Campus Atheist Group Censored in Idaho

The Boise State Secular Student Alliance were manning a booth for their group during a recent Parent and Family Weekend. Lloyd Lowe, the president of the group, set up the table and walked away for a while. When he returned, his found that the banner he had put up was no longer visible to the public:

Upon returning, he found his banner taped upside down. While trying to reposition it, he was approached by Brian MacDonald, director of New Student and Family Programs. MacDonald told him to speak with Director of Student Activities Kelly Stevens.

“This was an event for parents and families to come and just relax and enjoy family weekend, not engage in dialogue about religion and spirituality,” MacDonald said. “Something that is a very sensitive topic to some people, we thought that the poster should be taken down.”

Stevens informed Lowe that she had received complaints regarding the banner and that he must replace the banner or leave…

What is on the banner that got everyone so worked up?

You can see it on the front page of the university’s student newspaper (PDF):

The banner reads: “Outgrown Your Imaginary Friend?”

That’s it. Everyone was up in arms over the harmless question.

It’s not inflammatory at all. Yes, Lowe is calling God imaginary. As we all should. I would guess that most religious students on campus believe the same thing about all the other gods people believe in except their own.

So why is the atheist group getting punished for saying what everyone else is thinking?

The Boise State campus group is calling censorship.

Lowe writes the following in a letter to the editor:

Our banner, which appealed to reason, offended the superstitious beliefs of some people on campus. Just as their superstitious beliefs offend our sensibility and reason. When the non-religious complain about the blatant acts of proselytizing on campus they are dismissed. But when we attempt to promote critical thinking our views are suppressed. There is something wrong with this. Why is religion allowed a free pass at criticizing other beliefs (and non-beliefs) and yet immune from criticism itself?

Looking at this only in terms of religion masks a larger issue about the role of skepticism in general. We never referred to any one imaginary friend in particular. There are many and they are normally associated with childhood, like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. But there are many false beliefs held by adults who should know better. Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, UFOs, ghosts, guardian angels, numerology, psychics, and this paper even has horoscopes!

So the message I’m getting is that reason and critical thought are out, but millennia old superstitions are in. If god really didn’t want us out there asking questions I’m sure he could have handled the situation. Even Thor could have mustered a little lightning bolt. The BSU administration really didn’t have to get involved.

We are a group of students who embrace rational reasoning and empirical evidence over superstition, which we find to be just plain silly in this enlightened era. Please don’t take us back to medieval times, where the majority religion quashed and silenced other religious practices.

Perhaps it is exaggerating to say the banner takedown is a throwback to medieval times. But it is bad precendence for the school to follow. Let’s use some common sense. The banner was asking a question designed to get people thinking. A university, of all places, ought to encourage that.

On a side note, a poll on the newspaper website asks: “Do you believe the Secular Student Alliance had a right to display their banner?”

One option reads “They have a right to display their banner at any event they’re invited to on campus.”

That option is currently ahead (with 76% of the vote as I write this). You can help make sure it stays that way.

  • stogoe

    One thing I would point out is that even if we’re offended by something, we don’t want that offensive speech banned or censored. Too many people today equate “I’m offended by X” with “I want X to be burned and destroyed”.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    Madness! I could see that happening here in the South, though Idaho _is_ one of the redder states. (but I thought the NW supposed to be far more progressive…)

    The poll’s current state:
    Accommodationist censorship 9%
    Full citizenship 87%
    Full censorship 4%

    The resulting pie chart looks like the blue Pac-Man™ of Reason feasting upon the yellow & red slices of nonsense. BTW, they misspelled “their” in the first option.

  • Erik

    Were any campus religious groups present at this event, or other general clubs, with booths/signs? If they were the only group out there doing group promotion instead of the interactive activities the organizers intended, I can see why they’d want it changed (though handled very, very poorly). If other groups had similar booths and the secular group was the only one targeted, however, that’s a serious problem.

  • Vincent

    What Erik says has some merit but is off.
    It may have been inappropriate for them to have a booth there if no other group had one, but the answer is to make them leave, not let them keep their booth but stifle their speech. That’s why I suspect there were other groups promoting themselves at this event (that and it’s the sort of event where groups are encouraged to promote – families could mean future students).

    If I were in their place I’d have put the banner back up and done a non-violent protest. Of course I’ve gotten past those college years, studied law, and taken courses in assertiveness so I would have a different perspective.

  • RobL

    I live in the Inland North West and this does not surprise me at all. This area is just a couple inches left of North Carolina in terms of religiosity.

