I decided I wanted to start a campus group to discuss science, to promote human rights and freedom of speech, and to let other atheists know they aren’t alone. In the summer, clubs are defunct at my campus, so I had time to mull this over. And I came across the SSA. I liked their mission statement, the short form of which is taken from their site and posted here*:
“We welcome as affiliates campus groups that share our values of naturalism, reason and compassion in the service of making the world a better place for all humanity. Our philosophical worldview is informed by the methods of science, recognizes the evolution of our knowledge and is free from dogma and open to revision as new evidence and more compelling reasons are presented.” – August Brunsman
The horrible part is that, “evil atheist” as August is, he gives me nothing to argue with- I agree on every point- how can I deal with that? I have to read more. (Yes, that last phrase will likely become my battle cry around here.)
To make matters worse, they schedule a trip to bring as many of this skeptical bunch as would like to go to the Creation Museum Temple to Ignorance immediately before their conference. At this point I concede they have solid ideals, writing skills, and style.
So I join up. I pay my student membership fee of 10 bucks, and pay to attend the conference. I also apply for a travel grant-which I received at the conference- for $200 which is a greater amount than the money I’ve paid at this point to the SSA. (This generosity is one- but only one- reason I now donate $5 a month to the SSA.)
I also request a group starting packet. My sense of how incredibly organized the SSA is gets affirmed, because I get the most well written confirmation request email I’ve ever seen. It has only one typo. Could it possibly be that either 1) someone actually proofreads their form letters or 2) a real human sent the request receipt? So I confirm, and I send back a letter pointing out the typo, not sure if I was dealing with a human. I wasn’t, but here is when I encounter their secret weapon because instead of a program simply noting that my address replied, Lyz got my email, fixed the typo in their automatic responder and sent me an email which ended with “ps – Thanks for catching our typo – I’ve fixed it right up!”
This was impressive and a bit intimidating. Allow me to explain something: If I could not make appointments on my iphone, I would probably forget to socialize, to go to meetings, to do anything not in my normal routine. I am not an organized person, except when it comes to bookshelves. (By the way, please put books on re-shelving carts instead of random places on shelves. Thank you, on behalf of all librarians, library techs, and shelvers.) The idea that someone is reading every single email that the SSA receives is a daunting one. Later, when I realized that it is only one someone- Lyz- reading through all of them, it became even more impressive, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The summer quarter ended the day before the conference began, so in order to get from California to Ohio on time, my beautiful, kind and sweet fiancee (who reads my blog) picked me up immediately after I finished my last final and brought me to the airport. I got to Columbus at 1:38 local time, less than 4 hours before I had to wake up to get a ride to Columbus. Yes, I am hardcore. (For a given value of hardcore)
Hemant Mehta gave me a ride from there to the Creation “Museum.” Which was a relief, because when the meetup address turned out to be an apartment instead of a public place, I had a few paranoid thoughts about creationists with misleading screennames, guns and grudges against the ungodly.
I met a bunch of unbelievers at that apartment and had an enjoyable conversation with four of them on the drive to and from Ham’s Folly.
I helped Lyz set up the registration table and it was halfway through that process that I noticed the spelling on her nametag and said “Oh, you’re that Lyz!” Lyz seems used to gathering volunteer labor wherever she can find it and- without any assistants other than those she created out of the early comers to the conference building- had the lobby ready well before the scheduled start of the first talk. The SSA’s secret weapon strikes again.
I won’t go too far into the talks, but here is my short list of people I’d most like to speak to my college community, and my campus group once it is up and running:
Sean Faircloth- because of his practical talk about how to lobby representatives as well as his inspirational talk about the Constitution and the actual beliefs of the founders of the United States of America.
Jesse Galef- because of his practical talk about how to lobby representatives.
Lyz Liddell- because of her advice on getting people to meetings and her organizational skills. I will have to email her about getting her talk up on the Secular Student youtube channel. I’ll bet she emails me back before I manage to post my first book review.
Ashley Paramore- because of her great insight and experience with service projects.
Jonathan Weyer-because of his insight as a Christian working with atheists.
Amanda Metskas- because Camp Quest is a wonderful idea.
Jason Torpy- because of his experience and fortitude as an atheist in a foxhole.
Hemant Mehta- because of his humorous handling of a crucial subject for many nonbelievers of college age- dating.
August Berkshire- because his talk seemed to be a wonderful jumping off point to spark debate and discussion at the community college level.
P.Z. Myers- because he understands and communicates that humor is more effective than anger when opposing anti scientific religious claims and he also doesn’t take himself too seriously.
What I will talk more about is the sense of community at the event. Many of the students hadn’t been before and only knew people by reputation or not at all. Despite this, there was a quick and effortless camaraderie. I think part of it was a shared knowledge of what it is to be on the outside. In a world and especially a country so saturated by religion, it is an amazing thing to be in a large group of people who treat religious claims in the same manner as other claims- as subject to evaluation and critique, and when lacking supporting evidence, dismissal.
My opinion is that another part of the equation was the lack of barriers to humanity. Too often religious doctrines blinds people to simple morality- not in all religions or for all adherents of a given religion but too often- simple morality that declares that humans deserve human rights, that ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, class and belief are all categories which are less important than the basic category of human. Some people make causal connections between atheism and beliefs, but how can a lack of belief in a deity be a cause of belief?
It is not. Rather, it is the barrier of faith in doctrinal religion which causes a a lack of connection between humans and the instinctive morality we would develop in the absence of absolute faith based decrees.
We may have had other barriers, but without that very significant one we were able to connect with a speed and ease which was inspiring and heartwarming. I thank all of you who were there with me. Especially those who conversed with me, argued with me, or laughed with me. You are part of my extended community, even if from now on we only communicate through this medium or others indirect.
And to Lyz and August and the others who organized and kept this event running as scheduled- with time in between talks to socialize and build a sense of community- thank you. Perhaps this sense of community will keep people involved in what is a potentially powerful movement for human rights and freedom of expression.
*The full version is at this link: http://www.secularstudents.org/community/join.html