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Secular humanist student group returns to campus after hiatus

A group of Washington University students has revived a secular humanist club on campus.

The Washington University League of Freethinkers (WULF), brought back last semester by now-seniors Eddy Lazzarin, Mark Povich and Laura Kelly, is gathering members and working toward official recognition as a Student Union group.

WULF’s reorganization reflects a rising number of secular humanist student groups on college campuses across the nation.

The Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a national organization that supports humanist student movements, announced in a recent press release an increase in secular student associations. The SSA cites a 2009 Labor Day count of 159 campus-affiliated groups—up from 100 last year and almost doubling the count from 2007, which consisted of 80 groups.

WULF was founded several years ago by University alumnus D.J. Grothe, now vice president and director of outreach programs for the secular nonprofit organization Center for Inquiry, which supports the new generation of WULF.

“When I was a freshman, there wasn’t really any place to discuss these things—except if you are actually religious and went to a religious group,” Kelly said.

Increased attention in the media recently has made secularism a more commonly discussed topic around campus, according to Kelly. Two years ago, another student group focused on the discussion of science and religion sprang up. This group inspired Kelly, Povich and Lazzarin to look into initiating a group of their own specifically geared toward secularism.

When the three heard on Grothe’s podcast “Point of Inquiry” that the Center for Inquiry offers support for student groups, they decided to contact the organization.

Aid came in the form of a box full of fliers and pamphlets. Soon enough, WULF began to hold meetings to gauge interest from the student body. The three founding members called on friends from the philosophy department who shared their interests, they and used Facebook as a tool to find potential members.

“I was Facebook friends with another freshman who was humanist and then Eddy must have heard about me and friended me,” said freshman Derek Sun, who just joined WULF for its first meeting this year. “I was looking for clubs that interested me. Eddy invited me way before school started and I decided, ‘I’ll give this a shot.’”

The number of students in attendance at the meetings has been growing since the group’s formation last year.

“Every meeting there have been more,” Lazzarin said. “The first meeting [last year] I’d say there were probably 15, second meeting there were like 20, third meeting about 25 people. And if we do the stuff that we want to do—go to Skepticon 2, do the community service that we want, get an opportunity to go tabling—it can’t do any more but grow.”

Last Wednesday, 21 students gathered in a philosophy classroom for the first WULF meeting of the semester to hash out plans for the group. Getting the group’s message out played a key role during the hour.

“I personally think there’s a lurking humanist population on campus,” Lazzarin said.

To bring WULF out of the woodwork, Lazzarin considered setting up a “de-baptism” table on campus. The table would call on doubting students to declare their skepticism of religious belief by being squirted with a water gun or—as one member suggested—dunked in an inflatable kiddie pool. Joking in response to the suggestion, Lazzarin said he didn’t “want this to be the Inquisition or anything.”

Another item on the meeting’s agenda was the idea that later in the year the group could adopt the theme “An Atheist Loves You,” with the aim of dispelling some of the stigmas that can surround atheists.

“It’s like that Woody Allen joke,” Lazzarin said. “He tells his mom he’s an atheist and his mom is like ‘Woody, an atheist? You don’t have to believe in God, but do you have to be an atheist?’”

While activism is a draw for many of WULF’s members, some are looking for a community similar to the kinds found in church or religious gatherings, Kelly said. Kelly cites secular fellowships as a growing trend among atheists nationally.

Sun said he believes the predominance in number of religious groups on campus calls for the formation of a group specifically for atheists and non-theists.

“[Atheists and non-theists] deserve a group of their own to voice their own concerns about the role religion has in our government and in education,” he said.

In Lazzarin’s opinion, students are joining WULF for a wide variety of reasons.

“What attracts people to the group can really range from downright frustration with religious dogmatism all the way to curiosity to meet people with the same beliefs,” he said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were some people who were like, ‘My God, I’m sick of crazy religious people.’ I mean, there are definitely those.”

At the moment, the fact that WULF is not formally recognized by SU poses problems for the budding organization, such as difficulty in getting funds to attend conferences and bringing in guest lecturers. The Center for Inquiry, however, has offered to help contact and even fund speakers.

“It just makes it hard when you don’t have money or a space. Fortunately, thanks to the philosophy department, we have space,” Lazzarin said, laughing. “And thanks to my parents, we have money.”

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878