Friday, October 9, 2015

SSA Development: A Closer Look At Diversity

Many organizations and movements struggle with inclusivity, at some point. But secular organizations, in particular the national affiliate SSA, are having a uniquely difficult time catching up. While on an individual basis members and faculty and staff may be ethical, prepared for meetings, and generally respectful, there are a variety of privilege oversights which occur. Why do they occur? Well, currently, over 82% of those who identify as atheist or agnostic are white, and of that percentage, 56% identify as male (which is 8% higher than the general public). Which makes one wonder, how has this discrepancy prevailed?

While it may be simple to conclude, “Well, of course it must be lack of access to higher education for under-represented groups!” such a statement isn’t necessarily accurate. According to a Pew Research Center report conducted a couple years ago, the groups with the highest rating of “HS Grad or Less” were Black Protestants (50% of respondents) and Hispanic Catholics (71%). Across all other groups, the ratios were roughly the same, or at least, their variance wasn’t statistically significant. Only those who explicitly identify as atheist or agnostic (instead of unaffiliated or nothing in particular) had the lowest population for that category - at 26%. The percentage of those who identify as atheist or agnostic as well as Black is 3%; Hispanic 6%; and Asian 4%; but the percentage of Black, Hispanic, and Asian unaffiliated and nothing in particular individuals is actually close to or above the general public percentile (the rate expected to be found in a given population).

What this indicates is educational status is not a predictor for religiosity, and neither is race. At least, insofar as this survey demographic goes. There could be a generational gap we are not able to factor in at the moment, but regardless the data is fairly straightforward when we're considering current student affairs.

These trends indicate that people in leadership of secular organizations are failing to address the needs of people of color and provide due representation. While it is getting better, take a look at the SSA Staff and Board. Of course, people can be all forms of different - gender, orientation, class, political leaning, neurodiversity, and disability are all elements that should be evaluated - but the majority also happen to be white.

This is just one example, but SSA does stand to improve on past mistakes and could benefit from developing resources that critically examine these disconnects.

SSA groups have a variety of options, but they mostly entail being conscientious and beginning a dialogue. Actions and dictions of those privileged by race, gender, orientation, ability, and class (etc) often on occasion have the unintended consequence of marginalizing people who want to be active in secular spaces. In my time with ISSA, I’ve dealt with a bit of misogyny and ableism, trans slurs, general outbursts, and questionable practices in addition to desperately-needing-revision application forms. Not even strictly within our RSO have I encountered tall and scary walls. In the community as a whole, it can be a quagmire of misconceptions and lapses in realism. In the past six months I've witnessed considerable growth and an impetus to take responsibility and make amends, collectively, so I don't fear the future: I expect the future to start now.

Everyone transgresses. But everyone can do better. We can make this happen by loudly and directly taking control of the conversation. Derail it when you have to. Sometimes this means telling the white hetero cis male privilege cheerleader in the front row to sit down. Criticism engenders trust, and it is not an attack, even if they may feel that it is.

My internship training, peer guidance, and the wonderfully nuanced education I’ve been so lucky to receive have helped me to draft a few recommendations to SSA chapters broadly (but this is practical for any RSO), in the hopes that we all learn how to eradicate and/or address issues before they snowball:

