Atheist groups in less religious areas

Last night I attended a planning meeting for the Secular Student Union at the University of Washington. It’s equivalent to the group I started at Purdue, and also an affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance. What was interesting to me, as a Board member of the SSA, was how little regular members they had attending meetings.

You would think a liberal area like Seattle would produce way more members than an area like West Lafayette, Indiana. And obviously there are many variables that could contribute to this issue – leadership differences, advertising, event planning… But this is a trend I’ve seen talking to lots of student groups across the country. It makes sense when you think about it: When your non-theism is in the majority, or at the very least when no one cares about it, there’s less incentive to have a club.

In Indiana, clubs like the Society of Non-Theists are the one thing people have keeping them sane from the surrounding area. It’s the only place you can be completely open, safe, and accepted. Seattle isn’t a religious area, so there’s no reason to stand on the rooftops shouting about atheism.

Or is there? I personally think so. Yes, community was one of our main goals at SNT, but it wasn’t the only goal. At UW, you may not need a club to find friends, but you can still use it for volunteering, intellectual discussion, and debates about more controversial issues. For example, many people in the area may not be religious, but you can show how important it is to speak up for your secularism. You can have events educating people about the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms, or how some Islamic beliefs interact with free speech.

What do you think? Do secular groups still serve a purpose in less religious areas? Or is our job here already complete?

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project”

Last week an Indiana teen committed suicide thanks to merciless anti-gay bullying at his school. It stings that it’s from my home state, but it hurts more that this isn’t shocking. Gay teens are four times more likely to commit suicide, especially if they don’t live in urban areas. Which is why Dan Savage thought of this wonderful project:

I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.

But gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don’t bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.

So here’s what you can do, GBVWS: Make a video. Tell them it gets better. [...]

Today we have the power to give these kids hope. We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and let them know that it does get better. Online support groups are great, GLSEN does amazing work, the Trevor Project is invaluable. But many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like. Let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.

I faced a lot of anti-gay teasing in middle school and high school even though I was straight. Because, dontcha know, anyone who’s friends with gay people must themselves be gay. I can’t imagine how bad it would have been if I actually was a lesbian, or if I hadn’t had boyfriends. Not to mention the fact that our principal fought tooth an nail against us forming a Gay Straight Alliance my senior year. Heaven forbid we form a safe community for harassed students.

If you’re a GLBT adult, please consider uploading your own video and submitting it by emailing Dan (mail (at) savagelove (dot) net). This may be our best chance to reach kids who need to hear that life is worth living, yes, even if you’re gay.

Surving a religious college

From formspring.me: Do you have any advice for surviving college at a very high theist density school?

Start a secular group.

I can tell you from personal experience that it makes life on a religious campus significantly more enjoyable. It’s worth whatever amount of time and effort you have to put into it. While I had made friends prior to starting our group at Purdue, the vast majority of my current friends were made because of our club. It brings like-minded people together. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a high theist density school, I assure you other people are too.

But don’t just take it from me. Here’s a excerpt from a review of the Secular Student Alliance conference by Coltara Cady, a new leader in the student freethought movement:

The conservative area of Northwest Arkansas often leaves me feeling alone amidst a sea of indoctrinated blind faith where I rarely find conversations of any depth and often feel hesitant to let people know what I think out of fear of condemnation. I avoid commentary when told things such as ‘bless you’, ‘god provides’, ‘you’ve been blessed’, ‘why weren’t you at church this Christmas’, and other such assertions with a politeness that condones the continuance of their assumptions. I can remember an instance when I corrected a woman on my ankh not being a cross when she happily informed me that she was “also a Christian” and liked my “cross” and was met with almost immediate coldness and disregard: her entire personality did an alarming one-eighty. All I said was “oh, it’s not a cross – it’s an ankh”. I stated nothing more when I easily could have pushed the topic further, such as noting that the symbol was representative of humanism and my love of Ancient Egypt, as well as that it predates the use of the crucifix as a religious symbol by at least five thousand years. It is more likely even older.

…This step into the world of activism and networking with colleagues in critical thinking have filled me with the fire to stand up for myself and evidence-based reasoning. It has given me the fuel to keep my confidence aloft. It has given me the strength to pursue my goals and fight irrationality and injustice. Every penny I spent on this trip was worth it. I feel enriched and stronger as a person, truly emblazoned and full of the drive to make a difference. For some time I’ve considered the thought of leaving the area to more accepting grounds, but now I know that NWA needs me and there are others like me who need the support and assurance I have gotten this past weekend. I will not abandon them in such a time of change and growing awareness that skeptics of all kinds do indeed exist alongside the religious.

