquiry (SoFI). We met three of their officers at last summer's CFI Leadership Conference, and were impressed with their enthusiasm and passion for the student freethought movement. Director of Public Relations Kristen Murdaugh gave us her thoughts about her group, the secular movement at large, and more:

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What’s your “atheist/secular conversion story,” if you have one?
Ciao! My name is Kristen Murdaugh. I am a junior at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. In order to complete a plethora of majors, I plan to stay at Furman until 2017. I hope to pursue a career in opera, particularly modern twenty-first century opera.

Raised in the boondocks of civilization, I moved away from home at sixteen to pursue music at a residential art school in Greenville. Having always been skeptical of the southern norm to full-heartedly devote oneself to Christianity, I began to explore the religion more in depth once I moved away from my hometown, a fairly close-minded community. The large amount of hypocritical tendencies within Christianity along with the abundance of discrepancies found in the text and its fulfillment in society led me to gradually drift away from a conformist belief in it. I struggled in my existential crisis for quite some time; I desired to know the bounds of my creation and life, and I was not at a place where I could wholly trust myself to dwell in the realm of science. As I continued to expand my depth of religion and scientific knowledge, I found contentment in the unknown. Yes, evolution and the big bang were both agreeable concepts. But ambiguity of trust - the ability to find bliss in taking control of my life and not allowing an external force to govern it - this is where I ultimately found myself and my happiness.

There was never a moment where I suddenly decided, “Hey, I think I’m going to be an atheist now.” However, there was a moment when I realized I had no qualms about being an atheist, even if that meant I would be in conflict with friends and family and my community as a whole. At this point in time, I am a quasi-open atheist and humanist. For the most part, my family and friends are extremely accepting of who I am, and the small amount of people who are not, well, maybe they will be one day.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization?
SoFI began as a brain-child of Frances Flowers Ennis, graduate of the class of 2009. Frances entered Furman's community in the fall of 2005 as an agnostic and soon realized that there was not an organization or forum on campus for ideologies similar to her own. After two years of struggling to find people with similar views on campus, she began the process of forming a skeptic group at Furman. She intended for the group to be open to nonbelievers (agnostics, atheists, humanists, secularists, skeptics) as well as believers. Faculty and Staff at Furman showed a tremendous amount of support for her efforts, allowing the group to start on stable ground.

To prepare for launching the group in the fall of her senior year, Frances attended a student leadership conference through the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. She returned to Furman with an abundance of ideas and the motivation to form a group that would have a long-lasting secular presence on Furman's campus. By reaching out to the Furman community via student news and other outlets of communication, she met students such as Ryan Hampton and Jenn Guinter who assisted her in successfully launching the group. They set out to create an atmosphere of tolerance and respect within SoFI, welcoming the entire religious/nonreligious spectrum. Within the first few months of launching the group, there were 30 + students interested. Although not every interested student was able to attend the meetings, they at least had solace in the fact that there was a group at Furman with views similar to their own.

What is your group’s name? How did you decide on that name? Do you have a logo to go with that name (if you do, feel free to send it our way so we can post it)?
At the moment, our group is in a name transition period. Our original name, Society of Free Inquiry, SoFI, has been in place for 5 years. With its “cutesy” appearance, it has been successful. However, we felt that it was a bit exclusive. Thus, we began the paperwork and logo renovation to change our name to Furman University Secular Student Alliance, FUSSA.

In Furman’s community, a traditionally conservative religious presence is extremely powerful. Being the only secular organization on campus, we wanted our group name to feel more inclusive and unified in its efforts to bring people of all religious or nonreligious beliefs together in intellectual discussions and progress.

What are some events that your group holds or some activities that your group has been involved in? Which are your favorites?
We try to facilitate events that allow students in the Furman community who feel restricted in the religious prominence on campus to come out of their box in a social setting. Through these events, we eliminate the pressure of needing to have any prior secularist knowledge for an in depth discussion and instead stress the importance of valuing people for who they truly are, not allowing people to be solely defined by their beliefs.

