As you may have noticed, Associated Students of Madison’s Student Services Finance Committee recently approved almost $70,000 of funding from the General Student Services Fund for the student organization Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics.
On the surface, it appears that this is only fair. Religious student organizations such as Badger Catholic have been receiving funding from student government for years. Given that AHA addresses similar issues of spirituality — or lack thereof — as religious student organizations, albeit in a different way, it seems only reasonable they should also receive funding.
So, I understand why ASM has to fund AHA — if they didn’t, they would certainly be accused of demonstrating a preference for religion over atheism. At the core of this issue is the question of whether or not atheism and religion are equivalent in some sense, in which case they would both be equally eligible for funding.
They aren’t. It’s obviously tough to define what exactly a religion is without getting lost in abstraction, but it isn’t hard to define atheism with respect to religion. Atheism is the antithesis of religion.
A religious person will tell you what they believe in, whereas an atheist will tell you what they don’t believe in. An agnostic person won’t say much either way. There’s a brilliant passage in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” in which he explains agnosticism as the complete inability to make any leap of faith at all — while religious people believe God exists and atheists believe there is no God, agnostics don’t believe anything at all. As for humanism, my understanding is it attempts to refute religion with an absolutist belief in science and philosophy.
Atheism, humanism and agnosticism are all distinct from religion, and it is regrettable they must be considered legally and financially equivalent to religion. That’s why it’s ironic when atheism tends towards the dogmatic and evangelical and begins to look more and more like a bizarre form of fundamentalist anti-religion than a philosophical rejection of religion.
Just look at Richard Dawkins and his public crusade to “disprove” religion with science. First of all, he portrays science and spirituality as if they are mutually exclusive — which, as far as I can tell, displays a lack of respect for both science and spirituality. What is more obnoxious is the way in which he travels around the country proclaiming how wrong the majority of human beings are to believe in religion. Isn’t that the pinnacle of condescension? Atheism is right, and the majority of human beings are wrong?
Atheists remind me of militant vegetarians. A religious person would be likely to say a prayer of thanks before eating a cheeseburger, while an atheist would hold forth over dinner about how reprehensible it is to eat meat, to the supreme annoyance of everyone else at the table.
If you’re atheist, good for you. You don’t have to waste your breath telling everyone else how “wrong” their religion is, for the same reason they don’t need to waste their time trying to convert you.
To me, the real problem with this funding decision is ASM has been handcuffed by a precedent of funding religious student organizations. Now, to avoid accusations of prejudice and to comply with legal precedent, they must fund all sorts of organizations that address issues of spirituality. Granted, ASM tried to cut funding for Badger Catholic in 2007 and were overturned by the courts, so student government isn’t solely responsible.
The problem with this is the money in the General Student Services Fund comes from student segregated fees. Because ASM operates with a blanket policy of funding spiritual student groups, atheist students are indirectly paying for Catholic worship activities, and Catholic students are indirectly paying to promote atheism. That isn’t fair to University of Wisconsin students. Neither Badger Catholic nor Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics have any business receiving funding that comes out of the pockets of every student at UW. The decision of whether or not to support an organization whose mission is religious or atheist is incredibly personal. Students have a right to freedom of religious beliefs — they deserve the right to choose freely which religious or atheist student organizations they support financially.
Charles Godfrey ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in physics and math.