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Student Voice Interview - University of Toronto


This article originally appeared as part of the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

Senior Campus Organizer interviews the University of Toronto's Secular Alliance. Jennie Fiddes, Vice-President and Program Coordinator, penned these replies.

Your recent 'Belief, Behavior, and Biology' talk sounds very interesting. Can you share some of the highlights?
The evening was focused on two special guest speakers - Dr. Michael Persinger and Dr. Robert Buckman. Dr. Persinger is a professor at Laurentien University who is famous for conducting studies on the neurological basis of belief. Dr. Buckman is a local oncologist, humanist, author and comedic public speaker. Dr. Persinger spoke of his experiments in which he is able to induce "religious" experiences by imposing certain magnetic fields around the brain, and Dr. Buckman spoke about his book Can We Be Good Without God? in his typical hilarious fashion.

We were anticipating a good crowd with these two excellent speakers but even our greatest expectations were exceeded. Over 600 people showed up and dozens were crammed in the aisles or in standing room only in the back. This was the first event we've had where we had presold tickets online, and we were almost sold out before the evening even started. Never underestimate the power of a few students and thousands of posters!

Your organization is very good at working with the adult groups in your area. For example, you work closely with both the Humanist Association of Canada and the Humanist Association of Toronto to name a few. How has the collaboration benefited your group? Would you advise our other affiliates to network with their local groups?

Working with local groups will always bring both enormous benefits and a lot of headaches. Our relationships with each other have been strained at times, but we work through them. The biggest difficulty in any affiliation is when both groups have a very different approach to everything. The Humanist Association of Toronto is generally a much older crowd that has been around Toronto for a long time, and many of them are satisfied with the way things are going. And then we come in, the upstart energetic group that gets an idea and actually goes out and acts on it. So we've butted heads a few times.

But we've also helped each other out a lot. The Humanists have the benefit of long term experience and a nice email list of local secularists. We advertise each others' events on our webpages, pool in many of our resources and work together on many projects. Our new Secular Freethought Centre would not be possible without the hard work of both groups.

I would advise everyone to work with their local groups. We are all secularists and we are all striving for the same cause, regardless of our varying approaches. It's the religions that section off into smaller competing groups and that's not a model I want to follow.

The Humanist Association of Canada is less actively involved with us, although they did invite our group's president, Justin Trottier and me to come to the annual conference as guest speakers. I was asked to speak about the secular youth movement in Canada. It was amazing to be standing in front of humanists from all across Canada, talking about students in secularism.

Tell me about this Humanist Centre I keep hearing about.

The Secular Freethought Centre (SFC) is the first atheist/humanist/freethinker drop-in community centre in Canada. Due to the generosity of a private donor and the hard work of many of our volunteers, we opened our doors last June. We are open from 1-9, seven days a week and we are staffed entirely by volunteers.

The building itself is a two minute walk from the main University of Toronto campus. We have a phone number (416-971-5676), wireless Internet access, and a full working kitchen. The drop-in area is full of comfy chairs and couches and we have hundreds of books in our library, all of the books can be taken out by our members.

The SFC exists as a headquarters for the Toronto Secular Alliance and the Humanist Association of Toronto. Both groups hold all their meetings and many of their events there. We have movie nights, lecture nights, book clubs, and music nights. We run our political campaigns out of there and have a monthly Flying Spaghetti Monster spaghetti dinner.

There are displays all over the Centre that describes the various programs we have going and gives people the opportunity to start their own secular activities. So far, we have a variety of activities popping up, everything from "Critical Thinking Board Game Night" to Bullshit! Night to secular yoga. We have an online calendar that lets everyone know what is going on.

Our main goal is to create a secular community. Religious people can always go to church to talk to a like-minded person - as secularists, we generally don't have that option. So we created one. The SFC is a place where people can come in and ask questions or rant, knowing that we aren't going to hate those who come in to question god. We get people dropping-in from the street all the time (we have a large sign up front and on several busy intersections) who are amazed at what we have managed to create. A lot of people love just dropping in and hanging out, they may come in to watch a movie, surf the Internet, have a cup of coffee or a philosophical debate. So far, it's really working. And with the help of our volunteers (and hopefully more donors), we will continue to contribute to the secular movement.
You guys are an extremely active group. What else is in store for the Toronto Secular Alliance?

Oh, we always have plans in store! So much to do, so little time.

The Secular Freethought Centre takes up a fair amount of our time and efforts. We are continuously expanding our programming and drawing more and more people into it. We are also working on a major political campaign. Ontario has a redundant and discriminatory education system. Every parent can send their child to either a public school or a Catholic school. This is blatant religious discrimination and has been repeatedly condemned as a human rights violation by the United Nations. Yet, many Canadians see it as an integral part of our history and traditions. We are currently raising 10,000 signatures and are working on many written articles and organized political protests. The biggest problem is that no one is willing to talk about it - because they know that if the discussion gets out in the open, they will lose. We are going to go public and make this a huge issue for the next election.

We are also expanding our efforts across Canada. We have helped create groups at York University, University of Toronto at Mississauga, University of Toronto at Scarborough, Ryerson University, Carleton University, McMaster University, Waterloo, University of British Columbia, Lakehead, and Guelph. We are in continuous contact with secular students across Canada and are encouraging them all to come out and create their own secular community.

We have recently expanded our newsletter from a small printed 4 pager to a 12 page e-zine. All issues are available online. We are also starting up a subscription service where you can get a years subscription for only $35 (8 issues of secular goodness!) The Freethinker's Press always welcomes articles from people all over the world.

We are about to open a secular store, where we will be selling secular goods like t-shirts and buttons.

We are also expanding our online presence. We have an active forum and we have recently created a Facebook Site - anyone is free to join!
Have you considered noting this interview in your impressive Freethinkers Press?

The next couple of issues are thematic ones, so it likely won't make it in soon. But I will look into it. Our last issue focused on the question "Is Science Under Attack?" And check out our special Christmas Issue in December!

We always welcome contributions to the FP! Our readership is rapidly growing and we hope our writers will grow with it.

This article originally appeared as part of the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

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