Not only is it worthwhile for personal reasons, but you’ll be doing a world of good for your community. Just imagine how many people are too afraid to question their beliefs because of their overwhelming popularity.

Now, I admit starting a secular group can be difficult. It does take a bit of time, so finding at least one other person to help you can be a start. But you don’t have to have particularly lofty goals for your group, especially not at the start. Even five people getting together monthly for coffee is a success. You don’t have to be bringing Richard Dawkins in your first week and have 500 members.

Of course, you may not want to start a group for personal reasons. Maybe you’re not out to your family, and you’d like to keep it that way for a while – totally understandable. Maybe you’re at a religious institution that can’t officially approve your group. Try finding a local non-student group on RichardDawkins.net or MeetUp. That may satiate your non-theist needs, or maybe even network you with another student who can be the figurehead for your group.

You should also contact the Secular Student Alliance. They’ll be able to tell you if someone has started or has thought of starting a group on your campus already. And if not, they’ll be able to help you start your own group. They are a resource you should be exploiting!

And if all else fails…at least you have the internet. Read atheists blogs and be a part of the virtual community. It may not be as good as meeting in person, but it really does help keep your sanity in check.

This is post 7 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Secular Student Alliance Conference overview

Alright, I guess this conference was a week ago, and I may or may not have been hording a summary post about it for Blogathon, but…hey, can you blame me? 49 posts is a lot!

Anyway, the Secular Student Alliance conference in Columbus, OH was a blast. Well, minus Hemant’s car falling apart. Hemant has already shared some of his thoughts about the conference, but I wanted to chip in my 2 cents as well.

  • The conference started at 10:30am. I cannot stress how brilliant of an idea this was. The vast majority of people at this conference were college students, and we’re not exactly known for being very functional in the morning. Not only that, but it allowed us to socialize at night without dreading the morning. People were actually at the morning sessions. This doesn’t even happen at academic conferences! For example, this allowed us to play poker without the guilt of staying up late. “Aw, I just have a high King.” “…Jen, you have a flush.” “…Yay!” Yes, I’m that annoying person. Yes, we were gambling with Red Hots. Do not rub your eyes after touching Red Hots. Mark learned this the hard way.
  • The talks were all excellent. And I’m not just saying that, really. I’ve been to biology conferences where I microsleep through the whole thing, or want to scream at the horrible PowerPoint presentation. Not at the SSA conference. Even though the vast majority of talks were by students, they were professional, entertaining, and informative. And thankfully the SSA will be putting videos online soon, so I can share some of my favorites with you!
  • The Society of Non-Theists at Purdue won an award for Best Service Project! Hooray! We got a spiffy plaque for our new office space, and a giant check! Wooooo giant checks!
  • Like always, the best part was meeting fellow students in the freethought movement. Hello everyone! I know some of them were kind of shy saying hi to me because of my blog/boobquake, but I’m just as much in awe of some of the stuff they’ve done. I love networking with new people! And of course it was wonderful seeing familiar faces again, some of which I only get to see at this conference. Speaking of familiar faces:
  • Eating dinner with Greta and Hemant at our tongue-in-cheek “VIP Blogger Table” was fun. There’s a certain level of geekery achieved when you sit around talking about blogging for an hour.
  • I think my talk went over really well! At least, people said they liked it afterward and were laughing at the appropriate moments. I can’t understand why they thought some parts were so funny… Don’t worry, you’ll get a video soon enough.

Some suggestions:

  • Unless the field trip is something special like the Creation Museum, just hold it somewhere we can hang out. The zoo was nice, but most of the fun was due to hanging out with people, not because we were actually in a zoo. No need to spend the extra money and extra travel time when all we want to do is sit and chat.
  • Vary up the talk length a bit more. 20 minutes was great, but I’d also like to see some even shorter talks. Maybe throw in a bunch of 10 minute talks where students can talk about specific events that worked well for their group, or a particular learning experience they had.
  • Now that the conference is getting large enough, I’d like to see two separate tracks going at the same time: think “Beginners” and “Advanced” sessions. As someone who ran a club for three years, most of the information on gaining members or advertising was stuff I already knew. But to someone who’s just starting a group or about to be an officer, it’s invaluable. Maybe have some more sessions for the veterans.
  • One more day! I seriously think the conference could easily last all day Sunday. Heck, the students were chanting for it! I didn’t feel at all burnt out by the end.

