What beautiful light emanating from that cloud! Whatever could it be?

What beautiful light emanating from that cloud! Whatever could it be?

If there’s one thing we can say for sure, it’s that the CU Atheist and Agnostic Students Society has done a fabulous job with marketing. If you haven’t seen one of their flyers, you probably haven’t left your room in several weeks. Yesterday, though, we were interested in learning about more than just their astronomical print quotas. Wonder-bwogger Max Rettig sat with two of the AASS founders to learn about the society and its mission. 

Evan Garnick, Ben Makansi and Nadav Ben Zur are passionate and ambitious. This past spring, they took it upon themselves to fill what they saw as a gaping hole in Columbia’s religious and secular community. Religious groups, including designated centers for religious life, are in abundance at Columbia, and they often share important and interesting interfaith dialogue with each other, but Evan, Ben and Nadav saw something missing: a space for a large but largely invisible group of people like themselves who identify as secular, including atheists and agnostics. So, the three students and friends sought to create such a community and contribute to the incredible conversation that Columbia’s rich religious community already participates in.

Bwog: Tell me about the club. What is its core mission?

AASS: Columbia is home to dozens of religious communities, but there’s a large segment of the student body that identifies as non-religious, and for them there’s no home. Our core mission is to provide a community of secular students who participate in intellectual engagement and the ongoing dialogue on religion, but we also want to be a space for social cohesion.

Bwog: Why is it important to have a space for atheists, agnostics and other secular students on campus?

AASS: There is, and has been for a long time, a social stigma attached to identifying as secular. People refrain from associating with the group for many reasons associated with this stigma, such as running for public office. We want to break through common conceptions of nonbelief, examples being immorality and faithlessness. People can criticize politics, sports, cultural phenomena, but we’ve found that it’s culturally taboo to criticize religious belief, so we want to become part of the public discussion on difficult topics dealing with belief.

Bwog: What made you decide to start the club?

AASS: Last spring, we got the idea, and we’re passionate about it. We thought it would be fun to start something important up at Columbia. While we’re not yet officially recognized by CU, and are in the process of applying for that recognition, we had a table at the activities fair and got about 200 initial signups, which we were really excited over.

Bwog:  How do you think atheists and agnostics are perceived on campus?

AASS: Columbia is a pretty secular, liberal and contemporary place overall, so we haven’t had a lot of trouble in that respect. No one has really come to us and bashed or delegitimized us. Most of the concern is over creating a support community for people to express their secularism in the outside world and we’re taking steps to include that in our discussions.

Bwog: What is the general makeup of the club? What religious cultures are most represented?

AASS: We have a large group of Jewish and Hindu atheists. As founders, our biggest concern and goal is to not come off as if we’re speaking for everyone in the group. We have many diverse perspectives and a wide array of identifications that we want to give a voice to. We really strive to make the club as democratic as possible.

Bwog: What events do you have planned or are currently planning? How do you plan on getting the word out?

AASS: So far, we’ve had two official meetings, which are held on Wednesdays at 8 pm. We are currently in the works on bringing a in professor from Teacher’s College, Melanie Brewster, whose research focuses on marginalized groups such as atheists. She will be talking about her new book, Atheists in America: Narratives from an Invisible MinorityWe are also working on bringing in atheist public intellectuals; for example, in November, we will be co-sponsoring an event with Veritas that will bring an atheist professor and a Christian professor together in conversation. In terms of publicity, we have a Facebook page and a listserv, and we’ve been flyering around campus.

Bwog: What is the general purpose of the club? Are you more focused on discussion, outreach, other things?

AASS: Each meeting, we have a new discussion topic that we spend a lot of time on. This past week, we focused on the recent controversy with Bill Maher and Reza Aslan regarding Islam. We also talk a lot about argumentation and what the best methods are for religious discussion; for example, is it best to be timid and polite, or on the other extreme, loud and confrontational? We are also considering possible activism, including church-state separation.

Bwog: Who can join? Would someone who fully believes in their religion fit in?

AASS: We really make an effort to create open and respectful discussions and engage dissenters in our conversation. We try to be as welcoming as possible to anyone who wants to share their views, whether they be secularist, religious or somewhere in the middle.

Bwog: What are the primary reasons people give you for joining? Is everyone a true atheist/agnostic or do people join to have a space because they don’t identify with any religious belief at all?

AASS: Many of the people who join are conversationalists—they are looking for a forum in which to share their views. Some of our members come from backgrounds of hostility or ignorance towards their view and are looking for a support community.

Bwog: What has been the biggest challenge so far, and what are you most excited for?

AASS: Our biggest challenge has really been convincing people of our need to exist. The public often assumes that we exist to bash religion, which can be a hard notion to defeat. Another challenge we’ve faced has been, and still is, reaching out to the religious community and creating an open religious-secular dynamic on campus. We’re really excited to have more discussion and get our feet on the ground in terms of official University recognition. We’re looking forward to breaking into and generating intercultural discussion.

Ben: In addition, one thing that has definitely been difficult is continuing to express my personal views toward religion without creating the impression that they reflect the attitude or mission of our Atheist and Agnostic Students Society. Many students were skeptical of the tone and role that the group would assume on campus, thinking that maybe we just want to convert people, talk about how religion is bad, and tell religious people that they are wrong…this is not our goal. So I am constantly wary that, because I am a founder, people could assume that my individual criticisms of religion reflect the tone of the group and the direction that we want to take it. More specifically, I am wary that these perceptions could affect someone’s decision to join.

Bwog: Anything else you want to tell us?

AASS: The terms atheism and agnosticism, in and of themselves, incorporate many different belief sets. As a club, we are not interested in defining ourselves as one or the other, but letting each belief set gain exposure. Each of our members has different opinions, and we do not want to appear as if our views are representative of the entire society’s. We want to provide a formal space in which to explore difficult topics and share different views.

The Atheist and Agnostic Student Society holds meetings every Wednesday at 8 pm. Tonight’s will take place in Schermerhorn 963. The club’s Facebook page can be found here, and they can be contacted at AASSColumbia@gmail.com.

Is that a sign? via Shutterstock