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Introducing the Affiliates - Michigan Chapter of the Secular Student Alliance

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This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

This article was written by Leslie A. Zukor, founder and signator of the recently renamed Reed College Freethinkers.

Each year, a small number of youth are brave enough to create SSA affiliates on their campuses. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Patrick Julius, the founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Michigan. His nascent group has been having difficulty of late, because the college's administration requires at least 10 regular members before a club can be officially recognized. So far, the club has eight members, but Julius will try to change this by having a Flying Spaghetti Monster ad campaign after the holiday break. An incipient philosophy major, Julius believes that the ad campaign will throw his fledgling philosophy and secular issues discussion group over the top for official recognition. In the interview below, I discuss this and more with the Michigan SSA's President, Patrick Julius.

P Julius
Patrick Julius, president of the University of Michigan Secular Student Alliance.

What has stood out from your activities as particularly memorable?

Our discussion on the nature of morality was particularly compelling. We developed several ethical problems, and then compared different ethical systems and how they would resolve these problems. For example, a woman is drowning in a lake…. We came up with two major viewpoints: the deontologist tries to save her, even if there is a small chance of succeeding, but the consequentialist only tries if his odds are better than 50-50. The Divine Command theorist kind of sits there and does nothing, because there's no commandment on that, and maybe it's God's will that the woman should drown. And of course the hedonist goes and finds something better to do. So really it was down to the deontologist and the consequentialist, and we decided that the deontologist was probably a better person, but the consequentalist couldn't really be held culpable for failing to act.

What do you envision your club being within the next couple of years?

Once we get recognition, we're writing a grant application to pay for an SSA speaker. In the next couple of years, we hope to be big enough to seriously compete with the campus religious groups, hosting events every month or two. I have big plans.

What made you want to start a Secular Student Alliance affiliate?

I guess I've always been a fairly militant atheist. Or at least since my conversion from Catholicism about five years ago. Religion never made sense to me, and I feel a need to share that feeling with other people. Honestly, I think my being raised Catholic was sufficiently harmful for me psychologically as to be downright abusive. Catholicism doesn't have an especially friendly stance toward homosexuality. So coming out as bisexual was rather traumatic. It was all much more difficult with the prospect of hellfire hanging over my head.

Why does freethought matter to you?

Freethought matters to me because I feel specifically harmed by dogma, in subtle but genuine ways. Many religions hold that even experiencing the impulse to do wrong is itself wrong, and most are opposed to such benign things as masturbation, homosexuality, and contraception. They breed guilt and self-loathing in those who cannot live up to this absurd standard. I can't imagine that it's just a coincidence that homosexuality is correlated with depression and transgender is correlated with homicide - both very strongly - and also that religions preach dogmatically that both are wrong and deserving of eternal damnation.

Freethought is also important to me because truth is important to me, and it has always seemed horribly wrong that a world can organize itself around beliefs for which it has no rational foundation. Finally, this movement is important to me because I think there are a very large number of freethinkers in the world today who are too afraid to speak up, too cautious to break the shield of taboo that religious dogma uses to defend itself. Tolerance means not hurting people; it doesn't mean not trying to tell truth from falsehood, or not speaking up when someone believes something you know to be untrue.

What else bothers you about religion?

The fact that it involves such profound compartmentalization. People who would never believe a book that said the Earth was flat are perfectly willing to accept the idea that there is a mysterious invisible man in the sky who will punish you if you're bad.

Who is your freethought hero, if you have one?

I think I'd have to say Isaac Asimov. It's my author side talking. Asimov was the only person in history to have written a book in every Dewey Decimal category.

What specific projects are you working on, as a fledgling freethought club?

Right now our focus can be summarized as "Good without God," trying to dispel openly and proudly the belief that religion is necessary for moral virtue. Another project we're working on is a "religious diversity drive," (UMich loves diversity), in which we point out the great and small differences in various belief systems, religious and secular alike. The hope is that this will dispel concepts of "theist versus atheist" as the whole of the conflict. There is also "Christian versus Muslim," "fundamentalist versus moderate," "deist versus agnostic," "humanist versus nihilist," and so on. Essentially, the hope is that once people see we're not all bad, they may also see that what we're saying makes a lot of sense…. [Also,] we're planning a newsletter, Brightly Illuminated. We want to do it monthly, on a wide variety of topics from philosophy to journalism. We probably won't get our first issue out until February or even March, though.

Are there other difficulties your SSA group is facing?

A difficulty we're having (besides our low membership!)…is the question of how vociferous to be, how openly we declare that religious dogmas are in fact false and destructive. My own feeling on the matter is that this is perfectly true but totally non-productive, and so we should keep it out of our platform at least for the time being. I would much rather enlist allies than create enemies. And of course offending and enraging people is not among our goals.

Thank you very much for your time, Patrick, and good luck in your future endeavors!

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

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