alliance of happy atheistsThe number of students who do not believe in a higher power is rising, but these students often find themselves marginalized and struggle to gain acceptance on campus. Using data from the Secular Student Alliance, this article explores the interests of nonreligious nontheistic students, identifies issues these students face on campus and offers strategies for accommodating nonreligious nontheists as part of a diverse student body.

In 2007, University of Northern Iowa student Cody Hashman identified a problem on his campus and decided to do something about it. “Cody noticed that when religious students come to college, they have all these groups to choose from,” said Cory Derringer, current president of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI). “That option really wasn’t there for nonreligious students, so he wanted to fix that” (C. Derringer, personal communication, June 8, 2011).

The group started small — averaging five to 10 people at their weekly meetings for a few years — but in the last two years participation has surged, and they now see 30 to 60 attendees at their weekly Sunday brunch and hundreds at their larger events, with over 1,400 people attending their Darwin Week event series (Wilkins, 2011).

In this sense, UNIFI is not particularly unique. While one of the better-attended groups, UNIFI is just one of many nonreligious college student groups to experience significant growth in the last five years (Niose, 2011). This phenomenon — increasing participation in nonreligious student groups on American college campuses — demonstrates that nonreligious nontheistic students are part of a diverse college campus. This article intends to help college administrations successfully navigate this new territory.

Please check out this article I co-authored with Lyz Liddell of the Secular Student Alliance, which is intended to help higher ed administrators, faculty and staff better understand and advocate for secular students. You can continue reading it in part at the Huffington Post Religion, and in full at the Journal of College and Character!

better togetherMy new Huffington Post Religion article on my recent trip to D.C. was just published, and is currently being featured at the top of the Religion page. This one is extra special to me because it is heavily comprised of other people’s words; those of the amazing students and staff I met at the recent IFYC / Georgetown / White House institute I helped with and spoke at. Their perspectives are truly awesome. Check out the first part below; it can be read in full at The Huffington Post:

Atheists are leading the charge for interfaith cooperation. If that sounds contradictory, allow me to confirm: I just saw it with my own eyes.

Last weekend, more than 200 college students and 100 faculty and staff from across the United States converged in Washington, D.C. for five days of interfaith training. Students and campus staff participated in two consecutive Interfaith Leadership Institutes, planned and run by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), where they received intensive training that prepared them to take the lead in a national movement for interfaith cooperation and social action.

The Interfaith Leadership Institutes, co-hosted by the Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, consisted of a series of trainings, speeches and events intended to equip hundreds of student leaders and campus allies with the vision, knowledge and skills necessary to lead interfaith and community service initiatives on their campuses. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships hosted a session for each institute, and then participants spent two days at Georgetown being trained and equipped.

I was honored to join these students and their staff and faculty allies as a speaker and volunteer IFYC Alumni Coach for the institutes. I was amazed by the enthusiasm and compassion modeled by everyone I met, but as a secular humanist and interfaith activist, the number of nonreligious participants present is perhaps what excited me the most. Continue reading at The Huffington Post.

October Speaking and Travel

October 8th, 2010 | Posted by:

yale posterHey all! Sorry for the lack of substantive posts — our ongoing series of guest contributors is still happening, and I’ve been doing some other writing that’s kept me busy. Some of this will see the light of day soon, I promise. In the meantime, I have some exciting information about my speaking and travel this month — in case you wanted to stalk me, I guess!

This Sunday, October 10th, I will be heading to Boston, MA for a few days to hang out with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, do some work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and have a few other (oh so top secret!) meetings.

Then, this coming Thursday, October 14th, I will be speaking at the invitation of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale and facilitating a conversation around the issue I recently wrote about in The New Humanism: “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” Please email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com for more information on this event. I’m honored to help host what I am sure will be an engaging conversation around a difficult issue! [Update: RSVP on Facebook here.]

christian-muslim-titleThe following Friday, October 22nd, I will be in Pittsburgh, PA speaking at the Duquesne University Christian-Muslim Dialogue Symposium about my work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and about the role of the nonreligious in interfaith work. You can find more information about the event on their website; it’s a thrill to be invited and I’m excited to both share and learn.

Immediately after that, I will be heading to Washington, D.C. to help facilitate the Interfaith Youth Core‘s Interfaith Leadership Institute in partnership with the White House! Talk about an exciting opportunity. More information on that to come.

White House PictureInterested in having me speak? I love talking to groups and conferences of all sizes and have experience speaking on variety of issues related to religion, atheism, interfaith work, storytelling, new media, blogging, and queer issues. For more on my speaking and travel, and to inquire about having me speak or host a workshop, please check out the Speaking Gigs page.

Want to stay up to date on all of my travel — including for non-work related stuff like weddings? (Man, are fall weddings popular this year or what?!) Follow me on Twitter.

Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite noo unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

Today’s guest post in the current lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Lewis Marshall, the  president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. Lewis reflects on how AHA! became one of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR) and the subsequent interfaith alliances they built. This is a really great resource for any non-religious students interested in interfaith campus work. Without further ado:

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey speaking on secularism in the Stanford Memorial Church.

