August E. Brunsman IV,
Executive Director, Secular Student Alliance
Brunsman has been the unpaid Executive Director of the SSA since 2001 and has been the paid ED since October 2004. Before that, he worked as a programmer for the Institute for Humanist Studies for three years. In 1997 he founded Students for Freethought at the Ohio State University where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa majoring in psychology and minoring in mathematics and cognitive science in 2001. Brunsman is also the vice-president of Camp Quest, Inc. where he has volunteered since 1999. Few have contributed more to bringing and keeping youth to the humanist movement than Brunsman.
Q: August Brunsman, thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedule to be interviewed for The Eloquent Atheist. You’ve been active in organizing students since 2001 (if I’m not mistaken), and I sincerely appreciate all your work. When I think of the money behind and the administrative power exerted by organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, I’m heartened that free-thinking students seem to be making real inroads in establishing active and successful college groups. I live in Texas, where I believe that 10 groups are now active. How positive is the outlook for secular students on our nation’s campuses? What can any of us do to help?
A: I’ve actually been involved in organizing students on campus since 1997. It was then that I helped to found Students For Freethought at the Ohio State University, which I’m proud to say is still going strong. Shortly after founding the group, I got involved in the Center for Inquiry to help organize at the national level. In 2000 eight of the ten member board of directors of the student wing of CFI felt that the student movement was so important that it needed its own, full autonomous and highly cooperative, umbrella organization. So we started the Secular Student Alliance in 2000. In 2001 I became Executive Director–in 2004 I finally started drawing a salary.
I think the outlook for secular students is better than ever. Last weekend the SSA got its 100th campus affiliate group. We prune our list twice a year of defunct groups, so the fact that the movement is at over 100 organized groups is quite an accomplishment for the youth of America. To help put this number in a bit of perspective, this time in 2005 we had just over 50 groups. Young people are really getting excited about secular values and it’s wonderful to help them get organized.
There are a lot of things that you can do to help. If you’re a student, start a group! The Secular Student Alliance would love to help you. You can request a free group starting packet from us here. Students and non-students alike are all strong encourage to support the Secular Student Alliance by joining as a voting member. You can do this on our website. Student membership is $10/year and non-student membership is $35/year. This membership, in addition to conference discounts, gives you a vote. The membership of the Secular Student Alliance elect (and run for) the Board of Directors. We’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit and all of your membership dues are fully tax deductible.
The Secular Student Alliance gets the majority of money from the contributions from its members. We also work with a small handful of foundations to get funding–but the number of foundations interested in supporting atheist activism is quite small. We live and die on the support of our members.
There are lots of other ways to help get students involved. If your local off-campus group is serious about getting young people in their area involved, they can work with us to hire a Regional Campus Organizer. We’ve done this with Atheists United in Los Angeles and New York City Atheists. In both cites we have part-time employees who work to organize the secular students on campuses in their areas and to connect them with the local off-campus group doing the funding. We can actually work with your group to help secure funding for the position.
If your local off-campus group isn’t sure it’s able to help hire a Regional Campus Organizer yet, you can take smaller steps. We can send you flyers to post at campuses near you. Just hanging up a couple hundred flyers is often enough to find one motivated student to really get the ball rolling on the ground. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in either of these approaches.
There are lots of other wonderful organizations to get involved with. The Institute for Humanist Studies supports the Secular Student Alliance and lots of other organizations that bring youth into our movement. Camp Quest is a fantastic program for bringing children from non-theistic homes into our movement and to let them and their families know that they are not alone.
Q: What advice do you give to students, in balancing academics, career preparation, and activism? It is a tough go, and I noticed my own daughter (now 23) struggling with these matters.
A: I often meet students who are eager to put their activism first and their academics on the back burner. I always try to tell them that balance is key and that they are in school primarily to get a degree, not run a freethought group. That as it is, I think that running a group teaches skills that you’re unlikely to learn in any class. Having experience at leading people, managing a budget, fundraising, marketing events, organizing events, dealing with the public and the press, and all the other “real world” things that one has to do to run a student group is great preparation for life after college. But all the activism stuff needs to take a back seat to the academics. Get that degree done and then move on to a point where you can go back and support your group as an alum. Your moving on also creates a vacuum for new leadership to rise up and gain those organizing skills.
Q: You recently attended the Crystal Clear Atheism conference, sponsored by Atheist Alliance. From all the promotional materials, it looked to be an amazing event. I noticed that you were on the line-up of speakers. How did your presentation go? What feedback did you get? What were the conference highlights for you?
A: It was an incredible honor to be presenting on the same schedule with Dennett, Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Lori Lipman Brown, and so many of my heroes. I presented with the Secular Student Alliance’s Southern California Campus Organizer Neil Polzin. We spoke about our Regional Campus Organizer (RCO) program.
As far as feedback goes, we’re now in touch with a couple more local off-campus groups that want to explore getting a RCO in their neck of the woods. Turn out was a little light as we were up against three other presentations at the same time and had the first slot of the morning–never an easy sell. But we’ll be on the conference DVD (which I recommend not for our presentation, but for Dennett, Hitchens, Brown, etc., etc.).