We have regular meetings but try to avoid the boring routine element of meetings by shaking things up from time to time, either by location, purpose, or method of communication,. We also work with other groups on campus to bring guest speakers and artists to our community. At the moment, we are in the process of gathering our forces to help our Greenville and Furman communities; we want to be a more helpful service presence. We are working on a food and clothing drive as a starting step for this journey.

A personal favorite held every semester, we facilitate at least one “Coffee with an Atheist” event at which students and people of the South Carolinian upstate community can come to gain a greater understanding of secularism, often particularly atheism. The event is meant to be a question and answer session and less of a debate between the philosophies and beliefs of the religious and nonreligious.

Talk up your group. What's something that you've accomplished that you're really proud of?
Our group constantly struggles with isolation in the Furman community. This semester, we wanted to focus our attention on making our organization an integral part of campus. Of course, we are still in the process of doing this, but we have made progress. We have a stable group of members and supporters, and we feel as if we are making a difference. And isn’t that what truly matters?

What do you see as the mission of your organization?
We aim to foster self-discovery and support among freethinkers. We are a safe, confidential place where students can share and discuss their beliefs, doubts, and experiences concerning religious and/or spiritual affairs. We are anti-dogmatic but not anti-religious, and encourage members to explore and develop their own beliefs, apart from preordained dogma. We welcome people at any stage of self-discovery, whether they have concrete, definite beliefs and a system of philosophy to support them, or occasionally attend church and don't quite know what they believe or why they believe it. We facilitate discussions, debates, and presentations for students so that they can decide what they believe if they're uncertain, or be able to defend themselves in an educated manner if they are certain.

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?
As stated previously, when Frances Flowers Ennis began the process of forming our group on Furman’s campus, she attended a Center for Inquiry student leadership conference. After that one conference, CFI was constantly an organization SoFI looked toward for guidance. SoFI officers have continued to attend conferences. Ashton Nicewonger, director of membership and outreach, Rich Hatch, director of finance, and I, director of public relations, attended the conference this past summer where our organization received the 2014 Campus Affiliate Group Award for Most Improved. We hope to expose more students on our campus to CFI; we want students to have a greater understanding of the realms in which secularism exists (religion, politics, etc.) and to know what CFI and secular student organizations alike are fighting for.

What is your vision for the secular movement?
We desire equality for secularism. In the south, secularism remains the underdog, the evil cousin of the religious realm. People are very closed off to even hearing about secularism, let alone taking part in the movement. We envision a day where church is truly separated from state, a day where politics can fulfill their purpose without the degradation of any belief system.

Anything else?
Our website is fusocietyoffreeinquiry.weebly.com!

 

About the Author: Stef McGraw

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Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers

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The Council for Secular Humanism's magazine (available at http://www.secularhumanism.org/fi) is called...

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The Huge Success of GCSC CFI On Campus’ Carl Sagan Day - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

The Huge Success of GCSC CFI On Campus’ Carl Sagan Day

November 11, 2014

November 9th, 2014 marked what would have been the 80th birthday of the late, great astronomer, educator, science popularizer, and wonderer Dr. Carl Sagan. Carl taught us to look up to the heavens and let our imaginations run wild. But, he also taught us to only accept conclusions about our universe that are supported by the strongest of observational evidence, and to achieve these conclusions via one of the most beautiful tools we have available to us: the self-correcting mechanism known as the scientific method. In celebration of Sagan, his life’s work, and science and the scientific method, we at Gulf Coast State College Center for Inquiry On Campus held our very own free and public Carl Sagan Day at GCSC. Thanks to our great members and other collaborating academic divisions, this multiple-day celebration was a huge success! We were able to build anticipation for it with campus-wide promotion of Dr. Sagan via event flyers, public TV spots, email blasts, and gigantic banners around the school designed by our college’s own Art Club. We were also able to work with our college’s library to set up a Carl Sagan Day exhibition at the library entrance, with books on display written by Carl, his widow Ann Druyan, and other notable science popularizers and biographers.

