Just a quick but heartening note from the airport: a new article in Religion Dispatches, “Are atheists the new campus crusaders?”, discusses the growing influence of the secular movement on American college campuses. It highlights the Secular Student Alliance, but also mentions the Richard Dawkins Foundation, the Center for Inquiry, and the Secular Coalition for America.
Secular groups on college campuses are proliferating. The Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance, which a USA Today writer once called a “Godless Campus Crusade for Christ,” incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001. By 2007, 80 campus groups had affiliated with them, 100 by 2008, 174 by 2009, and today, there are 394 SSA student groups on campuses across the country. “We have been seeing rapid growth in the past couple of years, and it shows no sign of slowing down,” says Jesse Galef, communications director at SSA. “It used to be that we would go to campuses and encourage students to pass out flyers. Now, the students are coming to us almost faster than we can keep up with.”
Many of these organizations seem to engage in interfaith activities, which can be okay, I guess, but one is described which seems a bit, well, unseemly:
“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.
Now what is the point of that beyond agreeing to compromise your values to make money? Surely it won’t turn atheists towards Islam, and I’m not sure what kind of atheism/Muslim comity could result.
And the faithful are eager to argue that atheist organizations engage in some kind of “faith”:
At Stanford University, the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) register with the Office For Religious Life, just like Cru [JAC: the new name of the Campus Crusade for Christ, obviously coined to make it less scary], and are a member of Stanford Associated Religions.
“There are a lot of parallels with religious groups on campus,” says Ron Sanders, Cru’s missional team leader at Stanford.
“They have weekly meetings similar to ours, and give one another support, and they do social justice projects on campus and in the communities… I don’t know that they aren’t a faith group. They don’t have a faith in God, or in revelation or something like that, but they have faith in reason and in science, as I understand it, as a guide for human flourishing.”
No we dont have faith in reason and science in the same way as “Cru” members have faith in God. I see “faith” according to Walter Kaufmann’s definition: strong belief in propositions for which there is insufficient evidence to command the assent of every reasonable person. We have confidence in science because it has led us to provisional truths—it works. Cru doesn’t even know if there’s any God, or, if there is a divine presence, that it’s the Abrahamic god rather than the Hindu god, Yahweh, or Wotan. And we use reason in the same way: it leads us to truth. Revelation, dogma, and authority do not, for if they did there would be only one religion rather than thousands with their disparate and often conflicting doctrines.
I’m curious to see how readers feel about interfaith activities. I wouldn’t mind partnering with a liberal religious group to, say, rebuild homes for the poor, but I’d rather do it with fellow nonbelievers, for I see interfaith activities as giving some kind of credibility to the faithful, but not so much to us. It’s not going to change anybody’s minds, and we already know that some religious people can be nice. If you want to help people, there are plenty of secular organizations you can work or partner with.
The view of at least one student network seems at least a tad less compromising:
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.”
For the nonce, the value of secular student organizations is best construed not as a way to show the faithful that we are as nice and helpful as they are, but to give isolated secular people a community of support. As I commented when arguing for people to use their real names when commenting on this site, it is often scary to “come out” as an atheist, but the more people who do it, the more closeted nonbelievers will emerge from the woodwork.
[Cody] Hashman at the Center For Inquiry says that some students come from homes and communities where they have to hide their secular identity, and secular student groups become an important community for them. “It has now become more acceptable for people to state that they are questioning or no longer religious” says Hashman. “We are dedicated to free inquiry and freedom of expression, and that can come off as abrasive, but we believe it necessary for a free and democratic society.”
Indeed. As I’ve found during this brief trip through the South, there are tons of atheists hidden among the faithful, like raisins of reason in a religious pudding. Many atheists were once deeply religious and have had horrendous struggles, both with their families and friends and within their own heads, to reject God. (In contrast, atheists from the north more often seem to have been brought up in nonreligious homes, and haven’t had such a struggle.) Admitting your nonbelief, rejecting superstition and embracing reason, is like a nuclear chain reaction, and one day, when I’m no longer around, it will go critical—and America will no longer be held in the grip of faith.