Campus Activist Combats Greying of the Movement by Gabriel Carson (December 2000)

This acceptance speech was delivered on Sept. 16 at the FFRF national convention in St. Paul. Gabe and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation Board member Richard Mole for generously underwriting the annual $1,000 student activist award in memory of the late Dixie Jokinen. 

Wow, there’s a lot of you out there–and you’re all going to hell! [laughter]

I’m really honored and excited to get this award, and not just because the award comes with money (with a philosophy degree that’s always a good thing). I’m excited that I’m getting this from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

When I was in high school and was first realizing I was an atheist, I, as many of us did, felt like I was alone and that there wasn’t anyone else who thought like me. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was the first organization I found out there for freethinkers or atheists.

I was impressed that not only were there other people who thought like me, but they were organized and they were active–they were out there doing things, writing letters to the editor, filing lawsuits, putting out publications, and it really encouraged me. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I probably would not have been into atheist activism had it not been for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So it’s great to be getting an award for student activism from the Foundation.

My history of activism is a string of acronyms . . . we love acronyms here in the freethought movement, it seems. I started with the FFRF, then I moved to “aol” for the rest of my high school activism. I did a lot of online debating. I would go into fundamentalist chatrooms and say, “hey, I don’t believe in god,” and watch the sparks fly. I’d pick out the people who were less likely to just stick their caps lock on and swear at me in Christian-speak, and get into extended email debates with them, which I made available through the web. It was an interesting time.

Then I went to college and got involved with the University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists, which is a great campus group. I was elected the president of that group and served for two years. I got involved with the Campus Freethought Alliance, which at that time was the only national freethought student organization, and was elected vice-president of that group.

While working with them I came to believe that the student movement and thus the movement in general really needed an independent student organization that wasn’t part of just one national organization. So several of us resigned our positions with the CFA and started the Secular Student Alliance, of which I’m now the executive director. We just had our first annual conference right next door in Minneapolis about a month ago, which was a really big success.

We had about 90 students coming from around the country, more than double the previous record for a national freethought student convention. Not only did we have more people, we had a lot of programs. We had about seven nationally-known speakers come, including Dan Barker, who gave a great talk. We had a panel discussion, a big Intelligent Design debate, and filled up a huge physics auditorium advertised to the public. It went really well.

I have graduated from college, but I’m still doing student activism and I plan on doing that as I go bald and start to stoop over, even though I won’t be a student anymore, because I think campus activism is really vital to our movement.

You’ve probably heard of the greying of the movement. It’s a phrase that’s come up repeatedly in publications lately like the AHA’s magazine The Humanist. Basically it’s just the concern that a lot of the activists in our movement right now are well beyond retirement age and there aren’t many middle-aged and younger people coming up behind them to replace them. People look at the demographics, look at the movement, and worry that it’s dying out. For this reason I think campus activism is very important. These are our future leaders, our future activists, the people who are going to take over when we’re all gone or are in the nursing home.

I also think campus activism is very important because of its potential. Campuses have a concentration of people and potential you don’t see anywhere else. You have all these students packed together at a university when they’re at their most open-minded stage in their entire lives. It’s after they’ve gotten away from their parents, they’ve started thinking for themselves, they’re away from being forced to go to church every day and it’s before they’ve settled into a rut. This is why you see, statistically, most religious conversions happen on the college campus. Campus Crusade for Christ and groups like that trumpet that. They really focus on this: this is the time to strike, you get these campus kids.

I think it’s important for us to get our ideas out there so college students hear about us, know we’re out here. Even if we don’t get everyone in the world to turn into an atheist–which I don’t think is a reasonable hope although it’s a nice one–the religious people we deal with who will never be atheist will be much more tolerant of our point of view and know where we’re coming from, and will be less likely to equate atheism with amorality and things like that. These students we have on college campuses today are the future politicians, journalists, lawyers, judges, voters, parents. It’s important to focus on them.

As I mentioned, the Religious Right is very aware of that. In terms of contrast, the Campus Crusade for Christ, one of many national student organizations on the other side of the “culture war,” has an annual budget that is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s over $200 million a year and they have literally thousands of full-time paid staff members. On our side of things, we currently have one or two staff members and I don’t even want to estimate how much money we have; it’s not much. We’ll never have as many people as they do, I’m sure. We don’t need to have that many because we’ve got the better arguments. I think if we get there on the campuses we’ll really be able to have a major impact in the “culture war.”

I think the Secular Student Alliance will be able to make a difference. We’re working on building a strong network of durable, active and effective campus groups around the country and around the world. This means that in the years to come, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is going to have a harder and harder time choosing which activist to honor at conventions like this, because there’s going to more and more of us, and the scope of our activities is going to get wider. But hopefully the extra difficulty will be dwarfed by the positive results of the heightened student activism.

In closing, I would like to thank Richard Mole for making the generous donation that made this award possible, and I would like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation not only for the award itself, but also for getting me started down the road into student activism in the secular community in the first place.

Gabriel Carlson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in Religious Studies, Philosophy and Rhetoric. A “student activist” awardee, he lives in Minneapolis, enjoys urban spelunking and punk rock shows.

Freedom From Religion Foundation