Saturday, February 16, 2013

A “Godless Campus Crusade for Christ,”

This month at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a select group of students will show their humanitarian spirit by participating in the Bleedin’ Heathens Blood Drive. On February 12, they will eat cake to celebrate Darwin Day, and earlier this year, they performed “de-baptism” ceremonies to celebrate Blasphemy Day, attended a War on Christmas Party, and set up Hug An Atheist and Ask An Atheist booths in the campus quad.
Religion Dispatches
These activities and more are organized by the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA), one of 394 student groups that are affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance (SSA). “We brand ourselves as a safe place and community for students who are not religious,” says Derek Miller, a junior at Illini and president of the ISSA.
Secular groups on college campuses are proliferating. The Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance, which a USA Today writer once called a “Godless Campus Crusade for Christ,” incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001. By 2007, 80 campus groups had affiliated with them, 100 by 2008, 174 by 2009, and today there are 394 SSA student groups on campuses across the country. “We have been seeing rapid growth in the past couple of years, and it shows no sign of slowing down,” says Jesse Galef, communications director at SSA. “It used to be that we would go to campuses and encourage students to pass out flyers. Now, the students are coming to us almost faster than we can keep up with.”
The Secular Student Alliance provides its affiliate groups with support and materials, including banners, pins, and informational materials with titles like What Is An Atheist?, a brochure with cheerful graphics and information about the identities of secularists, including “non-theist,” “freethinker,” and “humanist.”
Oddly enough, in the geography of on-campus student groups, atheist organizations fit within the category of faith-based groups like the Campus Crusade For Christ, which recently (and controversially) changed its name to Cru. At Stanford University, the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) register with the Office For Religious Life, just like Cru, and are a member of Stanford Associated Religions.
“There are a lot of parallels with religious groups on campus,” says Ron Sanders, Cru’s missional team leader at Stanford.
“They have weekly meetings similar to ours, and give one another support, and they do social justice projects on campus and in the communities… I don’t know that they aren’t a faith group. They don’t have a faith in God, or in revelation or something like that, but they have faith in reason and in science, as I understand it, as a guide for human flourishing.”
“I don’t think it’s unfair to say that groups like Cru are our cultural opponents,” says Galef at SSA. “It comes down to which values we’re promoting. We are promoting values of critical thinking and acceptance.”
Conflicting values on campus have led to unsavory events. Last year at Salisbury University in Maryland, the Atheist Society took offense when Cru students chalked a verse from the Bible: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is not one who does good.” This led to a chalking counter-offensive, which escalated but ended peacefully. In 2010, secular student groups at the University of Illinois and other Midwestern schools drew controversy when they chalked images of Muhammad. After the fallout, this event led to interfaith conversations, followed by friendship and cooperation with the Muslim Student Association. They have since hosted events together and convened for pizza and board games.
“We really encourage interfaith activities,” says Sarah Kaiser, field organizer at the Center For Inquiry, an international organization that promotes “science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” As a student, Kaiser was member of the Secular Alliance at the University of Indiana. Her group raised money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through a “Send An Atheist To Church” tabling event. The atheists put out cups for each of the campus’ religious groups, and whichever cup raised the most money determined which church the atheists would attend as an interfaith educational activity.
The Muslim Student Union’s cup received the most donations, so the atheists attended mosque.
The Unstoppable Secular Students
The Secular Student Alliance is essentially a support network for the autonomous atheist, agnostic, and humanist student groups that choose to be its affiliates. The rapid growth of the SSA is analogue to the general growth of the American secular movement. Atheist groups were once fringe organizations that didn’t get along. That began to change around 2007, on the heels of bestselling books from atheist authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Suddenly, the movement had leaders, a sense of direction and a common purpose. Today, the Secular Coalition For America is an umbrella lobbyist group for a number of once-competing groups, including American Atheists, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the American Humanist Association.
These “adult” organizations support the growth of campus groups. American Atheists offers scholarships to student activists, noting that “special attention is given to those students who show activism specifically in their schools.” The American Humanist Association provides support to campus groups, as does the Richard Dawkins Foundation and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Increasingly, students who are active in SSA groups continue with the movement after college. “The dynamic of being in a [secular] college student group translates so well into national advocacy and lobbying,” says Kelly Damerow, research and advocacy manager at the Secular Coalition For America.
The Center For Inquiry, like the Secular Student Alliance, has college campus group affiliates. “Groups can co-affiliate, and most affiliate with both of us,” says Kaiser. Cody Hashman, also a field organizer at the Center For Inquiry, says many campus activities focus on activism training. “We give them advice on how to implement activism campaigns, resources on service projects, and help with putting on book tours for non-religious authors,” Hashman says. “Every summer we have a leadership conference where we train students on how to organize their group, manage volunteers, how to talk to the media, how to send a press release, how to make posters.”
National organizations, particularly the Secular Coalition For America, are primarily concerned with lobbying in Washington over First Amendment church/state and freedom of religion (and of non-religion) issues. But the anti-religious (or “antitheist”) thread within the secular movement is difficult to ignore and implicit in the names of some of the organizations, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Foundation Beyond Belief, and, of course, the Pastafarians, an atheist group worshipping under the parody Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Skeptics and Atheists Network at East Tennessee State University rather pointedly calls itself S.A.N.E.
“We do a lot of interfaith activities if they align with our humanist values, but the one thing we never compromise on is our right and responsibility to criticize bad ideas,” says Miller at ISSA. “When you assume a supernatural world, that is a train of thought that does not have a basis. When you start from that, you will automatically lead yourself to a bad idea.”
A recent SSA presentation entitled “The Unstoppable Secular Students” compared SSA to Cru. Cru takes in $500 million a year, while SSA takes in $998,000; Cru has three paid staff members per 1 campus group, while SSA has 78 campus groups per 1 adult organizer. And yet Cru is growing at a rate of 16 per cent while SSA is growing at a rate of 116 per cent. The presentation concludes:
“Cru has a massively larger budget, the majority of the U.S. population to draw from (76% Christian), an organized political voting bloc to give them politicians and laws and supreme court justices in their favor. But they are losing in the cultural war. The secular students are winning, and they are unstoppable!”
This hawkish stance is understandable in light of Cru’s rather unilateral mission statement: “Win, build, and send Christ-centered multiplying disciples who launch spiritual movements.” No doubt many student secular groups hope to find those freshman questioning their faith and prevent them from becoming multiplying disciples. “As the secular students clear up misconceptions about what it means to be secular, I feel that more students will leave their faith,” says Galef.
Most campus groups are more concerned with strengthening the community, visibility, and tolerance of secularists than engaging in the cultural war. Hashman at the Center For Inquiry says that some students come from homes and communities where they have to hide their secular identity, and secular student groups become an important community for them. “It has now become more acceptable for people to state that they are questioning or no longer religious” says Hashman. “We are dedicated to free inquiry and freedom of expression, and that can come off as abrasive, but we believe it necessary for a free and democratic society.”