Oh, and here’s a snapshot of the back of our club t-shirt. Apparently people liked it, since there are 249782 images of my back tagged on Facebook now.If you were there, what did you like or dislike about the conference?

This is post 4 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

What a Christian university course on Logic looks like

A friend of mine decided to take his required Logic class through a school other than Purdue for various time-related reasons. It was offered at a Christian school, and he’s an atheist. But that wasn’t the most interesting part: It frequently used supernatural Christian ideas as examples in class. And I mean proving them to be true, not debunking them. Yeah, excellent use of logic.

While we took a bit of glee out of his frequent brain-explosions during the semester, he was nice enough to share more information about the class now that his grade is safe. You can see a whole pdf of the class syllabus here.

Attached is the syllabus from my silly Philosophy class. You can read the introduction, its pretty funny. The rest of the course is boring except for Lesson 13, which is where he uses the resurrection of Jesus Christ to explain how to logically evaluate arguments. It’s [from page 14 to 17]. The whole course is pretty much about indoctrination — I guess by teaching these poor kids everything they know through religious lenses they have no capacity to think without it involving religion. Take away religion — and you’ve taken away their college education.

I took the course through Taylor University. They have this “life together covenant” thing where it outlines behavior for their students, both on and off campus. It’s hilarious. “Prohibited Behaviors: Certain behaviors are expressly prohibited in Scripture and therefore are to be avoided by all members of the community. They include theft, lying, dishonesty, gossip, slander, backbiting, profanity, vulgarity, crude language, sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexual behavior, premarital sex and involvement with pornography in any form), drunkenness, immodesty of dress and occult practice.”

I’m glad they never found me out because I would have been kicked out for doing probably all of them… in one Thursday night!

I’m kind of surprised a public, secular university accepted transfer credit from a place that is obviously more concerned with religious indoctrination than education. Just to give you a taste of their “logical evaluation” of the resurrection of Jesus:

3. We must look at explanations as sets. All of our explanations occur within total world views; every explanation carries many implications and prerequisites. Facts occur in context with other facts. Even if a single idea might be a potentially great explanation for an event, the baggage that comes with the idea might be too great for it to be acceptable.

Here we come, of course, to the liability involved in using the idea of a supernatural resurrection as an explanation for the empty tomb. In order for this explanation to be acceptable, we also need to be clear on the following:

a. there is a God;
b. this God is involved in human history;
c. miracles are possible;
d. miracles are knowable;
e. miracles are knowable from history;
f. the New Testament is historically accurate;
g. it is possible to get reliable information from historical sources;
and various other implications.

These and other issues are all resolvable in a positive way. However, a Christian needs to be aware of the many layers of relevant concerns and not be surprised that simple arguments are oftentimes rejected by non-Christians, not because they cannot explain the data, but because of their implications for a theistic, supernaturalistic world view.

Oh, yeah, none of those things are problems at all. …If you want to read the whole argument, go here and start half way down page 114. I’m sure the document has other gems, but I’m not inclined to sift through it. Post any fun ones you find in the comments!

Piano bar win

Last night I went to the piano bar at the Neon Cactus, our local popular drinking/dancing venue for college students. If you’re from Purdue, you know this is probably the most popular Thursday night tradition. It was my last night since I’m moving in a week, so a ton of my friends were there.

Bruce (the piano man) quickly pointed out that the Jesus camp people were here – namely two tables full of counselors from Camp Tecumseh. The first hour was filled with many lighthearted Christian/Jesus jokes, including Bruce feigning guilt whenever he swore or said something sexual and apologizing to the “Jesus table.”

Being a group of atheists, we couldn’t resist. We pooled our money and bought “Don’t Stop Believing” with the note “From the atheist table to the Jesus table.” The best part? They laughed and sang along with us.

Kudos to religious people with a sense of humor!

Society of Non-Theists wins Best Service Project!

Every year the Secular Student Alliance gives awards to affiliate groups that have gone above and beyond in categories like Community, Activism, and Education. I’m happy to share the news that the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue, the student organization that I founded and was president of, has won Best Service Project!

The Secular Student Alliance awarded its Best Service Project Award to the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue. The group partook in a number of community service efforts, including supporting a local food bank, cleaning up trash, and raising money to send an atheist to church. For the food bank, the Society of Non-Theists collected nearly 100 pounds of food as part of the university’s fall food drive. Then, the group cleaned up roughly 20 bags of trash as part of beautifying the grounds around campus.

