I can't express how happy I am that Purdue is recognizing the needs of non-theists and including us in discussions of diversity. The more people realize that we exist, we are good people, and we face discrimination because of our lack of belief, the more we'll be able to fight that discrimination. I unfortunately wasn't at the panel for a certain reason, but everyone said that it was great and that they thoroughly enjoyed it.
Well, maybe not one person.
I'll leave it to two of the panelists to describe what went down (very minor editing/splicing on my part).
Amanda:Though this summary focuses on the major incident that occurred, the event as a whole went well. There were many great questions asked, such as What were your expectations as atheists when you came to Purdue?, What experiences have you had in classrooms or anywhere on campus in regards to your beliefs?, What has it been like coming out to your families?, What can Purdue do to make non-theists feel more welcome?, and Does being a female have any affect on your interactions amongst atheists? This one lady was the only audience member who reacted negatively to the panel.
We were probably just at the beginning of our hour and a half discussion when one audience member asked if the Non-Theists at Purdue get any hate mail. Since Jen wasn’t there, and we weren’t really sure about the hate mail specifics we answered yes, and bunny-trailed into discussing some of the letters to the editor in the exponent. A woman raised her hand to ask if the “hate mail” specifically said “I hate you”, then added that if the word “hate” wasn’t in it we shouldn’t be calling it “hate mail”. Erm…ok. At this point I had a feeling this woman was going to be belligerent and was just hoping that would be the last thing she would say…but unfortunately it wasn’t.
We kindly told her that it was certainly possible to express the feeling of hatred without using the word 'hate.' This also brought up the topic of the Society fliers being torn down or having Jesus-messages written on them. The Christian lady proceeded to tell us a random story about a church bake sale she did (she went into excruciating detail about this damn bake sale), where someone apparently approached her and really liked the brownies so he said he'd bring back some pals. He asked what it was for, and when she said it was for church, he said "Oh" very shortly and walked away, never to return. Shawn explained that every group has its radicals, including atheists, and we couldn't really speak for this person because we didn't know who he was or what his issues were. Kind of funny that she just assumed he was someone we could answer for.
More questions were asked and the discussion got moving forward again, but the woman began to monopolize the discussion, talking when other audience members clearly had questions to ask.
The Christian lady piped up again eventually with something along the lines of: "I think everyone in here is wondering"---(I'm pretty sure no one else in the room was wondering this)---"where you believe life comes from? Do you believe we evolved from monkeys?"
I pounced on this immediately. I am a biologist and a strong believer in evolution, and the whole "humans came from monkeys" thing is a personal pet peeve of mine. I immediately explained that no where in evolution does it state that man evolved from apes or monkeys, and this was a common and very unfortunate misunderstanding. However, I certainly believe that life evolved on Earth and that's where humans come from. Then Tom added further explanation to that by explaining the difference between evolution, abiogenesis, and cosmology.
The other panelists, biologists and sciencey people in general, looked like they were holding back scoffs and I knew the question was going to take the discussion into the wrong direction; we were there to discuss the secular student experience at Purdue, not to debate evolution with someone who obviously didn’t get it at all. So, I tried to diffuse the situation by giving an answer that had nothing to do with monkeys. I said although I think evolution is the answer that makes the most sense, I feel like the specifics of how life on Earth happened don’t really matter to me. Even if someday, we knew the answer 100% for sure, it wouldn’t change my life so I don’t really care about where we came from.
This had exactly the opposite effect that I was hoping for. The woman started to look visibly upset and teary eyed when she again started talking and said "You said you don’t care about where you came from, but how can you say that? If you don’t care about where you came from, then you don’t care about yourself, and you can’t care about others. I feel sorry for you." This was basically when shit hit the fan, and some of the other panelists and I started to get really fed up with the lady.
Well, Tom leapt on that immediately, and said, "That's the kind of patronizing crap that really gets on our tits"---or something like that. I got really defensive as well, and I started to try and ask her why we need to believe in God to care about people, and she quickly claimed that she never brought God into the equation. Well, no, she didn't say anything about God, but it was very obviously implied. I took Amanda's statement to mean she didn't care to understand science or evolution---not all people are interested in science, big deal. She took it to mean something way more spiritual, obviously, and was bringing God into it whether she intended to or not.
This fiasco was cut short by the moderator who said, "Not caring about the origin of life does not mean she can't care about other people. Now, next question..."
Then we got to talking about the Porn and Popcorn event and I said I found the speakers at the event particularly offensive when they starting making unnecessary comments (insults) about nonbelievers. At this point we were near the very end of the discussion, and the woman just totally lost it. She started to cry again, this time she was blubbering, and said something like (it was difficult to understand, she was having trouble talking at this point)…"You said you were offended, well you offended me when you said you didn’t believe god exists." Then she broke into more sobbing and sniffling and the other audience members started to snicker at her, or at least she thought they were snickering at her, and she yelled at them about how it wasn’t funny. At this point the moderators stepped in and ended the event early. The woman basically ran out crying, and that was the end of the discussion.
The last thing the woman said, about us offending her because we don’t believe god exists is what really got me. First of all, she voluntarily came to the discussion knowing it was called “A Day in the Life of: students who identify as secular or non-theist”. What did she expect? It seemed like with all her baiting, she just came there for an argument, and got upset when she realized the other audience members weren’t agreeing with her awesome words of wisdom. Secondly, what I supposed to do if the fact that I don’t “believe” in god, my very existence offends her? Am I supposed to crawl in a cave and let the people who believe evolution means “we came from monkeys” run the planet? I’m just disappointed that someone had to come piss in my cereal during an event that’s purpose was to promote diversity and a better understanding of atheists.
We stuck around for a little while afterward and spoke with the coordinators and apologized for what happened. They said we handled it well, and that they had been expecting something much worse than what they got. They also asked us if there was any way they could have handled it better, and we told them that moving the subject along was the best option. We don't mind the questions about our beliefs or lack of religion, but letting things escalate is probably not a good idea.
I think this really demonstrates why we need to keep having discussions and panels like this and bringing our atheism out into the open. This individual, probably like many others, is so offended at the mere existence of atheists that she broke down into tears in a room full of her coworkers. As Tom mentioned to me after the event, would any of us now feel comfortable approaching her for the services of her position at Purdue? I know I'd have my reservations. But keep in mind that all the other people in the room, probably many (if not all) theists, reacted positively to the event and learned something that day. Maybe this lady did too, even though she didn't handle it well at first. If just a fraction of the room now looks at non-theists in a new light, that's a victory.
Thanks to all of the panelists for representing the Society, and to Amanda and Alicia for writing up their summaries.