My university is a secular private one and has for a long time not done anything explicitly religious. Then a couple of years ago, president Obama invited colleges across the country to join in an Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge and our university decided to take part, recognizing that students came to college having some yearning to find meaning in their lives and that we were not really addressing that need.
As a result, various programs have been started to enable the members of the campus community to share their religious/spiritual views with others. As one of the more open and visible atheists on campus, I am often invited to take part in such events and make it a point of going if at all possible, since I think that religions flourish in isolation and ignorance, and having people just realize that other people believe wildly different things, and just as passionately as they do, could be beneficial.
Last evening they had a Dinner Dialogue that brought students, staff, and faculty of different religious backgrounds and beliefs (or lack of them) together for an evening where they shared their own life stories. There were about thirty of us in total, about half students and the rest faculty and staff.
Mid-way through, the organizers asked each person to stand and give their religious affiliation. I noticed that I was the only one who said that I was an atheist. There were I think about six others who said various things like confused, not religious, not affiliated, humanist, and agnostic.
I thought it was interesting that no one else said they were atheists even though in the small group discussions it was clear that some of them were not believers in a god. In fact, this is why I go to such events, to plant the flag for atheism, so to speak, to let people know that it is fine to say so.
It also was interesting that after the event, three students came up to me and said that they were confused by the people who said they were “ag-something”. I asked them, ‘You mean ‘agnostic’?” and they said yes. They did not know what the word meant and clearly had not even heard of it before. So I explained it to them but I was surprised. At least they knew what atheism meant.
Tomorrow there will be another such event, the panel on Science and Religion that I wrote about earlier and which is open to everyone. The question is whether science and religion are compatible. The other three faculty panelists consist of a Hindu, a Christian, and a third whose specific beliefs I do not know. I think all three of them are likely to say that they are compatible so I will have to again plant a flag, this time for incompatibility.
Eddie Izzard emphasizes the historical importance of planting flags.