Wednesday, August 3, 2011

200 Non-Theists (atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists, and others) and me :)

What do Thomas Jefferson, Carl Sagan, Mahatma Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Paul Sartre all have in common? Well, they were all "part" of the SSA (Secular Student Alliance) conference last weekend, at the Ohio State University campus. No, I don't mean that for example, the Dalai Lama came all the way from Dharamsala. I will explain later :)

For those of you who do not know, the SSA is (according to their website) a national umbrella organization that aids high school and college student groups in the atheist, agnostic, humanist, skeptic, and freethought movement. Here at Purdue (as part of my involvement with the Episcopal Student Association or ESA) I had a chance to meet people from the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue. Many of them are now good friends of mine and they invited me to come with them to the conference.

So, this brings me to something that I was asked by many people during the conference when they found out that I was a Christian (or a "Theist") and it was always some variation of the same question: why?

Why did I want to be there?

What reasons did I have to be there?

Why are you wearing a wire? [No, just kidding, I made that one up] ;)

I had many reasons to be there.

1) Social reasons. I had good friends from Purdue Non-Theists that were going, so I figured "Why not?" 2) I wanted to hear some of the talks at the conference. 3) Many of the issues that Non-Theists care about are issues that I care about. 4) I wanted to see how they (as they get more organized) look at issues of diversity. 5) etc, etc.

So, how was my experience? It was a good experience. I enjoyed most of the talks (some were better than others) and I had a great time talking to people there. Of course, I did wonder how long would it take before most people knew I was a "Theist" and sure enough it was during the "icebreakers" part of the conference.

This consisted of everyone coming to the center stage of the auditorium and you were supposed to raise your hand and step forward if a question or statement from a member happened to match you and/or your experiences. Then "someone" (yes, she knows I am talking about her) said "I am a Theist". And guess my dear reader, who was the only one that matched that description and had to step forward who said:
"Oh, come on!!!!!!!"

Well, that got a good laugh from everyone including JT Ebehard, the "master of ceremonies" of this particular"exercise" (who I met when he came to Purdue last semester) who of course without missing a beat said: "You are a brave man Mario...what would you like on your tombstone?" At that point a part of me was wondering "How are people going to react to having a 'Theist' there?" And I am happy to say that I was treated with respect by everyone for the entire time of the conference. JT later came to give me a hug.

In regards to the talks, some of my favorites were the ones given by Hemant Mehta (known as the "Friendly Atheist") who used a good combination of humor and examples for a presentation on the importance of developing critical thinking, specially when it comes to mathematics. (Note: a common reaction by many of us was "I wish I had him as a math teacher back in high school.")

Another good talk was given by Dr. Anthony Pinn (intellectual and scholar from Rice University) on how to reach out to the African-American community among other themes. I was very impressed by his candid statements, in particular to the importance of creating a "safe community" for young people that identify themselves as non-theists.

The sense of community is something that many in the movement believe is very important. Many of them lost that the moment they left their churches and their religious beliefs. To feel alone is something that anyone that has felt that way (for any reason) will understand that it can be a very, very tough thing, specially in high school and in college.

The talk given by Jessica Ahlquist (to many in the crowd including myself) was very moving. To hear her story in her own words and from someone that young really touched the whole place. Among the things she said, is that people should not simply disregard teenagers as people that cannot or will not care for anything. Her passion was contagious and I was really bothered to hear that many of my fellow Christians in high school have given her such a difficult time (from teasing, harassment, and threats) for being an atheist and even more, from some adults and parents. To stand for separation of church and state is never, never, never a reason to do any of these things. To respect difference of opinion is very important...then again, considering how many of our political leaders treat their adversaries I am not surprised.

One of the other speakers (that I knew only from his appearances on television) was David Silverman, the current president of the American Atheists. While I could see that he did a very good job of firing up the crowd on Saturday, I have to say that some of his arguments made me scratch my head. Why do you ask?