  1. Look over your officer applications and paperwork. Are you using appropriate terminology? If you ever have any doubts but want feedback, use sentences like, “How can we be more welcoming?” and “How can we be more representative?”
  2. When hosting meetings and events, do not assume what someone’s pronouns are. Until you receive verification or have a chance to ask privately; ask what their name is, and if the context doesn’t allow, make tentative use of: they, their, theirs.
  3. Post flyers in common areas of foot traffic, yes, but also consider hanging them in cultural houses, resource centers, and commercial ventures (with consent).
  4. Seek co-hosting opportunities with other RSOs, especially when a talk is intersectional. Example: If your speaker is a known secular humanist and queer feminist, reach out to LGBTQIA2P+ organizations.
  5. Be compassionate, but do not tolerate instances of bigotry from members or officers. Begin a system of documentation and schedule mediation if necessary. Designing a formal complaint template may assist in the process. (Note: this should be reserved for significant problems, not a failing to agree on a debated subject). You may add these mandates to your constitution and/or bylaws.
  6. Advocate and adopt transparency in all your dealings. The honesty will aid in preventing hurt feelings during discussions. Aside from that, understand that as an organization you should provide brief and clear explanations for any actions members find troubling, unexpected, or dubious.
  7. Hyperlink an anonymous suggestions box in email correspondences (or use paper if that’s more your thing). Websites like are immensely user-friendly. Conducting an open forum, wherein members and others can come speak about whatever might be upsetting them about the culture at large or what they would like to see accomplished is also a good route to take. Make sure the officer core is not insular.
  8. Participate in interfaith, human rights campaigns, and workshops in the area. Stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter and other movements. Your absence as a group may not be evidence of complicity, but it does drastically reduce your ability to effectively work with new people who are educated in other arenas of thought and activism.
  9. Make sure that your meeting location is accessible for all, whether it be a matter of building accommodations or the content. By accessibility, I also mean: proof your presentations to avoid microaggressions and factual errors.
  10. Develop a system in which you move away from using hierarchical language; as in, create roles for officers that accurately represent what they can do such that no one has more power in executive decision making than another, and do not hold officers to completing tasks that are not part of their core obligations.

And as always, Hail Satan.

Disclaimer: Only race categories used by Pew Research Center were used as part of documenting social changes in this blog. They should not be taken to be all encompassing of ethnic identities. Also, please note that "Hispanic" refers to individuals who speak Spanish in the United States. These individuals may have varying descents. Latinx is used to denote a person who is from a Latin American country.

Monday, April 27, 2015

ISSA Needs You

Every summer, the Secular Student Alliance hosts a summer conference for students, activists, and community leaders to attend in order to keep people informed about current secular topics, and to help train secular leaders. ISSA has traditionally sent members and officers to the SSA conference every year, and we leave with great tools for organizing a secular group, connections to other organizations, and a strengthened group.  We always look forward to attending the SSA conference, but this year we need your help. This year ISSA doesn't have the funds to send officers to the SSA conference so we're asking for your support.

Last summer the conference included a talk from Katelyn Campbell about her experience speaking out about a slut-shaming abstinence-only assembly held at her high school, a workshop about how to debate run by Danielle Muscato, and talks about interfaith work, recovering from religion, group organization tools, and more. Two of ISSA’s very own also gave their own talks. Rebecca Surroz, former Vice President of ISSA spoke about creating a safe space for women in secular groups. Former ISSA officer Justin Tanaka gave a talk about how to fundraise through benefit concerts. Aside from learning about secular issues and gaining tools for running a secular club, ISSA also got the opportunity to connect with other campus groups and meet a lot of great people. The conference was an enriching experience that definitely helped ISSA grow.

This year the conference includes workshop training for setting up a Secular Safe Zone, talks about inclusivity in secular groups, tips for participating in secular activism, and a workshop run by Darrel Ray to help group leadership and communication skills. This summer’s annual conference is July 10th-12th at Ohio State University. If you’d like to learn more information or are interested in registering, you can do so here.

We’d like to send four ISSA officers to the conference this summer, and with registration costing $100 per person, we need $400 to get them there. If you’d like to donate $5-$30, or anything you feel comfortable giving, you can do so at The conference has always been a great way for ISSA to grow as an organization, and we hope that we will be able to attend this summer.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ask an Atheist

This Thursday, April 16th, is National Ask an Atheist Day. ISSA will be out on the Quad once again answering any questions the curious masses may have. It is a chance for our organization to put faces to atheism and, hopefully, break down the barriers to allow for an open dialogue. On Thursday, we'll take the time to reach out to the public and explain our point of view. As the event approaches, I thought it would be nice to revisit my experience from last year.

The best part of the event last year for me was the opportunity to share my point of view. The secular community comes from all walks of life and backgrounds. Since I spent most of my life in the "atheist closet", it was very freeing to openly talk about my journey. I was able to engage people who genuinely wanted to know why I left religion. The participants were able to express why they still believed and ask me to explain my stance on those beliefs.

