Are Atheists the New Campus Crusaders?
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“We really encourage interfaith activities,” says Sarah Kaiser, field organizer at the Center For Inquiry, an international organization that promotes “science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” As a student, Kaiser was member of the Secular Alliance at the University of Indiana. Her group raised money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through a “Send An Atheist To Church” tabling event. The atheists put out cups for each of the campus’ religious groups, and whichever cup raised the most money determined which church the atheists would attend as an interfaith educational activity.
The Muslim Student Union’s cup received the most donations, so the atheists attended mosque.
The Unstoppable Secular Students
The Secular Student Alliance is essentially a support network for the autonomous atheist, agnostic, and humanist student groups that choose to be its affiliates. The rapid growth of the SSA is analogue to the general growth of the American secular movement. Atheist groups were once fringe organizations that didn’t get along. That began to change around 2007, on the heels of bestselling books from atheist authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Suddenly, the movement had leaders, a sense of direction and a common purpose. Today, the Secular Coalition For America is an umbrella lobbyist group for a number of once-competing groups, including American Atheists, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the American Humanist Association.
These “adult” organizations support the growth of campus groups. American Atheists offers scholarships to student activists, noting that “special attention is given to those students who show activism specifically in their schools.” The American Humanist Association provides support to campus groups, as does the Richard Dawkins Foundation and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Increasingly, students who are active in SSA groups continue with the movement after college. “The dynamic of being in a [secular] college student group translates so well into national advocacy and lobbying,” says Kelly Damerow, research and advocacy manager at the Secular Coalition For America.
The Center For Inquiry, like the Secular Student Alliance, has college campus group affiliates. “Groups can co-affiliate, and most affiliate with both of us,” says Kaiser. Cody Hashman, also a field organizer at the Center For Inquiry, says many campus activities focus on activism training. “We give them advice on how to implement activism campaigns, resources on service projects, and help with putting on book tours for non-religious authors,” Hashman says. “Every summer we have a leadership conference where we train students on how to organize their group, manage volunteers, how to talk to the media, how to send a press release, how to make posters.”
National organizations, particularly the Secular Coalition For America, are primarily concerned with lobbying in Washington over First Amendment church/state and freedom of religion (and of non-religion) issues. But the anti-religious (or “antitheist”) thread within the secular movement is difficult to ignore and implicit in the names of some of the organizations, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Foundation Beyond Belief, and, of course, the Pastafarians, an atheist group worshipping under the parody Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Skeptics and Atheists Network at East Tennessee State University rather pointedly calls itself S.A.N.E.
“We do a lot of interfaith activities if they align with our humanist values, but the one thing we never compromise on is our right and responsibility to criticize bad ideas,” says Miller at ISSA. “When you assume a supernatural world, that is a train of thought that does not have a basis. When you start from that, you will automatically lead yourself to a bad idea.”