Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week #27: Gulf Coast State College Center for Inquiry On Campus

January 30, 2014

We are pleased to announce this week's Affiliate Group of the Week, the Center for Inquiry On Campus at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Florida. This group impressed us when they re-affiliated (something all groups do each year) and sent a long list of activities they had planned for the coming semester. Jake Brown, the group's president, answered our questions about their past, present, and upcoming events.

tabling for group 

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 Jake Brown. I'm twenty-eight years old, I currently attend Gulf Coast State College (GCSC) here in sunny Panama City, Florida, and I am the president of the GCSC Center for Inquiry On Campus. I began my college years a little late in life and am now academically focused on Physics (namely Astrophysics), with a graduation date eventually in sight.

My background/story consists of a heavy Southern Baptist influence. Growing up in the southeastern United States, I was involved with my local First Baptist Church of Panama City Beach from a very young age. I can recall, at the age of eight or nine, reciting the name of every Old and New Testament book of the Bible—from Genesis to Revelation—in front of my entire church assembly. I always tried to be a devout Christian. I read a lot of the Bible (even though I didn't fully understand everything I was reading at the time); I owned around three or four of them, including a Bible for kids, which had many different side notes to assist me with what it deemed proper interpretations of the Divine Word. I was also a significant figure in my church's youth group and even preached a sermon of my own in my early teens. (It was so poorly put together—just anything and everything I could think of rolled into thirty very confusing minutes.)

Many authority figures throughout my life consistently told me "God is watching," so I went for much of my early youth never questioning it, making every attempt possible to be the best Christian I could be. But while my church and my Christian foundation were both very important to me, my desire for truth and honesty in life became even more so. Many different aspects of the Holy Book seemed in direct contradiction to one another and the real world itself. That, in combination with a late-teen adolescent rebellion, led me to gradually drift away from Christianity and faith in general. However, for years I was still left with few answers—I felt "X" made no sense, yet I didn't have "Y" to counter it. It wasn't until a good friend of mine handed me Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World a few years ago that my eyes truly opened. It sounds cliché, but Dr. Sagan's book completely changed my life for the better. It was the "Y" I had been in search of. For me, it ultimately presented tools for tackling the big questions in life I had never fully considered: logical skepticism about supernatural/metaphysical claims combined with the scientific method for discovering the truth (or as close as one could get to the truth) about these claims.

With these valuable tools in hand, I began to realize that the natural universe around me was (and still is) so much more vast, complex, and wondrous than the restrictive ceilings of faith and superstition had led me to believe. Since then, I've made every attempt to promote science, reason, humanism, and the importance of secular values in society. In the process of doing so, I have come to know the amazing people involved with GCSC CFI On Campus. They had already gone above and beyond to help spread such essential ideals before my involvement; and together, we plan to go much further in providing ethical and epistemological progress for our local community and society as a whole.

GCSC students 

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?
Dr. Richard Baldwin, our Club Adviser, created the group in 2009. He was looking for a student organization that would allow secular students to have fellowship through social events, but also to begin to do service for their fellow students and for the community. Each year we add new events and activities we feel will best help to disseminate science awareness, freethinking, and equal rights for all.

How many members does your group have? What kinds of events do you hold? 
Our group currently has between twenty and twenty-five active members who contribute substantially to our events and activities. Our group's officers include myself, Vice President Steve Rogers, Secretary Christiana Mendiola, and our founder/Club Adviser Dr. Richard Baldwin. Dr. Baldwin is always finding ways to obtain funds for sending active members to conferences, such as the Student Leadership Conference in Amherst, NY, the CFI World Congress in Washington, DC, the CFI Summit in Tacoma, WA, and others.

We have multiple events throughout the year focusing on our group's core values:

Darwin Day
Every February 12th, we celebrate Darwin Day, in honor of the birthday of the late, great English naturalist Charles Darwin, who helped to lay much of the foundation of modern biological sciences. This year, we plan to set up a three-day event at GCSC leading up to Wednesday's Darwin Day. We will hold an art contest centering on Darwin and his theory of evolution, display hominid skulls around the campus throughout the week, bake a hoard of birthday cupcakes, and present a climactic video presentation and discussion with our Natural Sciences professor Dr. John Foster.

Half the Sky Humanitarian Effort
We are currently partnering with Creating Hope International (CHI) to help our Half the Sky humanitarian effort (named after the inspiring book and TV series) build education, health resources, and training opportunities for women in the Middle East. We are raising money in our local community through donations and charitable services, all of which goes directly to our cause via CHI.

Annual Spring Lecture Series
Each spring semester, our group invites a notable speaker in the freethinking/secular community to deliver a lecture focused on one or more aspects of our group's message. In the past, we have had the honor of welcoming such names as Skeptic Magazine founder Dr. Michael Shermer, former president of the American Humanist Association David Niose, and famed secular activist Jessica Ahlquist. Our upcoming spring semester is looking to be very exciting, as we will have renowned PSU Instructor of Philosophy and A Manual for Creating Atheists best-selling author Dr. Peter Boghossian present his Critical Thinking Crash Course on March 13th in the GCSC Amelia Center Auditorium. Tickets will be free, so please join us if you are in the area!

group members with shermer
Group members with David Niose and Jessica Ahlquist.

Other Exciting Events, Activities, and Social Gatherings
In addition to our previously mentioned annual events, we hold a car wash fundraiser in April for our college's radio station, and we have many different social gatherings, such as Halloween-, Christmas-, and group-themed parties. Finally we are in the process of arranging events for the National Day of Reason on May 1st and Carl Sagan Day on November 9th. As our group grows, we will be implementing even more philanthropic pursuits as well!

As an example, could you share one thing you’re most proud of that your group accomplished in the past year?
Our proudest accomplishment as a group would be our current success in attempting to raise money for Creating Hope International in order to provide education, health care, and more to women in Afghanistan. We have recently set up charitable events to assist with this aim (such as a Christmas gift-wrapping service at a local book store) and requested donations from our community. In addition to this, we are partnering with other organizations around our local area to help contribute even more to this goal. Considering all of our proceeds go directly to CHI, we have already raised a substantial amount of money for our cause!

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?
Dr. Baldwin has known of CFI On Campus for quite a while, and he felt it best to incorporate our group with such a celebrated, established organization. He frequently sends out emails to students as well as publicizes all events on campus and around the community through flyers and social networks. It was through these outlets (and an acquaintance with the group's former president) that I became aware of it. I had been searching for a secular student group around the area and was beyond fortunate enough to discover GCSC CFI On Campus.

In addition to this, we have taken opportunities to promote our group and events via the CFI Transnational site, Secular Student Alliance, FSU Freethinkers, and more. We would like to continue to collaborate with CFI On Campus in the future by sending students to CFI events, but we also hope to eventually work with CFI to help us continue to invite great speakers for our GCSC CFI On Campus Annual Lecture Series each spring.

cfi gcsc logo 

What is your vision for the secular movement?
My vision for the secular movement is, I hope, a shared one. It is one where objective science, and not subjective fantasies of old, is utilized in our public schools' science classrooms. It is one where our Constitutional First Amendment is upheld to its utmost intent by eliminating any and all legislative aid to religious faiths. It is one where individuals look to humanity for moral guidance rather than a credulous belief with a fictional posthumous reward. Finally, it is one where our society can place more trust in evidence-based science and comfortably embrace the unknown-one where people aren't afraid to challenge their preconceived notions about the cosmos and our place in it. I remain very optimistic about this vision; and in conjunction with CFI and other secular organizations, my fellow inquirers and I hope to make it a reality.


About the Author: Sarah Kaiser

Sarah Kaiser's photo

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




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