Ask an Atheist Day also gave me the chance to learn more about my fellow ISSA members. We would occasionally talk to a group and explain personal experiences. I had the opportunity to talk to some of the members who do not frequent the meetings and learn about their background. It was interesting to see some of the parallels in the stories we shared.

As this year's event nears, I have some wishes for the day. I hope that we can reach out to the campus and help dis-spell the stereotypes of the internet atheists. I hope we can bond as a group and really learn more about each other. I hope that we can potentially find new members who may not know we exist. Lastly, I hope that we can open the floor for a discussion between groups of various religious backgrounds to help people understand each other better.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Nature of Naturopathy

Once in a while, the famous Facebook page I Fucking Love Science (IFLS) will post a meme or link condemning the pseudoscientific, such as this venn diagram:

When this particular meme was posted, the comments section was filled with confusion and outrage over the inclusion of chiropractic therapy. Many people said the practice saved them from having to undergo surgery or that it relieved chronic aches and pains which had plagued them for years. How could this popular, respected science page condemn a legitimate field of medicine that had helped so many? As my father is a chiropractor and has run his own small practice for years, my opinion of IFLS soured slightly whenever they posted something that painted chiropractics in a negative light.

Yet, I am committed to following the evidence wherever it leads, and the evidence has led me to some inconvenient conclusions about the realities of chiropractic. I started to become suspicious when I learned about the claims of homeopathy - a field my dad had spoken highly of in the past. I had always looked to my father as a source of knowledge on all things related to health and wellness, so I was shocked not only when I learned of the nature of homeopathy, but also when my father confirmed his support of it. He was very disappointed and confused when I told him I didn’t believe it was real. I told him about the friends I had met in college who had explained homeopathy to me and he couldn’t understand what motives these people could possibly have. They didn’t even work for “Big Pharma.”

For me, this was when the whole mountain of bullshit started to crumble. Once while driving me home for a break from school, he told me that my atheistic position had already been discredited nearly a century ago by D.D. Palmer - the founder of chiropractic. My father explained that the core idea of his profession was that there is an “innate intelligence” in all life and in all things. This intelligence was universal and god-like. He said this force kept all of life in balance. Apparently, the body “knows” how to take care of itself, and chiropractors simply help the body to do what it was designed to do. He described Palmer as “probably insane,” but said many great scientists were also “a little off.” He told me to research the “33 Principles of Chiropractic” for myself to better explain what he was talking about. He told me that these principles were listed in the very chiropractic textbook he studied in chiropractic college.

I googled these principles that night. What I found was outright depressing. The amount of nonsense I read in five minutes was so staggering I couldn’t even react big enough. These 33 concepts were loaded with phrases like:
In order to have 100% Life, there must be 100% Intelligence, 100% Force, 100% Matter.


I wondered if there was any point in trying to talk to my dad about what I had found online. Was anyone who could read sentences like that and not catch the slightest whiff of bullshit worth trying to reason with? I eventually decided the answer was “no.” Through further research, I learned that Palmer (an active spiritist and magnetic healer) claimed not to have ‘discovered’ chiropractic per se, but that he “received it from the other world” from a deceased physician. I also found that early chiropractics had a faith-based aspect and that Palmer had many connections to various forms of pseudoscience.

My entire life I had been told that ‘alternative medicine’ had so much to give to the world, but it was being oppressed by conspiracies from the mainstream medical community. This was so the “allopaths” (the ones one might refer to as “real doctors”) could keep their monopoly on the medical field and push the “naturopaths” (homeopaths, acupuncturists, chiropractors etc.) out of existence. I believed this for the majority of my life, but a little research tore that belief to shreds very quickly.

The aforementioned diagram got by far the most heat for its inclusion of chiropractic, with far fewer commenters defending homeopathy, acupuncture, and other additions. Chiropractic seems to have helped many people. I know that whenever I was having back or neck pain, the typical adjustment from my dad left me feeling much better for at least a few days. People would stumble into his office barely able to walk due to back pain and leave upright and beaming with relief. Former patients of his have traveled from other states just to be treated by him once. There must be something going on here, right? Something... good?