In the past few years, the number of affiliated student secular organizations has increased more than threefold

Life is the result of our choices  non_believers_taking_college_campuses_by_storm_

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How do you explain drone killings? -With post-Orwellian “Newspeak”

John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee struck many observers as a small but significant step in the direction of openness, a chink in the armor of secrecy that the last two presidential administrations have erected around the “war on terror.” Maybe that will turn out to be correct, and the incoming CIA director – the principal architect of President Obama’s drone war, and until recently a defender of rendition and “enhanced interrogation” – will launch a new era of transparency in Langley. While we wait for that, would you like to see this bridge I've got for sale in Brooklyn?

Indeed, watching the Brennan hearing, and then struggling through the troubling Justice Department “white paper” spelling out the legal justification for the drone killings of American citizens (which was recently acquired and released by NBC News), left me with quite a different feeling. In large part, this was the feeling that our government’s imperial creep continues uninterrupted, that most people simply don’t care (irrespective of their supposed political views) and that almost everyone involved in this charade, especially those of us in the media who are supposed to serve as the watchdogs, has agreed to ignore the most obvious and glaring questions.

Beyond all that, and to a large extent underlying it, there is also the post-Orwellian creep of our language, and of all public discourse, towards emptiness. What Orwell described was a phenomenon distinct to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the abrupt replacement of ordinary language with a propagandistic and bureaucratic Newspeak designed to make ideological resistance impossible. In the electoral dictatorship now developing in the United States – and no, that isn't a contradiction in terms – you can find sterling examples of such Newspeak and doublethink. But the most prominent American version, which I’m calling post-Orwellian, is subtler: Ordinary words whose meanings seem clear enough on the surface, such as “war” or “enemy” or “self-defense” or “imminent” (not to mention the ever-fraught “terrorism”) turn out not to mean anything at all, or to be legalistic terms of art with endlessly expansive frames of reference.