As part of his presentation he gave three examples of why the Atheist movement will prevail, "why are we winning this war" if I remember correctly. The three examples were: the women's movement, the civil rights movement, and the LGBTQ rights movement. Now, he argued that all three of these movements have one thing in common: that "Religion" had opposed each one of those movements. Now, yes the following he said is true: it is important to recognize the efforts of American non-theists for all of these movements. And yes, many people because of religion have opposed these movements. However, to NOT recognize what Americans have contributed to these movements because of religion is simply not acceptable. For example, when it comes to the civil rights movement, many people in religion played a very extremely important role. And you don't have to look at the big names like Dr. Martin Luther King but also some of the less known people. I wonder if Dave Silverman has heard of Jonathan Daniels.

Jonathan Daniels was a seminary student at EDS (Episcopal Divinity School), a seminary for the Episcopal Church in Cambridge, MA. Jonathan Daniels (and other seminary students from many other denominations) decided to get involved in the civil rights movements. This decision to stand up for what he thought was right would eventually cost him his life: in August 13, 1965 Daniels was shot at close range by a former deputy sheriff in Hayneville, Alabama. Daniels was the 26th civil rights worker killed in the South. And there were more people like Jonathan Daniels who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice because it was the right thing to do and the reasonable thing to do. Even more, it was a matter of love, compassion, and respect for fellow human beings.

After that talk some of my friends actually apologized to me for that and some of the other things that Silverman said. But it was not just this that bothered me: if you are going to claim that you belong to a movement that is concerned with critical thinking, reason, and the truth (and I really believe that many of my friends in the movement pursue this with their hearts and minds) then your arguments should avoid generalizations, stereotypes, blanket statements, and other similar things. That kind of talk can lead to misunderstandings, and it can tragically lead to fear and hate. Now, does this mean that I am more reasonable than Silverman? No, because it would be unreasonable to judge someone on just one presentation. However, that particular part of the talk was I believe not very reasonable.

Speaking of reasonable, I enjoyed many of the talks I had with people at the dorms, during dinner, coffee, etc. I talked to an agnostic about Immanuel Kant; he had Sapere Aude tattooed on his arm. One atheist saw me reading a philosophy book and that lead to a talk about Jean-Paul Sartre. With Dr. Pinn we talked a bit about his work and the book he is about to publish. With some guys we had fun talking about the television series Firefly, about Star Trek, movies like Gattaca, and other related Sci-Fi talk...oh yes, I admit it: I'm a Sci-Fi geek, along with being a Theology geek, Philosophy geek, Music geek, Improv geek, and other forms of "geekdom" :)

I also had a chance to talk to a very nice volunteer with the "Foundation Beyond Belief", a charitable foundation created to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists on causes like health, education, poverty, environment, child welfare, human rights, etc. I took that chance to tell her about the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and also about "Food Finders", a food bank in my local area that provides food to member agencies, advocates for the hungry and educates the public about hunger related issues.

All in all, I had a great time. And to my non-theist friends, brothers, and sisters, I tell you from the bottom of my heart: there are many people in religion that want to work with you. We recognize that we have our differences but that does not mean that those differences have to get on the way of talking to each other with respect, to work for common issues, and to make this planet a better place. Thank you to everyone at SSA for making me feel welcome.

A final thought, at one of the tables I saw a magnet by a certain person of religion by the name of Mahatma Gandhi. It said:
There is no God higher than truth.

He also once said:
At a time when I may have to launch the biggest struggle of my life, I may not harbour hatred against anybody.

Again, we do not have to hate each other and we do not have to be enemies. It is one thing to stand our ground and defend our beliefs with an honest conscience. It is another thing to demonize and disrespect those that disagree with us. History has shown where that path can lead us.

I am glad to say that most of you (my non-theist friends, brothers, and sisters) do not see me (and many like me) as an enemy....I also do not see you as my enemy, but as a fellow human being :)



  1. You are fantastic, Mario. It was such a pleasure to meet you. Out of curiosity, who was this excellent Kantian atheist?

    Will be following this blog henceforth and looking forward to working with you and all other similarly minded religious people.
    - Chana

  2. I agree with your assessment of Silverman's talk. He made some vast generalizations and some downright wrong statements (women and people of color have not "won," but still fight for equal rights in the social sphere).

    It was fantastic meeting you and I sincerely thank you for your support (you know what I'm talking about).

  3. Chana, it was great to meet you as well. Who was it, crap...I don't remember his name now but, do you remember the guy who played guitar and had a beard?

  4. Kay, de nada (you are welcome) :)