Research has shown chiropractic to be a generally safe and effective treatment for acute lower back pain, neck pain, and headaches. It may also be moderately effective in treating osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. However, many smaller caveats are untested and there is potential for harm. In rare cases, manipulation of the neck can injure the spinal cord or overstretch the arteries of the neck, causing a stroke.

There are other treatments used by chiropractors and similar practitioners that seem less than scientific. For example, my dad also uses an “Energy Balancing System” called the EB PRO in his office. This device was “designed and developed to restore the body’s balance and energy levels through exposure to an ion field.” The patient sits in a chair and places their bare feet in an ankle deep container of water. Salt is added to the water as a catalyst. Then “the array” is placed into the water.
The array is small and cylindrical. It is attached by a wire to the EB PRO itself, where various buttons allow its use. According to the manufacturer’s website, the array creates an ion field by splitting the water molecules that pass through it, creating an “ion field.” This ion field is said to be therapeutic and to pull heavy metals and other impurities from the body through the pores of the feet. Iron, zinc, and copper erode from the metal coils of the array and form new compounds in the water.

Having seen many “foot baths” in person and having had one myself, I know that thin clumps of a light brown solution begin to float on the surface of the water after a few minutes. By the time the treatment is over, after about 20 minutes or so, the water is thick with this strange substance. It looks a little bit like very fine sand. In my dad’s office, it is at least implied that this…“brown stuff” is all the bad stuff this machine removed from the body through the feet. I cannot prove this is not what’s happening, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the information provided on this product’s website is lacking at best. It makes me wonder if my dad realizes the dearth of information concerning this device. Meanwhile, the total cost of the EB PRO and the stand it sits on is about $3400.

The EB PRO isn’t the only thing in his small practice that reeks of pseudoscience either. A bookshelf behind the front desk includes several books on homeopathy and one or two books by the medical con(victed) artist Kevin Trudeau. My dad sells various herbal and dietary supplements over the counter as well. Some of them seem to have merit, but a couple of the newer ones are obviously junk. One promises to “deliver oxygen directly to the cells,” just by adding a few drops of liquid to a glass of water each morning. Of course, “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” is written in the smallest of print at the bottom of the bottle’s label.

My father also used to own two lasers that were said to speed healing and treat a variety of ailments. To this day, I do not know that these devices were complete garbage, but they were made by the same company as the EB PRO and simply seemed far-fetched. I once saw an old man sitting in an exam room with one of the lasers aimed onto his shoulder in an attempt at pain relief or faster healing. He sat motionless for about fifteen minutes with two streaks of dull red light streaked across his bare shoulder. I remember being skeptical that anything effective was actually taking place. The lasers were eventually retired due to a lack of enthusiasm from patients.

With its handful of proven benefits and its close relationship with nonsense, how should we feel about chiropractic? My father prides himself on being the type of chiropractor who doesn’t screw people over. Based on what I hear from him, I think he’s telling the truth to a certain degree. He charges a modest rate and spends time with his patients to isolate the problems they're facing. This is compared with chiropractors who charge up to $100 for a few one-size-fits-all adjustments and get someone in and out in five minutes. My dad seems to genuinely care if his patients improve. That being said, he also refers patients to homeopaths, discourages certain vaccinations, and preaches a slight hostility to conventional medicine without much factual basis to back it up. If one small practice contains so many red flags, and that practice is an example of one of the good ones, should we give them any credit at all?

I say with extreme caution that we should. Perhaps I’m biased, but seems to me that in his batshit craziness, D.D. Palmer accidentally discovered something that helps people. If a chiropractor has helped you with back or neck pain in the past, I say put up a wall of skepticism and visit one. When you strip away the bunk, chiropractic serves a very small facet of medicine that is also attainable by physical therapists and conventional doctors. Yet, the smallness of that facet has allowed them to specialize in it and become particularly good at it. If the majority can put chiropractic in perspective, I predict it will eventually die out or be reformed to a more scientific approach. Whether or not its days are numbered, its connection to pseudoscience doesn’t mean we can’t reap the few benefits while also flatly rejecting the lunacy.

