Announcing Our 2014 Outreach Interns, Benjamin Cook & Max Nielson

May 23, 2014

We would first like to thank all of the 2014 internship applicants. If our applicant pool is any indication of the strength of the student freethought movement, we see a bright future ahead! That said, we are more than happy to welcome Ben Cook from American University and Max Nielson from the College of Charleston. We look forward to working with them!

My name is Benjamin Cook, and I am a senior at American University.  My majors are political philosophy and ethics.  For the past couple years, I have worked as outreach coordinator of the American University Rationalists and Atheists (AURA).

I was born and raised in a reform Jewish family as a child, and became an atheist at a fairly young age.  For most of my life, asking whether I believed in God was like asking what baseball team do I root for.  If you asked I would tell you the San Francisco Giants.  If you didn’t ask you would probably not know I was a Giants fan.  Till my early twenties, I was quiet about my atheism, and felt like it was irrelevant to my identity and who I was as a person.

That all changed to when I started attending American University. For the first time I was flooded with a dozen or so campus ministries.  I engaged in dialogue with Christians who were opposed to gay marriage, and were young earth creationists, for the first time.  In some ways, this drastically changed my perspective on religion.  I was not even aware of the fact that there was a secular community.  I became a much more active secularist, humanist, and an advocate for science and the separation of church and state.  Since then, I have become very involved with the atheist community, feeling that same sense of community that I missed in Judaism.

We have hosted a lot of fun and engaging events at AURA, such as protesting at the Supreme Court at the case of Greece vs. Galloway, or marching in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (which was planned by an atheist, Asa Phillip Randolph).  We have fought diligently for gay rights, and advocated for the use of science and reason when looking at the world.  We attended the American Humanist Association conference last year, and it was a blast engaging with like minded people in a respectful and meaningful way.

In just the past couple years, I have matured greatly as a person.  As an atheist, my love for science has increased dramatically.  I spent wonderful time with my fellow atheists, and have extended my family.

Hello! I am Max Nielson, a rising junior at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, pursuing degrees in Political Science and Economics. I am the president and founder of the Secular Student Alliance at the College of Charleston, and work as the Social Media Specialist for the Secular Coalition for America.

I got my start in the secular movement 10 days before my high school graduation, inspired by Harrison Hopkins and Kelley Freeman to challenge my school’s unconstitutional graduation prayer policy. With the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I have been the principal plaintiff in a federal case against Lexington-Richland District 5. The district has backed down on their prayer policy, but the case is ongoing with the hopes that we can also have sectarian prayer removed from school board meetings.

I found the secular community incredibly welcoming. The Center for Inquiry and Secular Student Alliance reached out to invite me to summer leadership conferences in the summer between high school and college. At those conferences I discovered a passion for community organizing, which I brought to Charleston. Using the skills and connections I had gained that summer, I was able to start the SSA@CofC.

The Secular Student Alliance at the College of Charleston has been an active member in its campus community from the start, focused on getting students engaged in the national and international freethought movements. In the past two years, we have hosted screenings of Sagan’s Cosmos and the Ken Ham v Bill Nye debate, helped out at an urban garden project, organized a successful protest against the Westboro Baptist Church, worked with local and national secular organizations, and sent student leaders to regional and national leadership conferences, all while running weekly discussion meetings and a number of other social programs. Our current focus is on building a robust community of secular students to engage in even more service and activism projects, and to ensure that the group thrives through its first leadership changes.

My personal involvement in the movement has arced across a number of organizations and programs as my interests develop. I have been honored by the opportunities I have had to get involved, between contributing to CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression, and interning for the Secular Coalition for America. I look forward to working with the Center for Inquiry’s outreach staff to extend these opportunities to more students, helping them to become skilled activists in the struggle to keep church and state separate, advocate science, and create a more just, rational world.