Kicking off a week full of celebrations, we had a packed house for our Science Trivia event—in association with GCSC’s Brain Bowl organization—in the college’s cafeteria on Tuesday. We gave out a number of prizes, including my personal favorite book by Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Then, on Wednesday, we had the fortunate pleasure of working with our GCSC Student Government Association to enjoy Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact. The film starred Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar, anyone?), and was based on the original novel by Dr. Sagan himself. We were even able to show it on a gorgeous big screen in one of the college’s vast presentation rooms. Some fantastic discussions followed the film, such as its metaphors, its motifs, and the importance of its message(s).

Finally, on Thursday, we ushered in Carl Sagan Day at our GCSC Advanced Technology Center to an impressively large audience with some delicious apple pie (get it?), more trivia for even more prizes, and an award presentation for our event’s essay contest winners. The contest was hosted and judged by Professor Amber Clark and her GCSC Language & Literature division, respectively; contestants were to write about “The Significance of Carl Sagan’s Efforts to Promote Science and the Scientific Method”; and prizes awarded for the contest reached nearly $200 in value! For our headlining act, we showed a video presentation—pieced together by our very own organization—on Carl and his influence in the scientific and non-scientific world, and on the scientific method itself. Following the video presentation, we held a Q&A discussion all about the Universe with Natural Sciences’ professor of physics Dr. Clifford Harris. Dr. Harris was even generous enough to allow us to pass around a couple of 4.5 billion-year-old meteorites. (As an eye-opening comparison, that’s about the same age as our own Earth and parent Solar System itself. Whoa!) And as a grand finale, we presented a beautifully animated video of Dr. Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” poem, narrated by Sagan himself.

All in all, our first-annual Carl Sagan Day went better than we could have ever imagined. We are so lucky to have such great members, as well as other campus organizations and divisions, who step up to the plate to volunteer for celebrations such as this. In doing so, they helped us put together an event to be remembered for years to come. They also helped to promote a foundational way of thinking that has always been, and continues to be, of utmost importance in society. I can only hope that their respective efforts and partnerships with us will be an inspiration to other organizations out there. We continue to thank everyone who contributed to make this celebration truly worthy of Carl Sagan’s name, and we look forward to more wonderful events in our organization’s future. With that, I’ll conclude with a favorite quote of mine from Dr. Sagan—a quote that I hope more and more people will consider every time they think about the world and our place in it:

"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

 

 

About the Author: Jake Brown

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Jake Brown currently attends Gulf Coast State College studying physics. As the president of GCSC CFI On Campus, he seizes every opportunity to bring science and reason to the forefront of human values.

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Suffering and Religion - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Suffering and Religion

October 27, 2014

This article was originally posted on illinissa.com by a member of the Illini Secular Student Alliance.

I'll admit it. I found out about Brittany Maynard from a click bait title on my Facebook feed. Hers has all of the parts of a perfect viral story: beautiful 29 year old with lethal brain cancer decides to legally end her life through the Death with Dignity Act in Oregon. Maynard's story is bringing back to life the debate surrounding the idea of physician-assisted suicide and the ethics of terminal patients willingly ending their own life instead of suffering through their disease.

Ever since the announcement last week, people from around the world have weighed in on the subject. I have ignored most of the discussion on the topic because this is, and should be, a personal decision. However, a religious friend of mine posted about a plea to Brittany to continue to live and dispose of her pill. This response caught my attention because it comes from another terminal cancer patient.

Kara Tippets, the author, suffers from breast cancer that is slowly killing her. Naturally, she should have some valued insight on fighting such a terrible disease and staying strong throughout the difficult treatments. Tippets instead says that Maynard's choice of action is not "what God intended". She further implores Maynard to stay alive because her suffering will bring beauty to her life. Maynard's doctors fed her a lie about the pain and suffering in dying of terminal brain cancer. Additionally, Tippets states that Jesus died and overcame the death that these women are facing in cancer. Jesus only wants to shepherd her to death the natural way.

