Story by Natalie Casanova • Print Editor
Photos by Jon Shapley • Video Editor
Silence fell over the crowd as British evolutionary biologist and famous athe- ist Richard Dawkins took the podium.
“[Atheists] are a major force in this country, it cannot be ignored,” he said from the steps of the Texas State Capitol on Oct. 20.
The crowd erupted in cheers after each of Dawkins’ potent assertions. Texans from a manifold of age groups and backgrounds gathered at the Capitol for the free portion of the 2012 Texas Freethought Convention. There they listened to Dawkins and other notable atheist and secular speakers from all over the country and the world speak.
In America, Dawkins said, the number of “nones,” or people who do not claim a specific religion on census documents, is growing. He noted that about 20 percent of the entire population falls under this category, and 30 percent of US citizens ages 18-29.
This demographic aligns heavily with college students. Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Texas regional campus organizer Kevin Butler said it showed at the convention as more than 100 students of the SSA attended from schools all over the state.
“Our numbers are increasing, we’re winning,” Butler said. “We fight for numbers because that’s what politicians listen to.”
Butler, also a student at the University of Texas at Dallas, said the only defining characteristic of an atheist is his lack of belief in any god or deity, and nothing else. But from his personal experience, he said, most atheists and secularists promote equal human rights.
Before he found the SSA, Butler said he had no idea he wasn’t the only non- believer in his community.
“I felt so isolated,” he said. “[SSA] lets students know they’re not alone … we’re in this fight together.”
Butler comes from a predominantly Catholic family and was very religious during high school. He has been an out atheist for about two years.
“I began walking away from religion my senior year [of high school] when I came out as being gay,” he said. “It tore me up when I went to church.”
He said he was vaguely Christian and began to think deism, or the belief that some type of god exists but not a specific one, was a plausible view until he realized it was a huge leap of faith to connect any spiritual feeling to a specific god or to the existence of a supreme being at all. After researching and watching many lectures, such as “A Universe from Nothing” by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, he began to affirm his atheism.
Studying science, nature and sociology was a major deciding factor in Butler’s deconversion.
“I thought, ‘wait a second, is that what [atheists] talk about?”
Butler said atheists in other countries may have it even harder, such as in Afghanistan where a person can be killed if they come out as an nonbeliever. Half of Butler’s family also doesn’t know he is an atheist because he doesn’t feel comfortable telling them. This seemed to be the case for many atheists at the convention.
“I don’t want my father to stop me from seeing my younger brother,” Butler said.
Notable student atheist Jessica Ahlquist said nonbelievers don’t have a go-to place for community or support. Ahlquist filed a lawsuit against her public school in Rhode Island for hanging a religious banner. She won the case and received much public scorn locally for the ordeal, but nationally she gained attention as being a leader in the atheist movement, standing up for the First Amendment. She is also very outspoken on matters of gay rights, and compares the feelings, consequences and reactions of coming out as an atheist to coming out as gay.
“You risk losing friends and family and loved ones because of it,” she said. Many members of the University of Texas at Austin (UT) SSA group also attended the freethought convention, including president Loren Bane and former president Erick Rodriguez. Their organization works with other local groups and events, such as “Explore UT,” to promote youth science education.
The group also hosts lectures on science and philosophy and provides a supportive community for questioning students.
“Many young adults don’t realize being nonreligious is an option,” Bane said. “They have never even known about it before.”
Rodriguez said part of the reason for having groups is to provide a safe place for nonbelievers to discuss their views because sometimes they are assaulted with threats or prayers while on the UT campus.
“[We have] received multiple death threats from other students,” Rodriguez said, “which the police are still investigating.”
Texas Freethought Convention president Paul Cooper said one of the themes of the 2012 gathering was “Get Out and Vote” for all age groups and political parties, especially in local elections. He said some evangelicals in the Texas State Board of Education think their religious idea that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs should be reflected in how children are taught in public schools. Atheists strongly disagree with those views, but are not represented on the school board because of a lack of political influence.
