BlagHag Blogathon

Jen McCreight at BlagHag is getting ready for another Blogathon, making this her third annual fund raiser for a great student organization, the Secular Student Alliance. Once an hour, for twenty-four hours, starting 7am PST this Saturday (July 23, 2011), she will be putting up a new post. This won’t be autoposting, but an exercise in Jen driving herself insane.

Run over and donate before midnight tonight if you want to see what Jen has to say about a topic you choose, if you pitch in some serious change, of course.

Though this year I’ll start a new incentive: The people who make the top ten largest donations before 12:01am on Friday the 22nd will get to request a topic they want me to write about.

I’m assuming that the cutoff point for this will be PST, since Jen is enjoying Seattle’s weather, which I am certain is better than Lexington’s right now, so you may still have some time. And if you donate five dollars or more , you will be put in a raffle for one of eight autographed copies of Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain. I don’t know when the cutoff for that raffle will be.

I first became aware of the SSA a few years ago when one of my favorite science bloggers, PZ Myers of Pharyngula was going to be speaking at their yearly conference. Since Columbus Ohio was the closest he would be to central Kentucky that year, I decided to go hear one of my favorite evo devo writers. It was clear that these students were working to make their campuses a better place on multiple levels, not all of which were immediately obvious.

So, why is the SSA a good organization? Non-theists don’t exactly get a lot of good press. Why should colleges, universities and even high schools not only welcome but hope to have a secular student group on their campus?

Let’s start with a look at this from the point of view of the administration.

First, students are a revenue stream for any school, and of American students, those listing themselves as having a religious preference of “none” makes up between 10 and 20 percent, depending on which poll you read. Some of the Nones just don’t care about religion, some are “spiritual, but not religious” and these probably won’t be the demographic that this group targets, but some sizable portion of this group falls into some variation of agnostic or atheist.

A school that supports religious (or non-religious) minority groups is automatically more welcoming to these Nones. Recruiting said students becomes a little easier, while even more importantly, retaining these students becomes infinitely simpler.

Since you can’t tell who is a non-theist by sight, assume that the Nones can’t either. This minority often becomes withdrawn and finds campus life more difficult. The presence of a secular group helps to bring these students together, letting them know that even as a small minority, they aren’t alone. If you belonged to a religious student group, you know that this peer group was an important safety net and part of your day to day life. Making this opportunity available for every student falls into the “good things” category. Don’t forget that happy students are more likely to become happy future donors.

One of my most promising students in the last few years came to me one day, asking for a letter of recommendation. This is normally a good thing, as the student is moving on to bigger and better things, employment, graduate school, etc. This wasn’t quite so good. He was in the process of transferring to another school. A top rate student left because he couldn’t find anybody that shared his beliefs or even was welcome to hearing them without it being an invitation to proselytize him. I am certain that he was not alone, but without a chance to meet other non-religious students, a school that had absolutely everything that he wanted but social interaction with people like himself… it was just not good enough.

Second, for students that are struggling with their faith, the chance to meet others that have faced or are facing the same questions is important. Coming to terms with their emotions and thoughts helps to make one of the most stressful times of a person’s life, their school years, much better. Some students will decide that they believe, while others don’t. A school with a religious mission or affiliation should encourage spiritual growth, even if it isn’t in the direction that they prefer. Free will is after all, free, barring toxoplasmosis.

Third, without any real effort on your part, you can increase conversation between religious groups on campus. As long as things stay reasonably respectful, the students will do everything on their own. One’s years as a student are a time to be exposed to people different from what you are comfortable with, to widen one’s life experiences and prepare a student for the workplace, where discrimination will get you fired. Think of it this way, exposure to those that hold views and beliefs that are not your own as actual people can help you learn to respond positively, if not at least neutrally to those people. This will make your graduates much better person to work with or for.

At the end of the day, students learn from each other as much as they do from their professors. A Catholic student and a Baptist student may learn that they differ a bit here and there, but probably won’t learn why such things as Pascal’s wager are bad arguments. If they offer Pascal’s wager to a None, you can be sure that they will get a challenging and enlightening conversation (of course, some of the more philosophical or critically minded students will also tear it apart, believer or not). They will come to understand their faith and religion better through this discussion.

Here is the rough part for administrators. If you are a public institution, you can’t say no without shutting every other campus group down. Discriminating against any student group that focuses on religious discussion is a case you can’t win in court and such a fight will only drain you of funds that could actually be used for education. Private institutions are relatively free to discriminate on such matters, but that can lead to bad publicity and hurt feelings among your faculty and staff. Weigh the costs and benefits carefully.

From a professor’s point of view, when a student comes to you asking for advice on things that are troubling them, you now have a peer group to refer your student to. An open and supportive campus and classroom environment makes the teaching process much easier. Students that have a supportive campus life will be better prepared to learn when they come to the classroom. You can’t ask for more than that.

If you are religious, why should you support a group that so plainly disagrees with your core beliefs? For the same reasons that straight people should support LGBT rights, or why one religious group should support another’s First Amendment rights. Helping students, helping people is the decent thing to do.

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