Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My guest column in the Exponent: Non-theists, you are not alone on this campus

I've always been a bit notorious for writing letters to the editor for our campus newspaper, but this is even more exciting: The Exponent let me write a guest column on atheism at Purdue and the Society of Non-Theists for their opinions page! It's an area usually reserved for opinion pieces for Exponent staff, and I had over twice as much space as a letter. Writing it was a lot more challenging than blogging, since it had a word limit (I can't ramble?! Nooooo!), has to be a lot more formal (aka, intelligent), and is to a totally different audience (mainly Christians instead of a mob of atheists). It's not revolutionary and probably won't incite the masses to send hate mail, but it's a message that needs to be seen on campus. Consider it my last hurrah after three years of being President.

And since I wrote it, I'll reprint it below in its entirety.
Non-theists, you are not alone on this campus

By Jennifer McCreight
Guest Columnist
Publication Date: 04/14/2010

I grew up in Indiana, but coming to Purdue was a culture shock for me. Some people in my town were religious, but no one really cared about what others did or didn’t believe.

Less than a month after I arrived on campus, I sat in the McCutcheon laundry room reading Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” Another freshman approached me, wide-eyed, and asked if I was an atheist. When I said I was, she asked with sincere worry, “But how will you ever find a husband?”

Let’s ignore the assumption that getting a husband should be the most important goal in life. Actually, she was voicing a concern that many atheists and agnostics share. Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only person who doesn’t believe in God. I certainly felt that way when I came to Purdue.

There were over 50 Christian student organizations, a club for every other religion, religious advertisements in my mailbox, and preachers on the mall telling me I was going to hell. Political or ethical discussions and even small talk started with the assumption that I was a Christian.

That’s why I started the Society of Non-Theists in 2007: Not to convert or offend the religious, but to let other atheists and agnostics know that they weren’t alone. For our first callout, I expected maybe 15 people to come. So many students showed up that they were spilling into the hallway. People looked across the room as if to say “Where were you guys all this time?!”

While we’re a minority, we certainly do exist. About 16 percent of Americans are non-theists, and that number grows every year (1). Unfortunately, many are afraid to come out, and those fears are legitimate. Club members constantly share stories of discrimination, stereotyping and rejection from their families because of people judging their non-belief. Groups like ours provide a safe environment where non-theists can speak freely, something that is necessary to stay sane and happy.

Of course, we do more than serve as a community. Something as simple as being open about our non-theism can dispel negative stereotypes many have about us. We try to ensure the separation of church and state is upheld at Purdue and in Indiana. We hold events to promote skeptical thinking, and we help others by volunteering and raising money for charity. We encourage open dialogue about religion through group discussions and sometimes-controversial public demonstrations.

Even with all these activities, community has always been our focus. I’ve made dozens of close friends that I’ll have for a lifetime, and other members say the same. Who knows if we’d have met if we were too afraid to express our skepticism of the supernatural? Even people who don’t come to meetings frequently e-mail me, thanking me for letting them know that they have a voice on campus. Making Purdue more welcoming for non-religious students is more important than any grade I’ve received, and the club will be what I miss most when I graduate.

Future club members still have a lot of work to do keeping Purdue secular and increasing the acceptance of non-theists. We’ve had minor success cooperating with religious groups, but most still seem hesitant or unwilling. I will definitely feel disappointed if my graduation ceremony in May is full of thinly veiled prayers, religious commentary and the choir singing “Amen” like in the past.

Club flyers are torn down or defaced within hours of putting them up, and it’s rare to have an outdoor event without someone shouting something hateful. Our mere existence will always offend some, but we’ve come a long way. I’m no longer afraid or ashamed to call myself an atheist, and neither should anyone else on campus.

Just remember: Non-theists are good people, with similar morals and goals as theists. We don’t eat babies, we don’t hate religious people, we don’t wallow in depression and we don’t have drunken orgies (well, not all the time). We aren’t rebelling against our parents or God. We simply agree with Carl Sagan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

1. Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007

Jennifer McCreight is a senior in the College of Science and the president of the Society of Non-Theists (www.purduenontheists.com). She writes at the popular atheist blog www.blaghag.com and may be reached at [blaghagblog@gmail.com]*.

Major thanks to Tom, Mark, Bryan, and Jon for helping me revise it! And of course, thanks to the Non-Theists for a great three years. It's hard to believe that I won't be your President any more in a week.

*My Purdue email was printed in the paper, though I prefer that you guys email me here.

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