Asking about conference highlights is sort of like asking which parts of the sun are the brightest–there might be an answer, but you’re likely going to need help from NASA get it. <g> Seriously though, there were a few things that did shine brighter than the rest for me:
Seeing Daniel Dennett present was wonderful.
I’ve been a Dennett fan since around the time I started Students For Freethought at Ohio State. I’ve been following his work ever since. I’ve read The End of Faith, The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and I’m reading Breaking the Spell right now. Of the four, you can really tell who is in his native discipline. The God question is primarily a philosophical question, and I think Dennett makes the best arguments and has the most justification behind his statements of the four. His presentation on reasons for belief on Saturday night was fantastic.
It was wonderful to see Ayaan Hirsi Ali in person and to hear her story. I haven’t read Infidel yet so my knowledge of her, going into her presentation, was only from a couple of articles I’d read. It was amazing to hear her story in person. The fact that someone so brutally raised in willful ignorance can become an outspoken leader for breaking away from religion is a singularly inspiring commentary on human potential.
Q: The Secular Student Alliance is allied with the Secular Coalition for America; I recently interviewed Lori Lipman Brown, the Director of SCA. Tell our readers something about how the two groups work together. Do you have cooperative ventures that you undertake?
A: The Secular Student Alliance was one of the four original member organizations of the Secular Coalition for America. We help a great deal with SCA governance: Joe Foley is both the treasurer of their board and our board and is a graduate student at Stanford. I am the SCA Board’s secretary and one of our board members is also SCA’s web master (Mary Ellen Sikes). SSA also helps (a little) with funding SCA.
We’ve started sending updates about the Secular Coalition for America’s activities in each edition of our monthly newsletter the eMpirical, and we let our student leaders know that they can go lobbying with Lori. As is the case with a lot of our operations, we try to use our very limited resources to connect students and student groups with excellent projects that others are doing already-rather than duplicating any efforts with our own national level involvement. We also get Lori to speak at as many of our affiliate groups as possible. She is in very high demand as a speaker, so it’s not possible to get her to as many as we would like, but we do our best.
Q: If you don’t mind a personal question, why did you become such an ardent activist? What motivated you? What inspires you to keep working as hard as you do?
A: A lot of different forces led me to my current path.
I was raised in an agnostic home. I grew up getting cold looks and inane questions (e.g. why don’t you just kill your grandmother then?) when I told people that I didn’t believe in a god. So I have an innate understanding that the non-theistic don’t always get a fair shake in our society.
As a child, I was also deeply moved by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and several of his books. This was my introduction to the Enlightenment. I took two big things away from Cosmos:
1) Knowing how the world works makes a huge difference in how happy humans can be;
2) The human desire for power is so strong that it can motivate people to destroy knowledge that would benefit everyone (even the person destroying it).
This is kind of summed up in my favorite quote from Sagan: “History is full of people who out of fear, or ignorance, or lust for power [have] destroyed knowledge of immeasurable value which truly belongs to us all. We must not let it happen again.”
I want to offer other people what I can, in order to make sure that no existing knowledge is destroyed, and that we work as quickly as we can to build new knowledge to make our lives better. I’m torn between fighting this battle as an activist and fighting it as a scientist, businessman, or politician. For right now activist seems to be a good mesh with my strengths.
I must also admit that as a career path, activism has its hedonistic pluses. While one doesn’t get a fat 401k, one does make a lot of wonderful friends who really care about what they are doing and care about what you are doing. It would take a whole lot of money to make up for these connections.
Q: Will you be active in the upcoming national elections? Where do you see the U.S. headed, post-Bush? Will there be rebuilding or at least patching of the “wall of separation?”
A: We had a Secular Student Alliance board meeting the night after the 2004 elections. The words of one of our board members stuck with me. He said, “I hope all the folks that wasted billions of dollars on TV ads over the last few months think about spending something on education over the next four years.” I think that being involved in politics is very worthwhile. I think it’s important to fight and win. But that said, I think it’s easy to get sucked into the circus and forget to make sure that the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, participatory democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics get their due in between elections.
My hope is that the Secular Student Alliance can help to build a foundation of critical, science-minded, and informed citizens that will raise the level of political discourse in our country and get all candidates and voters thinking and talking at a much higher level than they are now. I am glad that the Secular Coalition for America is fighting the day-to-day fight to keep religion and government separate. I vote and I have lots of friends far more brilliant than me who are deeply involved in electoral politics. However, I see the best contribution I can make as being longer term than that.
Q: Finally, do you think there is anything in particular that atheist and freethinking students can offer in the realm of student life? What would a campus be missing without their voices?
A: I think atheist and freethinking students can play an important role in letting their fellow students know that nihilism isn’t the only reaction to accepting the lessons of modern science. Atheist and humanist students can show their fellow students that one can live a happy, fulfilling, moral, meaningful life while still being quite at comfort with the teachings of modern science.
I think that many religions do a lot to try to setup the rules for human happiness in their followers. They make it seem like the only way to be happy now is if you’re guaranteed happiness forever and ever. In many college courses, students are going to learn lessons that will make it very hard to believe that religious guarantees of happiness can be taken seriously. Folks who embrace living this one life to its fullest, and who are comfortable with being happy with just that, can reassure students who are still letting go of their faith.