This weekend, I spoke at the University of North Dakota, courtesy of an invitation from FUND, the local SSA affiliate. Yes, there are atheists in North Dakota! For those who weren't there, I wanted to write a quick recap and talk about some of the lessons learned.
My talk was given on Friday night at the university's Lecture Bowl, and drew somewhere between 70 and 80 people, by far the largest audience I've ever had. From what the organizers told me, this was more people than were at a Campus Crusade for Christ event the previous week, which was much more heavily promoted and had free pizza!
Granted, some of these people may just have been attracted by the novelty of an atheist speaking on campus. From what I understand, FUND is a relatively new group and I was their first invited speaker, which was an honor. And not everyone who came was there to support me - but more on that in a minute.
I was invited as part of UND's school-wide "Seven Dimensions of Wellness" program, so to fit the occasion, I decided to speak on "The Goodness of Godlessness" - the argument for why atheism is a positive, beneficial worldview. My talk was drawn from material in the Ebon Musings essay "Life of Wonder", as well as several posts from Daylight Atheism. (Sorry, no video this time, although some people did take still photographs. I'll post some of them if I get the chance. If you want to hear it, you can always invite me to your school.)
The talk took about 40 minutes, with Q&A afterwards. Some of the FUND organizers told me that members of the religious groups on campus might show up, so while I was forewarned, the actual Q&A session was a lot more lively than I was expecting: it lasted over an hour, and many of the questions came from religious believers who came to challenge me (although, to their credit, all of them were unfailingly polite and civil).
There were questions about why we should be good to each other if the laws of nature don't differentiate between good and evil; about how I could excuse all the evil done in the world by atheists; and all the other standard evangelist tropes. One questioner demanded to know how I could account for the existence of the Shroud of Turin, asserting that 95% of the scientists who studied it had converted. I explained that the cloth was carbon-dated to the 14th century, the same time when the shroud was first mentioned in historical records, and that a medieval bishop wrote a letter to the pope saying that the shroud was a forgery and that the forger had confessed.
I also got a question about the miracles of Christianity, with particular reference to a story about a medieval saint who was said to levitate when in prayer. I answered that by referencing the conflicting miracle stories in other religions, the way that rumors mutate and grow over time, and the fact that these miracles consistently prove to be unreplicable under scientific investigation, and asked what that story would prove even if it were true. (If one in every billion human beings was a mutant who could levitate at will, would that prove the correctness of all his theological beliefs?)
Another questioner implied that I must be an atheist only because I don't want God to speak to me. In response, I gave a public affirmation that if any deity exists, he's welcome to contact me through e-mail, Twitter, or any other communication channel (this was one of the few parts I wish had been taped) - and pointed out that, even if this line of argument were correct as regards atheists, it doesn't explain why believers who all affirm God's existence disagree so starkly on what his will is. And then there was the gentleman who obviously hadn't processed the content of the talk or my answers to any of the many questions that preceded his, who wanted to know, "So, you really don't thank God when you get up in the morning?"
There were plenty of supportive questions also. I got to talk about my own personal deconversion, about the strongest arguments for atheism, about the benefits of political allegiance between the atheist and LGBT communities, about the gender ratio within atheism and the possible reasons for it, about whether I believe in soulmates, about the possibility of working together with liberal theists on political causes, and many more.
But my proudest moment was when I heard from a woman who used to be a Southern Baptist and is an atheist now. She said that when she was religious, she often felt a sense of transcendence during church services which she thought was proof of God's presence - but that she'd had that same feeling of being swept away during my talk.
It was a marathon session, and I enjoyed every moment of it. I'm grateful to everyone at FUND for inviting me, and I definitely want to keep doing this. And here's the lesson: if you're an atheist, come out, come out wherever you are! The only way we make progress is speaking out, being forceful and fearless. This is the leading edge of where minds get changed. Of course, I don't believe that every believer who came to my talk walked out an atheist. But the experience, the visibility, is what does the most good. The next time they think of an atheist, they'll have a picture of a real person in their heads, not a vague, shadowy Other that they can project all their worst stereotypes onto.
This is easy for me to say, I know: I flew out of North Dakota the next day. I wasn't beholden to anyone there. There are atheists who aren't in a social or a financial position to speak out with impunity. But that's why we have blogs and speakers' bureaus! For those atheists whose circumstances do permit them to be outspoken, the best purpose we can serve is to help blaze that trail. The more of us who speak out, the easier it will be for everyone else.
UPDATE: Some preliminary pictures of the event, enough to give an idea of how many people were in attendance. These are small, but I'm told there will be others.