After reading this response, I was speechless. Tippets is asking a woman making the most difficult decision of her life to change her mind because of the big guy in the sky. Tippet seems to think Maynard should suffer through losing her ability to walk, talk, eat, and control her bodily functions because Jesus will show her beauty in a horrific death. My first thought was "where is the beauty in losing the one thing we value the most, our mind?".

As I tried to piece together Tippet's train of thought from her post, I noticed one overarching idea. The promise of paradise in a religion overrides every other option. Religion tends to make people think that suffering is the only way to reach the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. I am not saying that people who believe in a deity would not chose to end their life like Brittany or vice versa. I am saying that religion has a funny way of deluding people into thinking that suffering a prolonged and painful death is worthwhile to potentially see Heaven. It is hard for secularists to wrap their mind around this concept because we do not have a paradise at the end of our lives. We just have a wooden box buried under six feet of dirt. For us, there is no beauty in the suffering of terminal cancer, only pain and sadness.

Whether or not Brittany goes through with her end-of-life plans, one thing is clear. The decision a terminal patient faces in this situation is difficult and emotional. If the individual decides to forgo suffering for a dignified death on their own terms, I believe that is their right. Religious people should not condemn patients for valuing their life over a potential paradise.

 

About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.

Comments:

#1 drgsrinivas (Guest) on Tuesday October 28, 2014 at 6:22am

Sensible argument. I agree that religious 'authorities' shouldn't 'enforce' their superstitious beliefs upon terminally ill people and add to the misery.

Though may appear out of context, I am wondering whether and how one's belief in Science would influence the way one choses to die!

BTW, I don't believe that a belief in science is any different from a belief in a religion having seen the scientific minds swearing by the weird theories of modern physics.

debunkingrelativity.com

#2 Bob (Guest) on Wednesday October 29, 2014 at 9:25am

Stanislaw Burzynski tried tapping this story for publicity, "reaching out" to her.

#3 marc (Guest) on Tuesday January 20, 2015 at 5:27am

well thought-out article--thanks for sharing.

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Thinking about spring in the fall - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Thinking about spring in the fall

October 17, 2014

It's mid-October. If you're a leader of a CFI On Campus affiliate group, you're probably finishing up the planning for a Halloween event or Carl Sagan Day, counting down the days until Thanksgiving break and maybe, possibly, studying for midterms. What you're probably not thinking about, but should be thinking about, is what your group will be doing in the spring.

It seems too soon to be thinking that far ahead, and if your college experience is anything like mine was, you're probably really busy right now . It's easy to think that planning for the spring semester can wait, and to some extent, it's also justifiable. Solidifying the details of an event happening in two weeks is probably more important than figuring out your speaker for Women's History Month in March. In other words, if you haven't thought about the spring semester, you don't need be in panic mode; you're probably good. However, planning events, particularly big events, several months before they happen is critical to what makes an otherwise average student group become a powerhouse on their campus and in the student freethought movement at large.

Events planned far in advance tend to be more well organized, have better attendance, and have a better overall execution. This may seem obvious, but it's easy to fall into the mental trap of forgetting how much time and effort it takes to put on a successful event, or to think that because a past event was successful, you can put less effort into your next one. To give a personal anecdote, I think it honestly took two or three years of being a student leader for me to fully realize that pulling off a really good event at the last minute is the exception, not the rule. I don't usually consider myself a slow learner, but I was seemingly stuck in this cycle: plan successful event far in advance; decide to be more laid back about next event and put off planning; end up with mediocre event; decide to plan far in advance next time. Essentially, even though I knew that solidifying details in advance was important to an event's success, I kept thinking that because my last event went well, I didn't have to worry about that. But what I didn't realize was that by putting off the planning, I was actually eliminating one of the primary reasons my past events were successful in the first place.