    I am not happy with the censorship but I also think the banner was a bad choice for the location. It would be fine in Berkeley but not in an area with an overwhelming Christian population. To an atheist the imaginary friend comment makes total sense but to anyone with any belief in god it is a real insult. If their goal is to bring in new members something softer along the lines of “If you have doubts this might be your club” would be more effective. I guess a better way to say it is that if their goal was to piss people off they did great. If their goal was to convince people their god is imaginary they blew it.

    This would be like a Christian group at the Ben Gurion University in Israel putting up a poster saying “Still waiting for your false messiah? Try Christianity”. They might have a right to do it but it would not be very smart.

  • mikespeir

    I agree that speech, including this banner, shouldn’t be squelched; but how does “Outgrown your imaginary friend?” “appeal to reason”? Looks more like a slap to me.

  • Dustin

    I agree with RobL. Not the best way to open a dialogue. This is only a good thing if you subscribe to the theory that “All PR is good PR”.

  • http://www.funny-jesus.com Chris

    I’m sorry, but who is that guy on the bicycle? He cracks me up.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    I am glad some people beat me to it, the term imaginary friend is fine when joking amongst ourselves but at a tool to bring others to reason it is akin to negotiating a hostage situation with a hand grenade. It not going to work. As one who tip toed away from religion over the course of years, and who ran into the ‘imaginary friend’ statement several times and it offended me. It was an insult to my beliefs. Now sans belief, I find it funny and it really describes a lot of the down right crazy stuff I did, like praying and confessing and…

  • http://atheismascending.blogspot.com/ Chrystal Ocean

    IF, prior to the event, there had been no restrictions made known by the organizers about setting up booths – i.e., no restrictions on whether, or what type of, booths could be set up, then this is censorship, pure and simple.

    Also, the statement by Brian MacDonald, director of New Student and Family Programs, that “Something that is a very sensitive topic to some people, we thought that the poster should be taken down” doesn’t wash.

    It is “a very sensitive topic” to atheists/humanists/secularists/etc. that society is awash in religious idiocy (I know, an oxymoron) AND our freedom to protest or share our concerns is seriously curtailed.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Referring to God as “imaginary friend” is considerably more inflammatory than you might imagine. You’re basically implying that religious people are all childish, and not in a good way either. It is very condescending, not to mention generally inaccurate.

  • Ryan

    “Madness! I could see that happening here in the South, though Idaho _is_ one of the redder states. (but I thought the NW supposed to be far more progressive…)”

    I grew up in Boise and got my undergrad degree at Boise State. It’s true that Idaho is very conservative, although Boise isn’t nearly as bad. It is still definitely more conservative than Seattle or Portland, though. Universities should be bastions of free speech, and it’s particularly frustrating to see a university that I’m deeply attached to behave in such a way.

  • stogoe

    Who cares if “imaginary friend” makes christians ashamed of believing in nonsense? That’s the purpose of the statement. If they can’t take a little criticism, they ought to leave the public square, ’cause let me tell ya, you’re gonna get criticism out here.

    Stop cowering with your tail between your legs, people. It’s okay to criticize religion.

  • theShaggy

    I’m with Miller. I find that a lot of secular groups will post “harmless questions” up all over the place, questions which are subversive and actually quite passive-aggressive, and then get up in arms when people get angry at them. They all start bouncing around and screaming “Help help I’m being repressed!”

    Hell, the Atheist Bus is borderline. Can’t secular associations have banners that say “We live without God, and so can you” or, simply, “secular life on campus” like any other group?

    Just put yourself in the opposite position: what do you think when you walk by a banner or a flier or a display and it says “Tired of not having meaning/purpose/happiness? Find JESUS”? Probably the same kind of reaction the Christians would have to the above banner.

    Hemant, I’d figure the Friendly Atheist would see this more than anyone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=640271933#/group.php?gid=25496311442 Lloyd

    Yes, there were other groups promoting themselves at the event, including religious groups. The biggest table by far was the one for the LDS student club.

    I recognize the danger of having a sign that can be taken as insulting. It was a choice I weighed when I made it. My decision partly had to do with the tone I wanted to set for us here in Boise. I don’t want us to be ashamed of our non-belief and if that means upsetting some of the religious folks that’s a risk we must be willing to take. Others may disagree, which I understand and respect, but I’ve just come from a military base in North Carolina and I’m tired of keeping my mouth shut.

    At this event I was really reaching out to those who are already non-believers. Eventually we would like to open a dialog between ourselves and the MANY religious groups on campus but we’re a new group and these tabling events don’t seem well suited to the thoughtful discussion necessary for revealing the man behind the curtain.

