A College with Two Atheist Groups

Boston University has two groups specifically for atheists: one deals with discussion and debate. The other focuses on dialogue with theists and community service.

The campus newspaper sets them up as competitive, but I don’t know why that would necessarily be the case on a college campus:

The disparate approaches of the two BU groups partly reflect a broader division among American humanists. On one side, New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris deride religion as dumb at best and dangerous at worst. Countering them are thinkers like Harvard humanist chaplain and author Greg Epstein, who argues that humanists can reject belief, but learn from believers.

Zachary Bos, administrative coordinator for the College of Arts & Sciences Core Curriculum and advisor to Humanists of Boston University, has broached with the humanist students the idea of establishing a humanist chaplaincy at BU. Such a person would do for them what other chaplains do: organize programs for “contemplation, fellowship, service, and study.” But Bos says humanists would first have to spend several years mustering an endowment to pay for the position. Both groups are small, and whether membership will grow is uncertain, McCargar says. “Increasing disaffection with religious denominations doesn’t necessarily translate into more humanists.”

Still, “I do believe there is plenty of potential” for Humanists of Boston University, he says. “It is a club dedicated to improving lives and bringing people together.”

No word on how many students overlap and are members of both groups, and I don’t know why one group can’t do both — it’s probably an issue with the leadership — but I love that there are groups that can adequately cover both discussion and deeds.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    As a past advisor to the BU group that does interfaith work, I can tell you they do plenty of discussing and debating as well. Some of their members used to attend our Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard pub nights, and they brought their atheistic humanist beliefs with them.

    Second, as for whether they’re at “war,” I agree with Hemant, it is nonsense. From my understanding, the two groups simply cater to different aspects of the atheist/humanist/secularist lifestances.

    Third, while you’re right that Greg advocates for atheists and Humanists to engage with religious folks, he doesn’t do so in order to counter us “New Atheists,” but because he knows that there are two distinct (but united) streams of Humanist thought. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard employs both diplomats (Greg Epstein) and firebrands (John Figdor). We believe that the atheist/Humanist movement only benefits from diversity of (dis)belief!

  • Matt

    Obviously they’re “at war” because atheists are confrontational hotheads.

  • Beth

    Go BU, Go BU!
    Sing her praises loud and true!

  • Digitus Impudicus

    So since there are two different groups that are based on the same philosophy, are they now going to start bombing each other’s meeting places? Is one Dawkinsian and the other Hitchensian?
    No? I thought atheism was a religion, and that is what the religious guys do. ;)
    Plus, what is it with prominent atheists names ending with “s”? Ali doesn’t count because I said so.

  • jose

    Deep rifts in atheism are so last year.

  • Anonymous

    I like the comment on there from Tracy Hall Jr. He shows up at Pharyngula to bawww about Mormonism too.

  • MaleficVTwin

    “Are you the Boston University Atheists?”

    “Fuck off!! We’re the Atheists of Boston University!!”

  • Disconverted

    “Plus, what is it with prominent atheists names ending with “s”? Ali doesn’t count because I said so.”

    It’s because S stands for Satan!! Ahhh! Run away!!!

  • ThilinaB

    “Are you the Boston University Atheists?”

    “Fuck off!! We’re the Atheists of Boston University!!”

    Your answer to the Great Question is illogical…Its the United Atheists of Boston.

  • Richard Wade

    Sounds like maybe the editor of the university newspaper is getting ready for a job in the broader world of journalism: A fight draws a crowd and also sells newspapers. So create a conflict where it doesn’t exist.

    …and so hand-to-hand, house-to-house, the bloody fighting goes on between these deeply divided factions of the atheist movement, these Hattfields and McCoys of non-belief, these Shia and Suni of skepticism, these Spartans and Athenians of freethinking, these…

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    one deals with discussion and debate. The other focuses on dialogue with theists and community service.

    No word on how many students overlap and are members of both groups, and I don’t know why one group can’t do both — it’s probably an issue with the leadership — but I love that there are groups that can adequately cover both discussion and deeds.

    I can gander a guess at why one group can’t (or won’t) do both: because some atheists are interested in discussion and debate but not so much interfaith dialogue and community service, and other atheists are into interfaith dialogue and community service but not so much discussion and debate.

    There’s a good possibility that members of one group are largely uninterested in the activities that the other group does, allowing them both to operate in parallel without ever intersecting with each other (with both groups liking it that way).

    It’s the same thing, I think, with campuses that have both a skeptic group and an atheist group. The atheists might not care much about the paranormal, and the skeptics might not care much about removing crosses from accident sites on public highways.

  • http://chandays.blogspot.com Larry Meredith

    why just 2? why not 3? or 4?

    Why does having multiple atheist groups in a single campus make news? Does this also happen when a campus has more than one Christian group?

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    Do to past experience and a personal historical family presence in the Boston area I would like to see online discrimination against atheists taken up by both camps there. I’ve found sever anti atheist atheist(Butheads) sentiment in the area. Focus some attention here and kick some butt, doc John deserves a wake up call to the importance of science over delusional support. http://forums.psychcentral.com/

  • SecularLez

    I remember asking in my head, “Why can’t do do both?”