Special thanks to Mat King for editing this post.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Can Atheists Be Elected to National Office?

A recent poll by ABC News/Beliefnet found that 83 percent of Americans identify as Christians; 13 percent are religiously unaffiliated, and 4 percent adhere to othernon-Christian religions.  The vast majority of Americans are Christians, and for many, Christianity is tied to their national identity as Americans. A few weeks ago, Public Policy Polling reported that 57 percent of Republicans favored officially making the United States a Christian nation. In 2007, a survey by the First Amendment Center showed that 55 percent ofAmericans believed it already was one! Christianity’s profound impact on our political system is undeniable, and this begs the questions—can atheists get elected to national office? Have they been elected in the past, and with what frequency?

"In God We Trust" above the center of the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives

Atheists are among the least trusted groups in America.  A study by the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon found that atheists in America are commonly viewed to be no more trustworthy than rapists.  In a USA Today article, Tom Krattenmaker writes, “Whether it's because some consider their atheism, agnosticism or indifference a deal-breaker and don't even try for office, or whether it's because some non-religious candidates fudge the truth for political viability, this much seems clear: Candidates have to at least feign some religiosity to qualify for prominent political office, despite our Constitution forbidding religion tests of this sort. And atheism and related forms of non-belief are about the worst thing a candidate can be associated with.”  There have been several atheists in Congress in the past. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) both who left office in 2013 "came out" as atheists after leaving Congress.   There currently isn’t a single admitted atheist/secularist in Congress.  How could 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate be almost entirely Christian? The negative correlation between religiosity and education/income level is well-documented—the more educated someone is, the less likely it is that they are religious. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, 93% of House Members and 99% of Senators hold at least a bachelor’s degree; in addition, 48% of House members and 60% of Senators hold an advanced degree.  And yet, none of them claim to be atheists.  This is NOT to say that one cannot be simultaneously educated and religious. However, statistically it’s extraordinarily improbable that there are no atheists/secularists in such an affluent, highly educated group of people, which further underscores the public perception problem that atheists have.  There are likely quite a few “closeted” atheists/secularists in Congress who simply cannot say so openly without risking their entire career. In 2011, Herb Silverman of the Secular Coalition of America told The Guardian that his group was aware of 27 members of Congress that have no belief in God. It's unclear who they were or are besides Stark and Frank, however. Atheists/secularists face a very unfortunate choice when they are considering running for office: lie about their religiosity, or abandon the possibility of getting elected altogether.

Part of the reason why it’s nearly impossible for atheists to get elected to high office is the enormous influence that the “Christian right” has in the political realm. To have a chance at winning the nomination, every Republican presidential candidate must spend an extraordinary amount of time during primary elections speaking with these crowds, raising tens of millions of dollars and designing their campaign platforms to fit Christian legislative preferences in the process. Every Republican presidential candidate has to oppose abortion rights and gay marriage, or else face a near-certain defeat. Similarly, candidates for Congress in the vast majority of districts around the country must buckle to the influence of the Christian right. Nearly every Republicans candidate for Congress must oppose abortion rights and gay marriage in order to have a chance at gaining election, even if their personal views are contrary to these stances. Many Republican lawmakers around the country have pushed for and successfully implemented the teaching of creationism in public schools, as well as abstinence-only sex education. The necessity of pandering to Christian groups creates an insurmountable barrier for an atheist or secularist to seek a Republican seat in Congress or the Republican presidential nomination, and effectively shuts out an enormous population of potential candidates—people who could make substantive contributions to our political system. On the Democratic side, it isn’t much easier for candidates—they too must spend substantial time with religious crowds (albeit less ideologically extreme religious constituencies than the Christian right) as well and alter their campaign platforms to meet their concerns.   For example, although Barack Obama is believed to have personally supported gay marriage for decades, he was not able to publicly say so until 2012 when the pressure from religious groups to oppose gay marriage lessened. Congressional Democrats who oppose abortion rights or gay marriage come from districts with a heavy presence and influence of religious groups.