To bring this back to you and what your campus group should be doing, I'll tell you this: think about spring in the fall. Maybe you decide that the actual planning of an event can wait until after Thanksgiving, but don't wait until after Thanksgiving to come to that realization. My suggestion is to have a meeting with your exec board where you brainstorm what you want to do in the spring, and then for each event, make a timeline specifying when certain steps in the planning process need to occur, as well as the details surrounding the completion of those tasks. For a Women's History Month event in March, here is what part of your planning timeline might look like:

Again, it seems early to be thinking about an event in March, but it's far better to plan something earlier than you need to than to realize in January that you didn't do all those things over winter break you were planning on doing and now you're behind schedule and now you have reason to stress out because the event is a mere month and a half away. You don't want that and your group doesn't want that. Save yourself the stress and put your campus group among the best: plan ahead.

If you need any help planning ahead, contact us! As campus organizers, Cody, Sarah and I are here to help make your group the best it can be. Shoot us an email at oncampus@centerforinquiry.net and we can provide the resources you need to have a successful event (that's hopefully not planned at the last minute).

 

About the Author: Stef McGraw

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Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers

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Why Sexual Education Matters for Straight Men - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Why Sexual Education Matters for Straight Men

October 10, 2014

This article was originally posted on unifreethought.com.

When I was in high school, I had a lot of complaints about how and what we were taught. As a Civil War enthusiast, I was once given a detention when I told my sophomore history teacher that he had confused the dates of the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. The principal let me off when I demonstrated I was correct. I clashed with English teachers on interpretations of literature and complained that my math teachers didn’t teach in way that made sense to me. However, my time in college has shown me the topic my public education really failed to teach: sex.

I never had “the talk” with my parents. The closest we came was me discovering some condoms in my father’s sock drawer in middle school. I followed the directions on the wrapper and thought to myself, “what the hell do I do now?”. I also recall a special day in fifth grade when the boys and girls split up and went to different rooms. I don’t know what happened in the girls room, but I remember a man who we had never met throwing some confusing words at us. He explained circumcision insofar as letting us know whether it had happened to us. Then he drew some things on the chalkboard that reminded me of the time my parents took me to the Art Institute of Chicago. After a few hours of this I was told I was about to go through something called “puberty”, that men made sperm, women made eggs, and together those made a baby. We were all handed a paper bag with a stick of deodorant, face wash, and soap, and went to recess.

Sometime around 7th grade, our Home Economics class devoted a bit of time to explain that pregnancy occurred when a penis was inserted into a vagina. Unless you were eighteen or older, it was very bad to do this. After that we went back to making terrible baked goods and shoddy sewing projects. That was the last time I had any formal sex education in my school years. High School health focused on eating well and discouraging drug use. Gym class was an endless cycle of basketball, pickleball, badminton, and pacer tests. This, coupled with my social ineptness around women meant that I never really learned anything about sex.

While I can lament the implications of that on a personal level, there is a darker side. No one ever taught me about consent. Until I came to college, I had no idea what the hell it was. I’d seen movies and modern television. I knew that rape was a thing. I might even have been able to stammer something about it being when a woman (of course men couldn’t be raped) was forced to have sex.

Of course, to me at the time, “forced” meant physically. Things like psychological manipulation, coercion, or abusing mind altering substances didn’t really factor into my thinking. I didn’t drink in highschool, but I had this idea that alcohol was essentially a tool to get people together. In 2007 the movie Superbad rocked my friend group. It showed what we imagined high school was going to be like (and maybe to a degree was for other people). It told us that even if you were a socially awkward geek all you needed was a kickin’ party and some alcohol, and even you could get with that girl you’ve been crushing on. At one point in Superbad Michael Cera’s character asks the friend of the girl he wants to date whether it’s unethical to have sex with a girl if she is drunk. She replies, “Not if you’re drunk too.”

