Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How to start an Atheist club at your College

Last semester, Philosophychick and I started the Atheist and Freethought club of ETSU. We’ve been pretty successful, with several dozen members and lots of fun activities. Recently, many people have been asking me for advice on starting their own atheist clubs at their schools. I don’t have any special expertise, but I can tell you what worked for us. I’ve decided to put my general advice down in this blog post, although anyone is still welcome to contact me to ask more questions.

1. Know the rules. The first thing to do is investigate the procedure for starting an officially registered club. Look on your school website or go to the student organization resource center to get the forms. You will likely need a faculty advisor. The best thing to do is ask a professor you know well and promise them that you’ll do all the work and that you will not contribute to their load. If you don’t know any professors well enough, ask around the Philosophy Department to see if anyone is interested. That’s always a hotbed of atheists. :) You may also have to write up a constitution and have meetings, so be prepared to wait for approval. In the meantime, use facebook and friends to drum up interest and maybe even have some “unofficial” gatherings.

2. Use your resources. Get to know the secretaries and administrators in the resource center. Find out the procedures for getting funding. Learn about the “goodies” your club is entitled to, such as copies, meeting space, website etc…

3. Facebook. A presence on facebook is absolutely essential to getting members. Make a group for your school, invite your friends, and use it to announce your events and meetings. Use the advanced search to find people at your school who put “atheist” as their religion and message them about the new club starting.

4. Fliers. Not everyone is on facebook, so you also need to reach people on campus as they walk around. You may have to have fliers approved and stamped before they can be posted. It is best to cover as many buildings as you can. Be sure to heavily cover the Student Center and science buildings. Check your fliers frequently because they will be torn down. We have had to replace them multiple times a day in some cases before the culprit got the message that we weren’t backing down.

5. First Meeting. At the first meeting, be sure to get the contact information for all the members. Another important thing to do is find out what activities the club members are interested in and what they want the club to be. One fun icebreaker is to have everyone give their “testimony.” In my group, we found that about half of the members had been raised nonreligious and the other half had been raised very fundie Christian. The makeup of your group will determine the dynamics and “flavor” of it. For example, in my experience, the ex-christians seem to be very interested in a supportive social community, and the born and raised atheists seem to be more activism-oriented. YMMV.

6. Information booths. A great way to recruit potential members and educate other students is to have an information booth. Through your resource center, you can usually reserve a booth or table in the student center, quad, or other heavily trafficked area. Have a big, flashy sign, give out candy and pamphlets, and just talk to people who come over. You may get some fundies, but that’s the fun part. Free pamphlets can be found here.

7. Affiliate. CFI, the Secular Student Alliance and other groups have great resources you can use. Also, don’t be afraid of the religious student organizations. You could partner with them to bring speakers to debate about atheism and/or evolution. As most atheists are also for equal rights for gays and lesbians, let your schools’ GLBT group know you support them. Also, be sure to spread the word about the Atheist Experience and Non-Prophets!

8. Activities. Once you have a club started, you need things to do. Examples include social nights at restaurants, movie nights (Jesus camp, Expelled, Dawkins documentaries), bringing speakers to campus, etc…

9. Have fun! It’s easy to get bogged down in the details and administration of the club and forget the reason you started it in the first place, so be sure to make friends and have fun.

Good luck to everyone who starts a club, and if you have any other tips, put them in comments or send them to me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Anti-Atheism and Teaching

As many of you know, I am a graduate assistant at my university, and this entails teaching intro microbiology lab classes. Over Christmas break, I became aware that I actually had a profile on There were 2 ratings, one that was glowing and one that was not. The one that was not was chock-full of lies. It said something to the effect of “This crazy girl doesn’t believe in god, is always inviting you to her stupid atheist club, and she doesn’t know how to bring microbiology down to a normal person’s level.” I was more than a little pissed off because this person was mostly denigrating my beliefs, not my teaching, and because it is untrue that I proselytize in the classroom. I had my suspicions on who it might be and what their problem is.

Remember “Jim” from this post? Jim was in my class last spring semester. He wasn’t a good student and was a very heavy partier. I happened to see him on one occasion during fall semester because he was in my building retaking the class from a colleague. When I casually mentioned the atheist club, he went into debate mode, the details of which are in the previous post. He promised to have a talk with me again, but he never did. I think he knew he was pretty well beaten in the debate. As far as I know, he is the only student that knows I am an atheist because I have never brought it up in class. At the end of last semester, my colleague informed me that he failed the class again. I also saw on facebook that he had some relationship troubles as well. My theory is that he is angry due to his own (mostly self-inflicted) problems and that the rate my professors page was merely an easy target.

Because of the untruth of his post, I flagged the rating and it was removed from the site. However, it got me thinking about the possible consequences of being out at school. My advisor had seen me debating with Jim in the hallway and later cautioned me about proselytizing to students, until I told him that Jim wasn’t currently my student. My advisor is a devout Hindu who frequently debates atheism with me and feels that my group is not necessary since we “don’t believe in anything,” so his bias would likely be a bit skewed against me if the issue came up again with a new student. As the president of the Atheist and Freethought Club, I have to be out and outspoken. In February, there is something called “Winter Cruise.” This is where all the student organizations have booths in the student center for recruitment and fundraising. We will be giving out pamphlets and candy and probably fielding some debate as well. In the hundreds of people that file by our booth, there will be former, current, and future students who will learn of my atheism. An anonymous comment on a website is nothing, but a stronger accusation could cause a problem for me even if I was eventually cleared. A student could do this because they were mad about their grade, or simply because they’re an anti-atheist bigot. It’s appalling to me that in this part of the country a teacher could wear a cross and Christian t-shirts to class and be the president of a Christian club with little fear of consequences even if they do proselytize.

Despite Jim’s (or whoever's) little online hissy fit, I have decided that I will not stop working with my club or being open with my beliefs when appropriate. As a graduate student, I am both fully teacher and student, and I do have rights, spelled out in the school rules as well as the Constitution. I will be out and proud and I will try to be an effective president of my club. I will remain scrupulously neutral in the classroom, but I will not be afraid to be me outside of it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone! I know it's a little late, but I've been pretty busy. I spent Christmas with my family, which was fun, even if there was way too much Jesus for my taste. I've just gotten back from a New Year's trip to Austin, where I had a great time with ACA folks.

I'm also proud of knitting an FSM toy for the Atheist Experience show as seen in this video. And no, I don't have time to make and sell these. You can find a pattern for making it yourself here.


Here's hoping everyone has a great 2009!