There are no easy solutions to this problem, and there likely won’t be unless the “religiously unaffiliated” category is able to more effectively organize, fundraise and increase lobbying efforts to make their concerns heard.  Being elected to national office is often one of the most visible steps a minority group can take to win acceptance in American society. Yet, for the millions of Americans who openly identify as atheist, the goal of political representation currently remains just out of reach.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


degrassé (adj.) | entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the universe, experienced in a jolt of recognition that the night sky is not just a wallpaper but a deeply foreign ocean whose currents are steadily carrying off all other castaways, who share our predicament but are already well out of earshot—worlds and stars who would’ve been lost entirely except for the scrap of light they were able to fling out into the dark, a message in a bottle that’s only just now washing up in the Earth’s atmosphere, an invitation to a party that already ended a million years ago. --- from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Atheism in art is extremely hard to portray – it is, after all, defined by the lack of belief of a higher being/s, and while people can paint events central to their religion, there isn’t much to connect abstract concepts, or the widespread beliefs found in communities and make them tangible and easy to understand by viewers.

What I ended up painting can be summed up by the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’s degrassé – we are but specks of dust in the universe; our lives are short, and there are so, so many notions that have not been considered, but we should still embrace new ideas, new concepts and epiphanies and not remain jaded by this world because our lifespans go by in a blink of an eye while others are slow to change their perspectives.   

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


            On February  27th, the group Recovering From Religion announced the launch of The Hotline Project, a support helpline for people who are struggling with religion. Anyone who is doubting religion or has any kind of question can call 184-I-DOUBT-IT (1-844-368-2848) from 6pm-midnight on weekdays and 24/7 on weekends and anonymously talk through their uncertainties with volunteers.
            The purpose of the hotline is not to deconvert anyone from religion, but to help people talk their concerns out without fear of judgment or being outed as questioning. Trained volunteers, instead of professionals, answer the phones and talk to the callers, which at first may seem suspicious but actually makes a lot of sense. Steve Harrington, the executive director of the International Association of Peer Specialists explains that peer-to-peer counseling groups such as The Hotline Project are helpful in that the callers and volunteers have a shared experience and don’t try to tell people what to do, but instead help people find their own way.

            The Hotline Project not only answers questions about religion and secularism, but also provides resources and referrals. People can call and be matched to a local congregation, or given the information for a secular therapist. Anyone can call and get what they need without pressure or judgment. The volunteers even have 10 non-commandments that they follow to ensure the call is solely focused on the caller’s needs: 

1.  Don't argue or debate
2.  Don't command or persuade
3.  Don't criticize or preach
4.  Don't threaten, blame or criticize
5.  Don't display negative emotions
6.  Don't make assumptions about callers
7.  Don't interrupt
8. Don't make any promises
9.  Don't multitask
10.  Don't assert your own worldviews, beliefs or stories into the caller's situation

            The Hotline Project is perfect for anyone who has doubts about religion but doesn’t feel comfortable talking to their friends or family about it. If this helpline had existed when I was questioning religion, my deconversion would have gone so much smoother. I grew up in a religious family in Texas, and we had a strict unspoken no-questioning policy. When I started doubting my religion and my belief in God, I spent three years researching arguments for and against Christianity, reading people’s stories, talking to different preachers and people of faith, but ultimately struggling. All the resources I had were Christian. I didn’t have any atheists to talk to about their journeys and reasons for denying religion. The only secular book in my public library was The God Delusion, but I was scared to take it home (I eventually ended up buying it so my mom couldn’t trace my library history, but I had to throw it away in a gas station dumpster after my parents almost found it and I didn’t have a hiding place). In high school I was constantly stressed about my religious doubts, and I felt I had nowhere to turn to talk through my anxieties. If I had The Hotline Project five years ago, it would have helped me tremendously. I’m sure I’m not alone.

            Recovering From Religion also founded The Secular Therapist Project, a resource the matches people up with secular therapists, even those who don’t advertise as such. I encourage anyone who is able to share the information for The Hotline Project and The Secular Therapist Project. It can be so hard for people, especially minors, to question religion and find the resources to help them in their journey. I am so excited to see projects like The Hotline Project take off, and I hope people utilize these resources and realize that they’re not alone.