UMC hosts lecture with atheist, skeptic speakers for SASHA

SASHAcon+%28photo+by+Jay+Whang%29

SASHAcon (photo by Jay Whang)

Jay Whang

Mark Twain had an anti-religious view. In his classic novels, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he portrayed the Christian church as hypocritical and authoritative. Twain’s home state of Missouri still has this fundamentalist Christian trait, where people voted Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney in last four presidential elections, which makes it one of conservative states outside the Southern Bible Belt.

MU Student Center, where the SASHA con was held on Saturday (photo by Jay Whang)
MU Student Center, where the SASHA con was held on Saturday (photo by Jay Whang)

Evangelical churches in the middle of rural Missouri indoctrinate their children, which later depicted in Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp. In 2014, the state’s lawmakers proposed a bill that allows parents to take their children out of biology class because it teaches evolution. (Later Gov. Jay Nixon threatened to veto the bill, saying that it does not best for the public education.)

Despite Missouri’s red-state status, some lauded the city of Columbia, where the state university located, as a progressive place to live. But many non-believers feel alienated and unaccepted by the society.

Columbia is “a rather progressive city surrounded by a very conservative state,” Katie Huddlestonsmith, a Rock Bridge 2010-11 alumina and the current President of University of Missouri’s Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists and Agnostics club, said. “Students who came from surrounding small towns or even other conservative states have a hard time letting go of their religious ideas and are often scared to do so. Many of our members fear rejection from their family, denial of school funding by their parents, or worry about being fired.”

In 2009, then-MU student Duell Lauderdale formed SASHA through the Student Org system. Inspired from dozen student-led religious clubs Lauderdale saw, he created a secular activist club for non-religious students. He gathered ten members, a required number for forming a club, wrote a constitution for the student organization, and filled in the application. Soon after, they got accepted by the ORG, a Mizzou’s central hub and organizer for student groups, and never faced any challenges along the way.

Huddlestonsmith’s SASHA club organized the annual conference SASHAcon at University of Missouri’s Student Center on March 15th and Jesse Hall on March 16th. In the summer  of 2013, the idea for SASHA con began when the club officers gathered together to plan a free conference for nonreligious people to meet others in the community and meet activists who have come before them. They created their own kind of conference on MU that they, as students, wanted to go to.

“This conference will be a great way for student and the public in general to learn about who atheists are and what we actually stand for,” Huddlestonsmith said, “‘Atheism’ is often a dirty or scary word, and we want to be able to educate people through interaction and experience.”

Huddlestonsmith and her organizers started an Indiegogo online crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the event. However, the fundraising campaign failed, only brought $475 from seven contributors. The SASHA club still never gave up, and continued to collect donations through PayPal. Chantelle Moghadam, SASHA’s Vice President and the Public Relation director, contacted Secular Student Alliance, a secular activist organization, to awarded SASHA a substantial sum for the work they planned to do with the conference. The club also asked their university departments to donate money if the departments find their conference relevant to their religious studies.

As a Volunteer Network Coordinator of SSA (though not an employee), Moghadam contacted some of well-known speakers through the organization and invited them to the conference by e-mailing them. Invited speakers including Mizzou professors, bloggers, and personals, like controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, The Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, and The Atheist Experience co-host Matt Dillahunty.

“It’s always exciting to go to a student-run conference and I’m a big fan of the other speakers,” Mehta said.

On Saturday, March 15, Alan Schmidt, a senior student and self-described transhumanist atheist, attended the conference with little expectations. He expected it as “a massive circlejerk between intellectuals with little understanding for human natures.” Schmidt had never made many connections with other atheist groups on internet, but he came there just for curiosity.

Members of University of Missouri’s SASHA dressed up as Greek gods and goddess by putting a golden leaf crown on their head, to give the conference a tongue-in-cheek tone. Outside of the Leadership Auditorium, MU Student Center, the Secular Student Alliance, Skepticon, and later Springfield Freethinkers had their panel tables ready with merchandise. Each bookmarks, bumper stickers, postcards and stickers on Secular Student Alliance table, contains an atheist pride that might going to disturb conservative christians.

At the far left, a man named Fred, who proclaimed himself as “scientific skeptic,” brought many of his studies on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice he researched on for fifty years. He wanted a full critique on his studies from other skeptics like him.

The first speaker of the conference, Matt Dillahunty, discussed about how to debate with christians. Dillahunty, who grew up in Missouri and brought up in Southern Baptist, talked about how he debated with the pastor and his brother at Church of Christ last month. At the end, he gave some tips about how to debate with undereducated christians. The second speaker, Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropology professor of University of Missouri-Columbia, presented his documentary short about Yanomami people practicing shamanism.

Speaker Matt Dillahunty (far left) with SASHA president Katie Huddlestonsmith (middle) (photo by Jay Whang)
Speaker Matt Dillahunty (far left) with SASHA president Katie Huddlestonsmith (middle) (photo by Jay Whang)

After the lunch and before Muscato’s speaking began, Alan Schmidt met a professional skeptic named Phil Ferguson, an investment advisor who works at Polaris Financial Planning. Phil Ferguson helped people to avoid getting a fraud and scam by giving them some advices through podcast and radio. Schmidt and Ferguson sat together and talked about his experience of debunking scams like mediums and his cold reading on his fellow skeptics at famous secular conference The Amaz!ng Meeting.

When Muscato came in 15 minutes late on time, she talked about meeting with religious patients and discussed with her audiences about faith-healing, alternative medicines, and anti-vaccine movement. The fourth speaker, Libby Cowgill, anthropology professor, talked about the rise of Intelligent Design movement in United States of America.

The fifth speaker, Hemant Mehta, talked about how skeptics can make mistakes sometimes in gathering informations and find ways to improve it. “We’re blinded by our own biases sometimes,” Mehta said, “It’s funny to watch atheists claim to be rational in all areas, when the proof against that is pretty evident.”

In the end, the Saturday conference went different than Alan Schmidt expected. “Not circle-jerky as I thought, there are still a lot of it, and there was between atheists that were completely a–holes who were able to emphasize and rationally more understanding what I expected to be,” he said.

The conference continue the next day at Jesse Auditorium, Jesse Hall, where it focused more on activism Dave Muscato of American Atheists talked about at the end of Saturday speaking. Speaking topics at the Sunday conference included how to “come out” as an atheist in public, fighting against fundamentalist Islamist and secular activism.

In the end, Huddlestonsmith felt very accomplished for making SASHAcon happened. “I feel extremely proud of the conference and relieved that it went smoothly,” she said, “However, we’re already planning the housing arrangements for next year and are discussing how we will tweak the schedule to allow more sightseeing and personal discussions with the speakers.”

For them, rather than just criticize organized religions, they just want to promote critical thinking and rationality to the public. “Searching for the truth is something we’re all trying to do, and I believe, when it comes to religion, atheism is the more accurate worldview,” Hemant Metha said, explaining his personal view, “I also think that being rational when it comes to religion will lead to rationalism in other walks of life, too.”