Executive Director's Corner
by Matt Cherry
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 1.
I Have Seen The Future And It Surfs
1996 saw the dawn of a new era for secular humanism. Two developments in particular
justify this bold claim: the launch of an ambitious ten year strategic plan for the
Council for Secular Humanism, and the creation of the Campus Freethought Alliance. I will explore the Ten Year
Development Plan in the next Secular Humanist Bulletin. In this column I will
look at the Campus Freethought Alliance and suggest how it reveals a glimpse of the future
of organized humanism.
The Campus Freethought Alliance was founded on August 9, 1996, by university students
attending a Center for Inquiry Institute course (see Free Inquiry, Fall 96, and SHB, Winter 96). The students created the
Alliance to coordinate the activities of existing atheist and humanist student groups, to
spark the formation of new campus groups, and to fight for the rights of non-religious
students nationwide. The Alliance is a sub-group of the Council
for Secular Humanism, which provides it with financial and practical support.
The group's founding statement, titled "A Declaration of
Necessity," attracted nationwide attention. The New York Times devoted a syndicated column to the
Campus Freethought Alliance, describing its creation as "one of the more interesting
news stories of the week." The publicity prompted many inquiries from freethinking
In early November the Campus Freethought Alliance held a conference on "Patriotism
and Secularism" (see Free Inquiry,
Winter 96/7). A dozen students visited The Center for
Inquiry for three days. In the course of a very productive weekend, they hammered out
a constitution for the Alliance, produced an introductory pamphlet, and began work on
guidelines for starting and running a campus group. The students also produced a press
release emphasizing the essential link between American patriotism and the secular
principles upon which the United States was founded.
By the end of November the Campus Freethought Alliance had become the largest humanist
student movement in American history. It included seventeen student groups and had members
working to start groups on more than 30 other campuses.
To build on this strong beginning, the Campus Freethought Alliance will hold its first
annual assembly in Spring 1997. The Assembly will be part of a joint conference of the
Council for Secular Humanism, the Humanist Association of Canada, and the Bertrand Russell Society. The conference
is aptly titled "Humanism: The Next Generation." It will be held at The Center for Inquiry, Amherst, from May 30 to June 1 (see
notice on page 15).
The success of the Campus Freethought Alliance is a tribute to the talent and
commitment of its student members. But it has also required a substantial investment of
resources by the Council for Secular Humanism. The Council
has devoted much time and effort to the Alliance, as well as covering all the travel
expenses for the students to visit The Center for Inquiry.
And we intend to increase our support for the Campus Freethought Alliance. The Council
is currently looking to hire an additional staff member to support and develop the
Alliance. We also plan to employ students from the Alliance as summer interns at The Center for Inquiry.
Our support for the Campus Freethought Alliance is surely a vital investment for an
organization committed to long-term growth. I believe our campus initiative is producing
the next generation of humanist leaders and activists. More immediately, it has given us
an invigorating injection of talent and energy.
Yet although the resources we have invested are quite substantial for the Council for Secular Humanism, they are insignificant compared
to the budgets of religious groups on campus. The Campus
Crusade for Christ is reported to have an annual budget of over $300 million. And the
aggressively evangelical Crusade is just one of hundreds of religious groups targeted at
In the face of the immense financial resources available to religious student groups,
it may not be possible to stem the flood of campus evangelism. The coming generation of
students can expect to experience a pervasive and militant religiosity on campus that
would have been unimaginable to their parents in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
Yet even as the flood of Christian evangelism and triumphalism sweeps across the
nation's campuses, another development is making the secular humanist alternative more
available than ever before: the Internet. Most universities give students free Internet
access. Many students spend hours a day surfing the World Wide Web and talking in chat
rooms or discussion lists. The Internet is a medium of ideas, debate and personal contact.
It provides an unprecedented opportunity to spread the ideals of humanism and to involve
students in the freethought community.
The Internet has already played a fundamental role in the development of the Campus
Freethought Alliance. The Alliance exists first and foremost as a cyber-community. It
maintains two internet mailing lists for discussion and planning, and uses Internet Relay
Chat to hold real-time on-line committee meetings. The campus freethought website, at "www.campusfreethought.org",
links to the websites of individual campus groups. Indeed the Internet is such a
ubiquitous medium of campus life that often a new student freethought group establishes
its website even before it holds its first public meeting.
The Alliance's cyber-community helps students starting campus groups. And as an
external source of advice and support, it can help sustain groups and ensure some
continuity when group leaders graduate. Information and ideas are shared across the
country. Freethinkers who cannot start a group can still participate in the
cyber-community of humanist students. Without the Internet they would be isolated: unable
to benefit from, or contribute to, the freethought movement.
The Internet will shape campus organizations into new forms. Students will be able to
form more inter-campus special interest groups and campaigns. Campus speaker meetings may
be less appealing now that students can surf the world wide web's ocean of ideas and
information. Campus-bound discussion groups cannot compete against Internet chat rooms and
list serves that bring together diverse people from around the world. Campus meetings may
therefore focus more on socializing and campaigning, or perhaps disappear altogether.
Already the use of the internet has given the Alliance an international dimension that
its founders did not anticipate. Most groups are in the USA and Canada, but students as
far afield as New Zealand, Israel and the Ukraine have joined the Alliance. Distance has
no meaning in cyber-space.
At present the impact of the Internet is most apparent in our new student organization.
But the "infomedia revolution" will eventually transform the whole of the
humanist movement. To adapt a famous quote, "I have seen the future and it surfs
the world wide web."
The Internet provides exciting new opportunities for spreading ideas and coordinating
activities. But in doing this, it may also diminish the role of traditional forms of
organization. Local speaker meetings may decline. National groups centered around
publishing may have to evolve or face extinction. Organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism will have to invest in new media
and build new structures and services. At the same time, they will need to find
alternatives to such traditional sources of income as reader subscriptions. Donations will
become even more important.
The Campus Freethought Alliance is bringing in new people and new ideas essential for
the long-term growth of the secular humanist movement. It is also revealing some of the
challenges that organized humanism will face in the coming years. The infomedia revolution
will create many exciting opportunities, but it will also radically alter the environment
in which we operate. To survive and flourish in these changing circumstances, the
Council for Secular Humanism must develop new activities and
new forms of outreach. In my next column I will explore the Council for Secular Humanism's
strategic development plan to meet these challenges and seize the opportunities of the
coming decade and beyond.
"I have seen the future and it works."
Lincoln Steffens, 1919.
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