In addition, the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue raised $360 to send an atheist to church. Inspired by Hemant Mehta’s “selling his soul on eBay,” the club collected money to send its members to a worship service. The group provided a number of collection jars, and each was filled with money to vote for a particular denomination. The church with the most in its jar would be the place where club members would visit, and all the proceeds were donated to a local food bank. Purdue’s efforts not only led to the raising of $360 and visiting of twelve churches; they also received local media coverage. We are pleased to present our 2010 Best Service Project Award to the Purdue Non-Theists!

I’m so proud of our club and excited that my last year as president ended on such a high note. And I’m sure current members of SNT will be happy about the $300 award prize – that more than doubles our treasury, so they’ll be able to do a lot of fun events in the future!

The Secular Student Alliance conference is approaching!

This is a friendly reminder that the Secular Student Alliance conference is quickly approaching! It’s July 23-25 at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. If you’re involved in high school or college secular groups (or thinking about starting one), this is a wonderful opportunity. I wish I had attended when I was first starting the Society of Non-Theists – I learned so many useful group-running skills that would have made my life a lot easier. If you’re hard up for cash (aka a student), the SSA also awards travel grants to help you make the journey!

But the conference is not just for students. There will be a lot of great speakers talking about various non-theist issues, including (photos and descriptions shamelessly stolen from the SSA’s last newsletter):

Keynote Presentation by Greta Christina, atheist/LGBT activist and blogger: “What the Atheist Movement Can Learn from the LGBT Movement”

Hemant Mehta, chair of the SSA Board of Directors, author of “I Sold My Soul on eBay,” and blogger at the Friendly Atheist: “How the Religious Right Went After Me… and Lost”

Meeeeeeeeee, founder of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University, blogger at Blag Hag, and the founder of “Boobquake” presents “Edgy Yet Friendly”


Julia Galef
, co-host and blogger at Rationally Speaking: “Moderating Discussion”

So even if you’re not a student, you should consider attending! The atmosphere alone is work it – it’s pretty awesome hanging out with a large group of godless heathens for a couple days. Plus, there’s a field trip to the zoo with a guided tour by a professor of human evolution, and there’s almost assuredly going to be at least one night out at a bar. And if you’re more motivated by charitable things, your registration fees help support the SSA, which could always use more money to help secular groups across the country. I had a blast last year, and I’m sure you will too.

Registration rates go up on July 1, so don’t wait!

I graduated!

I now have a Bachelor of Science with the Honors curriculum in Biology from Purdue University!

Major 1: Genetic Biology
Major 2: Ecology, Evolution, & Environmental Biology
Minor: Psychology
Honors thesis: Inferring mating habits in banner-tailed kangaroo rats (Dipodomys spectabilis) using DNA extracted from copulatory plugs

Wooooo! A big thank you to my family, friends, and instructors for helping me along the way. I now will sound ten times smarter in any debate because I have some letters after my name ;)

And thankfully our commencement ceremony wasn’t too religious. Purdue has four ceremonies due to the sheer number of students, and mine was the last one. The first three had a Lutheran minister speak, and apparently he enjoyed referencing God a lot and asking people to pray during the “Moment of Reflection.” Our commencement got a Rabbi, who was wonderful – he was funny and completely and utterly secular.

Now, I don’t think a public university should designate a time for religious speakers, as that inherently shows a preference for religion over non-religion. Not to mention, even when they try to be diverse, they never include anything outside of Abrahamic religions – when I went a couple years ago (for the grad of my boyfriend at the time) they still just had a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and a Muslim (no, they didn’t walk into a bar). My big beef is that after the “Moment of Reflection,” the choir sings “Amen” over and over again. Um, yeah, that’s not a moment of reflection…

But anyway, it was nice. Afterward there was a little reception for the College of Science, where my parents got to meet some of my professors. I liked this one interaction with my biology professor from Sophomore year:

Prof: I love meeting parents because I get to see Mendelian genetics in action!
Me: *laughs*
Parents: *awkwardly chuckle because they have no idea what that means*

Then later I got to explain that he was nerdily saying that I looked like both of them, hehe.

I guess I’m officially a scientist now, yaaay!

PS: Oh, and I got recognized by random professors and parents I didn’t know because of Boobquake, hahaha.