I had the honor of being on a panel discussion about operating an atheist student group in an interfaith organization at the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference this summer. I had a great time, and it was nice to meet the other panelists (Hemant Mehta, Chris Stedman, and Jonathan Weyer). Chris has graciously invited me to share more of my experiences with getting involved in interfaith work. I hope this context helps to explain why I think atheist groups should be involved in interfaith organizations. I’m also going to share a few lessons I’ve learned that may help those starting this process.

There may be dissent from your own organization

In the spring of 2009, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford (AHA!) applied to become a member of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR). The main sticking point in becoming a member of the SAR was discomfort inside our group about the pledge that is required of SAR groups. In part, it reads: “promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community.”

That single word, “spiritual,” was a major source of argument in deciding whether to join the SAR. Many people believed that joining this organization would compromise our values. Others thought that we shouldn’t join because we are not technically a “religion.”

In the end, we joined, and with our application included a memorandum of understanding, which read in part:

Though its participants generally do not consider themselves religious, AHA! reconciles its purpose with a broad interpretation of the term “religion,” and of the pledge by all SAR organizations to promote “spiritual growth” …with respect to open inquiry into questions of meaning and morality, which are spiritual questions in the most comprehensive sense, AHA!’s function complements those of the other SAR organizations.

Looking back now, the initial argument was overblown. Being part of the SAR has not affected the daily life of our group, or forced us to compromise our mission. We’ve still been able to do controversial events and we’ve still been able to run our group as we see fit. In my mind, the practical outcomes are more important than any hang-up over labels.

There may be less backlash from religious organizations than you expect.

In part, we wrote the memorandum of understanding for ourselves, to show that we had a clear vision for our involvement with the SAR. In another sense, it was a way of preparing for objections from religious organizations. We were concerned that religious organizations would question our place in a community that pledges to promote spiritual growth.

In reality, we’ve had virtually no comment from religious organizations on our involvement with the SAR. No one objected to us when we joined, no one has showed surprise at seeing our banner at events. It has been a complete non-issue.

We anticipated some criticism participating in Everybody Draw Muhammad day. In particular, the rules of the SAR require that we inform religious organizations of events critical of their religion. We did not receive any response from Muslim student groups over this event, the only criticism was in anonymous comments on our website.

In my mind the take-away lesson is this: If you act like you belong in an interfaith organization, people will treat you like you belong in an interfaith organization. Be kind and confident, and you might be surprised by the reaction.

There may be more material benefits to joining an interfaith organization than you realize.

When we joined the SAR, we anticipated that it would be a mainly symbolic gesture. In reality, we’ve received a number of material benefits that we never considered.

Incoming freshmen at Stanford are asked to fill out a religious preference card letting the Office of Religoius life know their religious affiliation. Each year, we get a list of over 100 incoming freshmen who listed themselves as atheists, agnostics, or something uncommon like like “Jedi” or “Discordian.”

Being on the SAR mailing list has led us to many event opportunities. While we always table at the major activity fairs, we now have the opportunity to participate in discussions and tabling events specifically for religious organizations. We currently have a list of about five events catering to the religious needs of incoming freshmen this fall.

We now have access to a number of meeting spaces we would not otherwise have, including the Stanford Memorial Church. This year, we were able to host Austin Dacey in the church at the regional SSA conference at no cost to ourselves.

Religious organizations are likely to need the same sorts of infrastructure as an atheist student group. Interfaith organizations can help you tap into that infrastructure and make organizing your group that much easier.

You may find some natural allies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the very helpful people we’ve met in Stanford’s religious community. The Progressive Christians have been some of our best friends at Stanford.  They were particularly helpful in setting up a discussion with Hemant Mehta and their campus minister, Geoff Browning. The Hare Krishnas facilitated one of the most vigorous discussions we’ve had about the existence of God. We’ve also had contact with the Quaker and Buddhist communities. These two groups contain atheists and I think they could make great allies.

I think it’s important to build ties to partner organizations like this, because it’s one of the quickest ways of changing perceptions about atheists. Some of these communities were hesitant to work with us, but after holding events together I think we have a solid relationship and a real understanding.

So why join an interfaith organization?

In my mind, this is like asking, “Why join the SSA? Why join the Center for Inquiry?” All of these organizations have resources that can help your group. They have connections to interesting, involved people. If you can find a way to use those resources, you’re helping yourself, and you’re helping to build a meaningful, diverse community.

P.S.  That’s great, Lewis, but it doesn’t really help me…

I realize that many of you live in areas more conservative than the Stanford, and you might not find your religious organizations as welcoming as we did. I’ve certainly talked to people still getting a cold shoulder from religious organizations. I can only speak from my experience, but I think this will get better. Religious students attend meetings and share ideas cross-country too. As more and more atheist groups enter interfaith communities, I think it will start to seem more normal. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Lewis MarshallLewis Marshall is the former publicist and current president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. He was previously a member of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (CASH) at the University of Minnesota. Lewis is currently a third-year Ph.D. student of chemical engineering at Stanford and received his B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 2008.