To a horndog fifteen year old that made perfect sense. If you’re both on the same level it isn’t “cheating”! While I still find Superbad and similar films entertaining, I’ve come to believe that too much of my sexual education came from movies and television shows that paid little attention to the matter of consent.

Fortunately for me, I had intelligent people to set me straight when I came to college. I learned that consent means getting an emphatic and clear “yes”. I learned that men can be raped, not only by men, but by women. I learned that sexuality isn’t a simple binary, that gender comes in all shapes, and that all these things are perfectly natural and normal. I’m certainly not an expert, but I’d like to think that, thanks to people who were knowledgeable and passionate about these topics, I turned out okay.

What really worries me are the kids who never met the sorts of people I did in college. I doubt my sexual education prior to college was unique. Until I came to UNI, I was ignorant, and while ignorance of the facts doesn’t excuse actions, I don’t think we should put all the blame on someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing is wrong, much less why.

We ought to ask how an otherwise decent individual could think it is acceptable to take a drunk person home to have sex. Especially because if you asked the same person if they would ever rape somebody, it’s likely they would emphatically say “no”.

 

About the Author: O’neill Goltz

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O’neill Goltz is a fourth year student at the University of Northern Iowa studying anthropology and world religions. This year, he is the Director of Activism for the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers. He likes cold weather, cool beer, and cooler people.

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Why is free expression important to you? - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Why is free expression important to you?

September 30, 2014

Editor’s note: During the week leading up to International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30, leaders and members of CFI On Campus affiliate groups are responding to the question, “Why is free expression important to you?” This post is part of that series.

In a world where I am afraid to express my beliefs, I censor myself and even overtly lie to protect me and my friendships. Freedom of expression allows me the opportunity to honestly express my beliefs (and disbeliefs) and what I value to the people I care about. Besides the fact that lying is a memory intensive activity, having to put up the false front of being a different person causes me anxiety; that in turn distances relationships and harms friendships.

If you’ve ever tried something like learning Chinese, you know the anxiety and frustration that comes from not being able to physically make or even hear the sounds required to communicate. This is the same feeling of failure that leads some students to drop out of school. Even if you want to learn the language, the anxiety increases the personal cost on an already hard task. That’s the same anxiety I felt while talking with people I cared about. It was much easier to avoid the relationships and conversations than embrace the anxiety of being around them.

The freedom of expression isn’t something only restricted by laws; it’s restricted by myself. Since I stopped, I’ve become free to become close with friends and enjoy challenging and developing my ideas. This has led to talking with friends about feminism and getting a female perspective to transform my views with the help of a community rather than on my own. Now, I am able to flourish and talk about the things that are the most important to me while making this short life worth it.

Socially, I was my only barrier. I know I would have never grown to enjoy life if laws were restricting me as well. The freedom of expression is the right to embrace and live your humanity, and I wouldn’t take that away from anyone.

 

About the Author: Nathan Zwierzynski

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Nathan Zwierzynski is a second-year Masters student in education at the University of Michigan. He is the President of the Michigan Secular Student Alliance.

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Why is free expression important to you? - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Why is free expression important to you?

September 30, 2014

Editor’s note: During the week leading up to International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30, leaders and members of CFI On Campus affiliate groups are responding to the question, “Why is free expression important to you?” This post is part of that series.

Freedom is a rather complex term: is it solely the ability to buy a pack of cigarettes at age 18, or the ability to venture off to New York City or Los Angeles to make it “big”, or is it the right to slander a President in a tweet or Facebook post? Freedom encompasses all of those examples, but, being that I’m writing about freedom of expression, I will focus on the last example. The ability to openly critique or even slander the head of both the government and state is both “a political right” and “the quality of being frank, open or outspoken” and is something that should be cherished as it is not a right not shared by many people around the world. Freedom of expression is vital to me as a person because my identity is composed of groups who have not always had the freedom to express themselves. I am gay, black, and an atheist, and those three identities have shaped what freedom of expression means to me.