The Evolution Litmus Test

A couple days ago when I was waiting for my Biomedical Ethics exam to begin, I started chatting with this girl sitting near me. She was in my recitation class, but I didn’t really know anything else about her. Somehow I mentioned I was a biology major, and she brought up the one biology class she took as an Animal Science major: it was my favorite Biology class at Purdue, Evolution of Behavior.

Now, even though one of my research advisors teaches that class, I promise I’m not being biased – every day I left that class absolutely amazed at how interesting and inventive nature was. I’ve always been more of a lab rat and genetics nerd, but this gave me real appreciation for natural history and behavior. We talked about insanely interesting topics like the evolution of echolocation, altruism, dominance regulated ovulation suppression, and electric fish communication. And as a perk, I thought the class was pretty easy; if you just understood basic evolutionary principles and paid attention at all (which was a given, since it was so cool), you’d do fine.

So when this girl brought it up, of course I gushed about how much I loved that class. To which she replied,

“Oh, I don’t believe in evolution. I just took that class to see what the different opinion was like.”

The only thing that kept me from calling her out on the stupidity of her statements (EVOLUTION IS NOT FUCKING OPINION) was the fact that I didn’t want to totally upset myself right before I had to take a difficult exam. But of course, she had to go on,

“It was so hard! I didn’t understand anything he was saying all semester!”

I asked her if she took the required introductory evolution classes before taking this one, and she said no – her Animal Science advisor said the class was easy and she waived the requirements. This made me fume. Evolution of Behavior is a 500-level class meant for upperclassmen and graduate students. We spend about a day reviewing the principles of evolution because it’s assumed you’ve already learned them in the various required classes. So if you stick a creationist in that class with no knowledge of evolution, of course they’re going to be totally confused. And now they can proudly claim “well I took a class on evolution and so I know it’s wrong” just because they didn’t have the skill set to understand the class!

The thing that annoys me the most is that this person is graduating with a degree in Animal Sciences. If you are getting a degree in something biology-related, you should understand and accept evolution. Hell, I know Biology students (mostly molecular or pre-med people) who don’t accept evolution, so it’s not a matter of curriculum*. But to know that we’re giving degrees to people who fail to understand – no, outright deny a basic tenet of biology is shameful.

Would chemistry give degrees to someone who thought the five elements were more accurate than the periodic table? Would physics give degrees to a someone who thought gravity was fairies holding us down to the ground? Would earth and atmospheric sciences give degrees to flat-Earthers? Would astronomy give degrees to people who think the moon is made of cheese?

Maybe with the way American education is set up, you can’t stop someone from graduating based on these things. Maybe they adamantly believe in fanciful superstition, but are smart enough to give the desired (aka correct) answers on exams. How do you hold back someone with crazy beliefs if they got As in all the classes?

And while I hate giving creationists undeserved credentials (“I got a degree in Biology, and I know evolution is false, trust me!”), I guess they can go have jobs where evolution doesn’t matter as much. Go pipette for hours at some company for all I care. But when these people are going on to become teachers or scientists, it’s scary. You need to be able to understand and accept evolution to 1) Teach it to others so we don’t keep perpetuating ignorance, and 2) Come up with plausible hypotheses, do good research, and interpret results correctly.

This is why I think we need an Evolution Litmus Test in these fields. Do not accept people into your school or Masters/PhD program unless they accept evolution. I don’t care how you do it – a written test, an essay question on the application, a simple check box to weed out the honest, asking pointed questions during interviews, sending grad student spies to mingle and get the truth out… But figure out what people deny basic science before you turn them into scientists. A friend shared with me a story about a fellow grad school interviewee at a very prestigious university who was a unabashedly proud young earth creationist around the other prospective students (but not current ones or professors) – do not let this ignorance infiltrate your program.

I know people are going to claim I’m just putting an “atheist requirement” on studying biology, but I am not. There are many many biologists who are religious but still accept evolution. I have friends here at Purdue who go to church weekly, are in religious clubs, and will still laugh at Intelligent Design for it’s anti-science lunacy. This is just a scientific standard. If you don’t believe in a fundamental of the field, you should not be able to claim some sort of expertise in it. It’s as bad as graduating in History with a focus on WWII and believing the Holocaust was a hoax. It proves you do not understand the topic, and it is embarrassing to the school.

But really, is it that outlandish to require people to understand the field you’re hiring them in?

*Note for non-Purdue people: AS is part of the College of Agriculture, and Biology (what I’m in) is part of the College of Science, so we have very different curriculum. Hence why she didn’t have to take those intro Biology courses that teach evolution (though those still fail to educate some bio majors).