My Day With The St. Cloud SSA

My Day With The St. Cloud SSA July 15, 2012

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After spending the weekend at CONvergence, I woke up this past Monday morning and my voice was completely shot (I’m still just getting it back today). So, straining to croak my words out, I spent the day with Patrick Mefford and other members of the St. Cloud State University Secular Student Alliance. This was actually my first day ever hanging out with an SSA and I had a total blast.

My visit started with Paul, who is an older student and a firefighter, picking me up from Stephanie Zvan’s house and driving me up to St. Cloud. Paul was a really terrific, thoughtful guy. He had a very knowing, soft-spoken, laid back, and assured demeanor. He would make an excellent guru or California surfer. Or California surfer guru.

Paul is really intent on understanding why believers believe, so we had a long talk about understanding and debating believers. He frequently works an SSA “Ask an Atheist” table on campus. He told me about the process by which a formerly devout Evangelical Christian student came to deconvert after numerous trips to spar at their table. Later in the day, I had the pleasure of meeting her. (I won’t name her since her family still does not know about her atheism.) I asked her what was most decisive in dissuading her of her faith and she said it was discovering all the violence attributed to a supposedly loving God in the Bible.

Paul has never been religious but his Bible is marked up on almost every page. (Inspecting it I did find that he skipped two pages in Exodus filled with specifications for how the Temple was to be built. Paul’s going to feel really foolish one day when God tells him to build a Temple.) He says that he will typically ask believers what their favorite verse in the Bible is, look it up, see his notes on the text, and explore with them whether it says what they think it does.

Paul dropped me off with Patrick Mefford, who arranged this whole day for us. Pat is a philosophy major who has been reading Camels With Hammers since at least October when he showed up in the comments section of a post to help me defend the value of philosophy against an onslaught of its scientistic detractors.

Pat and I were spending a short while getting to know each other face to face finally when two students came up to us and asked if we would like to take a short survey. I asked how long it would take and they said it would be about 5 minutes or so. One of them had recognized Pat and knew he was associated with the Secular Student Alliance. He identified his partner and himself as being from “Cru”, which Patrick informed me was short for Campus Crusade for Christ.

The questions they asked us were fairly generic ones about what words we thought defined our lives, what gave our lives purpose, and what we thought about death. Pat and I took turns answering their questions, with me straining to get every word out using the few remaining shreds of my voice. Before long we (and Paul, who rejoined us) were dialectically querying them and giving them philosophical questions and theological problems to chew over. They were both fairly humble and thoughtful guys who took the genial, patient grilling very well. One was a philosophy minor and fairly rationalistic in his epistemic standards, which was heartening. Hopefully one or both of them will take me up on the suggestion that they read this blog and might even come by the comments section of this very thread, if we’re lucky.

Right after they had departed, one of Patrick’s professors, a Camus scholar, showed up. This was my second interesting chance to poke at a Camus enthusiast while in Minnesota, so I took it. (Patrick also wrote an interesting defense of Camus a couple months ago, by the way.)

Soon thereafter several more members of the SSA joined us. Eventually four of them (Patrick, Paul, Kjell, and another Patrick) and I headed for pizza. As a born and bred New Yorker, I am typically very suspicious of some of the disgusting things midwesterners are willing to sully the name of pizza with. But I was pleasantly surprised. I asked for my half pie to have pepperoni, grilled chicken, spinach, and feta, and it came out rather delicious. The crust was fairly thin (as it should be) and the blend of the extra ingredients was perfect. I love feta but it can sometimes be overpowering. Here it was as perfectly tasty as it gets.

On the way to lunch the second Patrick, who is an older student, offered a lot of illuminating insight in response to my many questions about what it is like for him as a recently out of the closet bisexual man monogamously married to a woman. Then over lunch all of us had some more fantastic discussion about atheism. Particularly I exhorted atheists who had burned out of their angry phase and become exhausted of the adamant atheists to take ownership of the atheist movement, rather than give up on it, and to be understanding of the necessary and justified anger that new deconverts often express. I also explained to the second Patrick (who wants to hold on to some vague notion of God as that which is beyond our understanding—but adamantly is not an adherent to any of the major monotheisms) why atheists in particular needed to organize, rather than always link up with religious secularists and other progressives (like him), or always engage in only political battles. And I was horrified enough that my voice suddenly and temporarily regained its full strength when Patrick Mefford went all pomo, by bashing the Enlightenment and blaming “reason” for the Holocaust.

Our robust debates spilled out into the street as the second Patrick and I discussed the limits of reason and what they mean (or don’t mean) for the God question before we finally bid him goodbye and headed back to Patrick’s place. There we met his lovely girlfriend, a very affable young woman who went to the lengths of going to Africa as a Catholic missionary in a vain attempt to develop faith, before finally discovering atheists existed and that she was one. She provided tea and honey in a vain attempt to restore my voice. More members of the SSA came by. More fun was had by all. There was hopeful talk about funds being available for the St. Cloud SSA to fly me up to give a talk some time this fall. I am quite eagerly hoping that that plan comes to fruition.

Finally, Paul and his wife hospitably put me up for the night. Paul provided some watermelon for dinner and the next morning not only drove me to the airport but loaded me up with tasty snacks for my flight back to New York.

Today, Kjell, after reading a post in which I debated whether some religious criticisms of homosexuality should be treated as bullying in public schools, wrote his own post on the topic.

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