I will start with my most apparent identity: my blackness. As a Black American, my history has been marred with a lack of freedom and an ever persistent fight to be free and equal Americans. For much of our history here, Black Americans had no freedom of expression due to legal oppression and culturally ingrained oppression. The legal oppression manifested in both being enslaved to White Americans where we had no right to reject being dehumanized and in the Jim Crow era where segregation meant isolation from resources like a quality education and the political representation that is central to a healthy democracy. Black Americans have fought very hard for the ability to freely express ourselves, like Frederick Douglass teaching himself to read and write so that his story could be passed down for generations, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on his dream wherein all of us could say that we were free at last, or protestors in Ferguson, Missouri standing up against police forces armed with military grade vehicles and weapons in honor of an unarmed boy being gunned down and left on the ground for four hours. With a history featuring images of dogs being used in response to sit-ins and marches in Alabama, I walk through life passively grateful that I can say exactly how I feel. I do sometimes take it for granted that when I go to the polls in November, I’m greeted with a smile and not a nightstick, but by going to vote I am actively celebrating the freedom of expression my people have fought for over two long centuries.

Freedom of expression for gay men, and the queer community as a whole, is something new and still in the works, to be honest. With men like Harvey Milk being killed for being an openly gay man in public office, thousands of gay men sent to concentration camps under the Nazis, and same-sex couples having their marriages voided after Prop 8 forming my worldview, I cherish freedom of expression as an integral part of living a healthy life as a gay man. I think straight individuals rarely realize how the basic language we use means the world to a queer individual. The idea that we have to, and face danger for, declaring that we are not straight is something that might seem hard to grasp on a conceptual level. The ability for queer people to feel safe and unjudged when being honest about our sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity is something that has not been enshrined as a basic right in American culture. Movements like the It Gets Better campaign have made great strides in giving queer people more space to freely express ourselves but when I hear someone say “wow what a fag” casually, which I still do, all I want to do is to regress back to the closet and be invisible. As cultural awareness of queer people evolves so will the ability for us to express ourselves freely, but that is much more difficult than a few celebrities telling us that “it will get better”. A friend told me that he believed freedom of expression was the “Freedom to affirm yourself as an individual” and I hope that every queer person around the world will one day be able to revel in that freedom.

The freedom to express myself as an atheist and humanist is what allows me to be honest with my friends and family, but also to challenge religious notions or ideas that are tacitly accepted as a part of our lives as Americans. International Blasphemy Rights Day might be my new favorite holiday because it embodies freedom of expression. If I cannot opt out of prayer, say that I don’t believe in your god, or say that grounding beliefs solely in faith is irrational, then how can I honestly navigate this world? Some people may read this and say “well atheists are just being hostile to religious people”, but in actuality I am just carrying on a tradition of dissention and skepticism kicked off by people like Martin Luther, who promoted freedom of consciousness and perspective by translating the Bible from Latin to German and giving people free access to the Bible. Just as Buddhists are allowed to have their own worldview, so are atheists, and we should be treated equally. I am lucky that I am a college student because I am surrounded by many people who are open to asking questions and engaging the perspectives of others, including exchanges between atheists and theists. Unfortunately, some atheists must live in silence for fear of being ostracized, that the “Freedom to be uncertain, have doubt, and to deviate”, as a friend put it, is not something shared by everyone else. Even I have to watch my criticisms of religion on social media for fear of being an “angry atheist” but my Facebook newsfeed can be drowned in posts about how “God is good” and everyone is “blessed”. I appreciate, and to some extent envy, the freedom that theists have to share their worldview and hope that appreciation and respect is shared even with the “opposition”.

Yes, I live in an age where being lynched for loving someone who is white, being beaten and left out on a fence to die for being gay, or being stoned for being a heathen are not commonplace (in the United States) but I believe a common appreciation for the freedom to express oneself honestly is still far away. I hope that one day people will not feel that only in their small circles or communities they can say how they truly feel and that they will be able to have dialogue with people outside of their personal affinity groups. Maybe then, we will truly know the meaning of freedom.