    That being said, I know I’ve got a lot to learn about organizing events and promoting positive atheism so I really appreciate the constructive criticism.

    Lloyd Lowe

    edit: To Shaggy, we do see those signs all over the place. And we deal with it. We may grumble amongst ourselves but we don’t pull their banners down and stifle their message. BSU had a horrific “Christian Week” just a little while ago where pastors were handing out Bibles ALL OVER CAMPUS, for a WEEK.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    stogoe: “Who cares if ‘imaginary friend’ makes christians ashamed of believing in nonsense?”

    Errm, the problem isn’t that it makes Christians ashamed, but rather that it makes them annoyed at the rather dubious implication that they are childish. Think how annoyed when you get when you see the accusation that atheists are in denial about the existence of God. That’s about the feeling the Christians are getting.

  • http://conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Well, at least it clarifies what sort of group the Boise State Secular Students is. Evidently it’s not a group of atheists who are into friendliness and respect towards those who believe differently.

  • Epistaxis

    I like the guy on the right with the bike and the mustache. Is he a member of the group or did he just want to be in a photo?

  • sc0tt

    RobL Says:

    I am not happy with the censorship but I also think the banner was a bad choice for the location. It would be fine in Berkeley

    If their goal is to bring in new members something softer along the lines of “If you have doubts this might be your club” would be more effective.

    Agreed totally. BTW Berkeley has active religious groups and they coexist with atheist and humanist groups quite well, including club days and other events when everyone has their booths out. They also get bible thumping preachers telling the students and staff that they’re all fornicators and blasphemers. Those guys get heckled quite a bit but nobody objects to their being there.

  • http://www.offthemap.com Jim Henderson

    The banner reminds me of what is known as The Jesus People movement of the late 60s. We used to go on the campus which was a very unfriendly environment for Christians in those days and say things similar to this – Our slogans were just as inciting but with obviously a different spin

    “My God’s Not Dead – Sorry About Yours”

    Of course I agree that it was stupid for the campus people (who yes in that section of the country will be more religiously conservative – Biggest group is probably Mormons but they tend to lay off since they’ve gotten picked on so much by evangelicals as well.

    So if you want to fight it politically go for it – but that is only one (long drawn out spproach)

    Since cynicism doesn’t sell and people generally dont like to be made fun of
    even if they agree with you – I suggest hosting a dialog between an atheist and a Christian who actually like and respect each other (ring any bells)

    Then people can choose who they like – the “there is no God crowd” or the “imaginary friends crowd” I think it would surprise everyone and make for good will on the campus (something almost no one will resist) and I predict the Secular Student groups mission of providing support for people who are tired of pretending that there is a God and increasing their numbers will be accomplished

    I think I’ve read a book by someone who knows something about this approach – I Sold My Soul on Ebay or something like that

  • Jesse

    -sigh- I know that I would be insulted if I were religious. Yes they have the right to display that banner, but honestly, why?

  • «bønez_brigade»

    “Yes they have the right to display that banner, but honestly, why?”

    Ummm, b/c many atheists are fucking tired of being told when/where they can speak. A swift kick of rational thought is exactly what lots of religious folks need.

    Final count of the poll:
    Partial censorship, 3%
    No censorship, 96%
    Full censorship, 1%

  • http://www.meetup.com/nontheist/ Lew Payne

    As Lloyd already pointed out, the LDS student group had a booth at the event, and was thus representing religion.

    What I find interesting is that some people on here believe the sign was inflammatory and not suited to conveying a friendly atheist message. First, what I find interesting is that each religion might find the sign offensive for a DIFFERENT REASON. The LDS might consider it an affront and insult to Joseph Smith or their current prophet; the Christians to Jesus; the Scientologists to Xenu the Giant Clam; and the Pastafarians to their Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    I have one word for all this – grow up, America. This isn’t a “nice” world… and religion has gotten a free pass at insulting and putting non-believers down for too long now. Asking a question which makes most superstitious (aka religious) people angry is more than appropriate, just as preachers find it okay to espouse their sermon topic on the signboard outside their church (“get saved or go to hell…”). Tit for tat. Grow up, America.

    Since when did we have to begin sugar-coating the truth, anyway? It sounds to me like some of you disagree with the tactics, which is a purely subjective objection. None of you have quarreled with the message itself. Truth is an absolute defense. I’m sorry to see that some of you are okay with discarding the truth in order to be “politically correct.”

  • teammarty

    I just love all the “oooo we shouldn’t upset the Christians” stuff. Maybe we should just give up our freedom and pretent we believe. Then we can really be Americans.

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