If this is starting to sound too much like a graduate seminar in literary theory, let’s remember that the real subject here is an amorphous 12-year war conducted largely in secret by two presidential administrations from opposing parties. Its result, if not its true purpose, has been the creation of an invisible and unaccountable national-security state apparatus and the consolidation of immense and unprecedented power in the executive branch. If the Bush administration claimed the right to detain and torture anyone it wanted to at “black sites” in insalubrious parts of the world, the Obama administration has arguably gone even further, claiming the right to kill anyone anywhere whom it deems to be an enemy combatant, including United States citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, with long-range drone strikes piloted from afar.

Historians, political scientists and policy analysts will be hashing out the rights and wrongs of these issues for years to come, and there’s no denying that one reason we elect presidents is to entrust them with decisions that cannot realistically be made in public. But the combination of imperial creep and linguistic creep, and the reflexive America-first jingoism of almost all public discourse, even among so-called liberals, makes it difficult even to ask certain kinds of questions without seeming dim or embarrassing. Why, for instance, does the United States, and only the United States, possess the authority to treat the entire developing world as a war zone and rain high-tech death from above on villages in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and other places so classified we don’t know about them yet? (Some sources suggest that upwards of 3,000 alleged al-Qaeda militants have been killed by drone strikes in those places during Obama’s presidency, along with several hundred civilians.)

I suppose to some people the answer seems self-evident, and I don’t want to sound hopelessly naive: Yes, the U.S. is the world’s only military superpower at the moment, yada yada. But, seriously, try to imagine what would happen if the Chinese or the Iranians started routinely blowing up people they didn’t like in countries thousands of miles away, randomly killing civilians by the dozens along the way. Every senator on that committee would give birth to multiple litters of kittens, call for the launching of World War III, and immediately pass laws granting the president unlimited war powers into the indefinite future. (OK, they already did that, pretty much.) The rhetoric of American exceptionalism, and in particular the idea that American military force is indispensable to world order and no longer needs to respect old-fashioned ideas about national sovereignty or what a war is or how we define the enemy – none of that is ever questioned, or even comes up.

A long time ago in a different context, Joan Didion observed that the reporter’s job was to “observe the observable.” What I observed on Thursday was that Brennan’s appearance before the committee, and his garrulous New Jerseyite act, made for effective political theater, but that its effectiveness had more to do with the semiotics of the event than with what was actually said. (I’m definitely never playing cards for money with that guy.) Specifically, the hearing was a show of faux-deference to legislative authority by an emissary from the imperial palace, which left the senators almost cravenly grateful for a few scraps of information and noncommittal promises of future cooperation. (I didn't register which Republican senator used up his time by chatting about Chris Christie and complimenting Brennan’s wife.) Sure, a few of them complained, but everybody in that room understood that once Brennan is confirmed, the committee will be lucky to get a Hallmark card out of him next Christmas.

Brennan gave a cool performance, in both the ordinary sense and the Marshall McLuhan sense, and remained unflappable in the face of “hot” Code Pink protesters who disrupted the proceedings, calling him a war criminal and listing the names of children killed by drones. While the protesters rapidly became part of the spectacle’s colorful background, Brennan stuck to the leading role of a grownup who understands the nature of reality when others do not. You could even say he was there to define reality, an ultimate exercise in imperial power. Sounding eerily like Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara circa 1969, Brennan calmly explained that many of us misunderstood the CIA’s good intentions, and failed to appreciate “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths.”

In fairness, we heard a few extraordinary things said about topics that are almost never discussed in open congressional session. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., almost the only Senate Democrat willing to criticize President Obama on civil liberties, told Brennan, “Every American has the right to know when their government believes it’s allowed to kill them.” (The director-designate did not respond directly.) Newly elected Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, suggested that the CIA’s drone-targeting decisions should be subject to judicial review, as espionage warrants are. King’s Maine colleague Susan Collins, arguably the Senate’s last moderate Republican, actually challenged the effectiveness, if not the underlying morality, of the drone war: “If the cancer of al-Qaeda is metastasizing, do we need a new treatment?”

Life is the result of our choices