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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 students.

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 American students.

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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