    ::shrug::

    No different than religious groups. There are some factions that focus more on condemning others who are not in their little group and other groups who would rather focus on good deeds; helping anyone regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof.

  • The Pint

    So let me get this straight: Christianity has multiple sects that disagree about what points of the religion should be emphasized/ignored/followed: No big deal.

    Judaism spans the spectrum of everything from “cultural Jew” to ultra-orthodox keep 2 sets of everything in the kitchen for meat & dairy food: *snore*

    Islam has regular issues – often resulting in violence – between Sunni and Shia: Nothing to see here, move along please.

    BU has 2 atheist groups with apparently different agendas: ZOMG deep rifts/battle for supremacy/war for the hearts and minds of atheists everywhere!

    *facepalm*
    On the other hand, this is the style of journalism that the Journalism dept. was peddling back in my undergrad days at BU COM.

  • Ben

    We discussed this idea for the Elmhurst College SSA. One group would be activist and event based, and the other would be more social for soft, lazy, or very busy atheists that still want to be part of a secular community. Ironically, the main motivation was lack of attendance. Too many people leave SSA because they think it’s too activist or not active enough.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=26029364910 Gillian

    I can gander a guess at why one group can’t (or won’t) do both: because some atheists are interested in discussion and debate but not so much interfaith dialogue and community service, and other atheists are into interfaith dialogue and community service but not so much discussion and debate.

    There’s a good possibility that members of one group are largely uninterested in the activities that the other group does, allowing them both to operate in parallel without ever intersecting with each other (with both groups liking it that way).

    I’m the current VP of the Boston University Atheists and Secular Humanists, and this is exactly right: we have a lot of crossover within the two groups, and we each cater to a different aspect of secular life. Unlike the Humanists of Boston University, we consider ourselves more of a social group, geared towards debate, dialogue and networking. However, both groups are crucial to BU’s secular life.

    Thank you so much for featuring us! When this article was sent my way, I was overjoyed. If you’re ever in the Boston area, please look us up!

  • erica

    I went to BU and know Zac (who’s quoted) fairly well. I’m not surprised there’s 2 atheist groups — the school was almost notoriously secularist. My religious parents were horrified at the number of students who responded “no religion” on a survey given out…

    but the Freep (the paper) is NOT a good source for info. It’s a terrible newspaper. It’s always been bad, as long as institutional memory can recall, and the writing is almost always over-the-top and often simply incorrect. So take what they publish with a grain of salt. More likely is the 2 atheist groups are friends.

  • BUatheist

    I can give a little insight into how BU came to have 2 atheist groups. The founders of Humanists of Boston University came to a few meetings of the Boston University Atheists and Secular Humanists (BUASH) and found that the meetings were not to their liking (they wanted more community outreach and service). Originally, the leaders of BUASH tried to work with the soon to be founders of Humanists of BU to make changes to the group to suit everyone but, unfortunately, the majority of BUASH members wanted to keep the meetings focused on debate and discussion. Following that meeting, the founders of Humanists of BU set out on their own path and BUASH remained on theirs. Is there tension between the groups? No. I think both groups respect each other’s existence. Personally, I think it’s great that two groups exist to meet the needs of BU’s atheist community.

    Also, the freep is notorious for misquoting people and falsifying information which is what they have done in the article referenced above.

  • RachelRaven

    Matt does not sound like a college student. Where’s the persuasive example, definition, philosophy, anything? Comments on a profound philosophical topic should be at least somewhat intellectual and not merely name-calling.

  • Marshall

    I’m the current Co-President of the Humanists of Boston University this year. I can say from my short tenure at President that there is no bad blood between the two clubs. Yes, our founding presidents started in the BU-ASH club and found it not to their liking for a variety of reasons, mainly the lack of action. We discuss morality a great deal of the time and our fellow atheists not as much. I also feel we do more of an effort to reach out to the traditional religions, working with interfaith etc.
    But the two clubs have no beef with each other now. In fact, in the next 2 weeks we will be combining to promote “Ask an Atheist Day.” There may have been some bad blood between the original Presidents but this generation is only love. I mean the same thing happens in Academia all the time. In the late 70′s the BU Anthropology Department had the same kind of split with Archaeology- started with bad blood, all good now. It is more of a case of overblown journalism. I believe now it is actually important to have this pluralism in groups.

  • http://atheists.org/ma Zachary Bos

    This is rather a late response, but to concur with what Erica, Gillian, and Marshall have said,

    1. The Daily Free Press is really not holding itself to standards these days, despite the good-faith (!) efforts of alumni to alert them to their slackening quality;
    2. BU doesn’t feel like a very religious campus, but neither is there obvious institutional support for secular community-building;
    3. The BUASH folks have had since their inception a focus on debate and activism, and the HBUers a focus on community and fellowship, but the groups haven’t ever been openly antagonistic, and have in the past year been nothing but down right cooperative with one another.

    Call them the blue and indigo stripes, respectively, in the rainbow spectrum of secular culture on campus.


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