“We have to show up at the polls,” he said. Separation of church and state protects everyone, he said, even Christians from other denominations of Christians.
“We’re not trying to destroy religion,” Cooper said, “we just want to make sure that it’s kept in its proper place within American society so that way all people of all faiths and not of faith can exercise their freedom of expression without worrying about other people coming in, telling them they have to do a certain thing a certain way.”
Former member of the Maine House of Representatives and notable atheist author Sean Faircloth said there is a social and political perception of atheists being a shunned minority, but the demographic is much larger than the strong religious right is willing to admit.
“I’m hoping secular students will run for office,” Faircloth said. “To not only push for a say in politics, but to be the politician.”
“I feel like the wave is cresting,” Fair- cloth said, “[There might be] somebody who is 22 years old now who will be an open atheist president [in the future].”
Public Relations officer for Secular Students at Collin College (SSCC) Liz Dudek said SSA groups are not only a social network for non-believer students, but also a forum to discuss religion, politics, science and social issues safely and freely without judgment. She said getting secular people to vote is a good way to balance out the conservative religious right.
Dudek came to her group as a questioning Christian on the edge, and she said the support she received from the other members helped soften the image she had of atheists, and she said coming out wasn’t as difficult for her as it can be for others. Her biggest trouble was growing distant from old friends.
“It was a little bit disheartening because they were important to me for a long time,” she said.
Deciding to come out to friends and family can be a tough decision, Dudek said, but it’s entirely up to the person to weigh whether it’s worth it or not.
“Sometimes it’s hard living a double life,” she said, “if you have to pretend for some people.”
Outside the Capitol gates stood three street preachers from the Bulldog Min- istries group from Houston and Waco, Texas. They held large signs listing their ideals, and spoke about their religion and against atheism to passersby and convention attendees. Street preacher Rick Ellis’ voice boomed over a PA system as he read scripture aloud.
“The way to escape, is through the shed blood of Jesus,” Ellis said. “There’s no other escape; there’s no other way.”
Many people stopped to speak with them, and lead street preacher David Stokes answered queries and explained his beliefs.
Stokes said atheists believe religion is a very bad thing and want it eradicated completely, and that devastates him because he feels America is morally declining and needs the Christian god more than ever.
“If you study the atheist group and their movement,” Stokes said, “[you’ll find] they are trying to remove Christianity and God from our country.”
Even though he preaches at atheist gatherings, gay pride events and football games, Stokes said he respects the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.
“The last thing I would want to see is a denomination or a religion controlling a country,” he said. “If you look at world history, there’s been a lot of devastation when any group becomes a leader. We’ve seen that with christian groups having leadership over countries [and] I’m not for that either.”
Stokes said he doesn’t mind atheists speaking out about their opinion, but doesn’t think they should be able to file lawsuits removing religious influence in government.
“It’s one thing to have a belief system,” Stokes said, “and it’s another thing to try to destroy others’ belief system.”
Austin Community College student Justin, who asked that his full name be withheld for personal reasons, discussed specific passages of the Bible with Stokes and challenged his reasoning for his views as well as discrepancies in the text.
He’s describes himself as an agnostic or de facto atheist and came to the convention for the speakers and the interactions.
“I kind of liked the idea that I might [meet] street preacher protesting,” Justin said, “[and get to test] my on-the-fly debate skills.”
Butler said sometimes when people meet an atheist they think they want to debate right there and then, but that is not always the case. Many atheists have no qualms with religions, especially those who look to it for social support. He said the major issues come from religious-influenced prejudice and religious disregarding of science.
Justin grew up in a non-denominational Christian home and said he became a nonbeliever in 2006 after reading Dawkin’s famous book “The God Delusion.” He hasn’t come out as an atheist to some members of his family.
“There are certain people in my family that I don’t tell,” Justin said, “some that I knew would fly off the handle about it.”
Justin’s advice for students: ”Figure out what you believe, why you believe it and analyze your justifications. If it doesn’t make sense, you have no real reason to believe it.”