 

About the Author: Broadway Jackson III

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Broadway Jackson III is a senior International Studies major and Political Science/French minor at Elon University. He spent the last semester studying French language, phonetics, and culture in Paris, France before returning home to Maryland this summer. He has interned at the Secular Coalition for America this summer in downtown Washington, D.C. and is preparing to head back down to Elon, North Carolina to start his senior year.

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Why is free expression important to you? - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Why is free expression important to you?

September 28, 2014

Editor’s note: During the week leading up to International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30, leaders and members of CFI On Campus affiliate groups are responding to the question, “Why is free expression important to you?” This post is part of that series.

Differing viewpoints engender progress.

I hold this belief strongly: that the only way to more closely align what we hold to be true with the objective truth of reality is through varying opinions and reasoned dialogue on those opinions. This, to me, is one reason freedom of expression is vitally important; if, as in the case of Galileo in the 17th century, one's opinion was found to be contrary to some currently held doctrine and thus was suppressed, we risk setting ourselves back as a society and as a species.     
 

About the Author: Lance Menard

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Lance Menard is junior studying computer science at Kettering University. He is the Director of Education and a founding member of the brand-new Kettering Secular Skeptics, a group designed to fill a previously vacant role at Kettering and in the surrounding community. He enjoys cooking, making music, reading, and life in general.

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Why is free expression important to you? - The Course of Reason Blog - CFI On Campus | Organizing atheist, freethinking, skeptical, and secular humanist students and faculty worldwide
The Course of Reason

Why is free expression important to you?

September 25, 2014

Editor's note: During the week leading up to International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30, leaders and members of CFI On Campus affiliate groups are responding to the question, "Why is free expression important to you?" This post is part of that series.

The freedom of expression fosters a community in which one’s ideas can be open to consideration by many other people--people who can support or rebut you, thus helping to improve reasoning and avoid becoming latent in one’s thoughts. In a community where one’s voice can be heard by many others, the rapid spreading of ideas is allowed. This system supports constant fact-checking along with a route for the uprising of ingenious ideas. With the freedom of expression, any person can put their thoughts forward, whether or not they align with the majority thought of their time.

As Blasphemy Rights Day approaches, I am reminded of the pains and troubles which can arise in populations where the freedom to express is limited or denied. Take for example the old system of dealing with sexuality in the military. Service men and women’s right to be open about their personal lives with their fellows was denied, and openness was responded to with discharge and even denial of the veteran’s achievements in uniform.

Even more blatant to me is the current violence towards those who dare speak out against violent Muslim groups in Saudi Arabia. By contrast, I have the freedom to call for the separation of church from state. I have the freedom to question the beliefs of my country’s majority. I have the freedom to condemn violence and negligent harm committed in the name of religious beliefs without the fear of being beaten, lashed, or imprisoned.

I am privileged to live in a country in which we can celebrate our right to speak out against such violence. Though limits may still be placed on some of us by family, community, or majority on what we can safely proclaim, I am privileged to live in a country where they are in the wrong for oppression, not I for claiming my rights.

 

About the Author: Dana Korneisel

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Dana Korneisel is a senior in Geology and Biology at Iowa State University. She is the treasurer of the Iowa State Atheist and Agnostic Society and manages membership and the club's blog.

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#1 James (Guest) on Wednesday October 15, 2014 at 10:58pm

O ye blind guides, o ye generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? My heart grieves for the children of America, who has turned their backs against their God, who has changed the truth of God into a lie, and worships and serves the creature more than the Creator who is blessed forever. amen. God is merciful God but is also righteous and being the good jugde that He is, He has to jugde sin. Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance. The land is defiled and God visits iniquity thereof, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Repent, confess you are a sinner, and recieve Jesus Christ into your heart as your Lord and saviour and you shall be saved and made righteous. Amen. Grace and peace be multiplied unto you LOVE YOU ALL.

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