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Class of 1999: Student Freethought Graduates

by Austin Dacey


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 1.


This spring, as students everywhere graduate, the student freethought movement will also cross a stage and accept a well-earned diploma. The stage will be the Center for Inquiry International, the site of the annual conference of the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) and Young Freethinkers Alliance (YFA). The diploma will be the commendation, support, and fellowship of Council for Secular Humanism leaders and of the assembled freethinking students themselves. For this young movement, 1999 has been a senior year: loud, fast, and fun, and propelled by fresh growth and new opportunities.

The year began with the arrival of Amanda Chesworth as CFA coordinator. This energetic Canadian-born, ex-Texan skeptic quickly won the affection of student leaders. She even convinced over a dozen of them to report to headquarters in Amherst for the summer-long "Workfest '99," a volunteer effort to upgrade CFA materials and launch new student services. This intensive interning yielded the Student Freethought Group Organizing Guide, a complete how-to for uniting freethinkers on campus, as well as great improvements to the CFA Web site and a storehouse of ideas for new programs, such as the CFA Debate Circuit, which makes experts in atheism, humanism, and church-state separation available for student-sponsored debates.

Although Lingua Franca: The Journal of Academic Life only caught the tail end of CFA's summer fling, it impressed the editors enough to devote a favorable seven-page cover story to the organization. The summer came to a crescendo at the Woodstock music festival, where 13 CFA members added an Apollonian voice to the Dionysian din, making thousands of new student contacts and then escaping without incident when, as one CFAer would later report, Rome (New York) was sacked by vandals.

The Woodstock venture was inspired by Micah White, the rising star of the YFA, officially launched in May 1999. Following his op-ed in the New York Times, Micah received awards for his church-state activism from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Micah graduates this spring with a clear conscience, having already told his peers what he thinks about graduation prayer, on the set of "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" and the pages of Teen People magazine.

Meanwhile, Chris Mooney, former CFA publicist, field director, and self-elected ambassador to the Music Television (MTV) generation, initiated a makeover of the CFA newsletter to suit the late 90s. More satirical, visual, and student-oriented, the Campus Freethinker trades in the more august style handed down by a former generation of humanists for one distinctly its own.

When Chris headed back to New Orleans to freelance fulltime, he was replaced by Austin Dacey, a graduate student in philosophy who had grown impatient with philosophy that—in Dewey's words— "bakes no bread." Starting in September, Austin joined Amanda in helping students to cook up the 1999 CFA campaign, which mobilized a massive response to the latest creationist attacks on evolution.

Entitled, "S.O.S.: Save Our Science, Save Our Schools," the campaign centered on an internet-based petition urging state education authorities to uphold the teaching of evolution and other threatened sciences. The petition was officially launched at a rally on the Kansas State Line in early November in conjunction with the CSH conference, "Monkey Business in Kansas." Celtie Johnson, one of the young-earth creationists responsible for the Kansas curriculum decision, arrived to stage a counter demonstration, engaging the protestors in philosophical arguments for intelligent design. Bad idea. These particular picketers, like CFA members Kate Martin and August Brunsman, had read their Hume.

Before long, the S.O.S. Campaign had won the support of Americans United, the American Geophysical Union, Freedom to Read Foundation, Kansas Citizens for Science, and other national organizations. Meanwhile the petition attracted new students, as thousands of signatories visited CFA online and found out what it has to offer. Just as important, S.O.S. laid the groundwork for sponsoring campaigns each year as a regular service to student freethinkers.

The burst of CFA activity in 1999 was channeled by CFA's new organizational structure—another brainchild of student leaders—which consists in ten interlocking student committees, headed by an executive council of committee representatives and linked by a network of Internet discussion forums. At the annual conference in June, this structure will be renewed by the election of new officers, and their training by former officers, and the laying of plans for the coming year.

So, as Amanda departs the position of CFA coordinator this spring, she leaves in place a self-sustaining organizational structure and a regular annual schedule of campaigns, initiatives, and national events. On this foundation it can more steadily engage the new challenges and dynamic development that will no doubt follow graduation day.


Austin Dacey is the new CFA coordinator.


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