Darwin in Kansas: University Atheist Group Celebrates Darwin Day

Conrad Hudson, vice president of the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA), a student group at the University of Kansas, shares plans for Darwin Day this February 12.

By Conrad Hudson

Darwin Day and Kansas. You wouldn’t think the two would go well together, but here at the University of Kansas the celebration is on. My name is Conrad Hudson, and I’m part of the leadership at the Kansas University Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics, or SOMA for short. Many of our members proudly wear their SOMA t-shirts around campus, sporting the group’s motto: “The best god-damned group on campus.”

Our group started in 1999, but I’ll tell you just what I’ve seen since I became involved in 2009. The group was already growing strongly under the enthusiastic leadership of current SOMA President Joey Ralph, and by the end of the year group membership was up to 66. Since then we have continued to expand and now have nearly 200 members thanks to our leadership team’s commitment to the group, the incredible enthusiasm of the membership and a variety of activities. Just this past semester we’ve hosted movie nights, held secular social gatherings for major holidays, taken dozens of members to regional conferences, hosted multiple speakers, provided the campus with opportunities to “ask an atheist,” counter-protested hateful preachers, put on pot lucks, and negotiated arrangements for our members with local businesses (such as free use of meeting space in a local coffee shop and group fundraisers at local restaurants).

As we looked at this semester’s schedule and planned for future years, Darwin Day was a clear fit. First we checked with local science clubs and departments as well as the university’s Natural History Museum. Much to my surprise, none of them were holding Darwin Day events. This obviously would not do.

Inspired by the University of Northern Iowa’s Darwin Week (they do such great work, I forgave them for last March’s NCAA upset), we felt a lecture would be most entertaining to the science lovers in our club as well as the most beneficial to public. Now, to find a zoologist…

This summer I was privileged to volunteer as a camp counselor at the Center for Inquiry’s Camp Inquiry, a wonderful summer camp in Holland, New York for young inquiring minds. The camp was wonderful, the guest speakers were engaging and enlightening. The kids though, were awe-inspiring. Their intelligence, curiosity and open-mindedness were truly humbling. While there, I met Michael Blanford, the recently hired Director of Educational Programs for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). It wouldn’t be the last time I would see Michael.

Later that year, we both attended Missouri State University Chapter of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Skepticon III, the sequel to the Secular Student Alliance’s 2010 Best On Campus Event—Skepticon II. While at their wildly successful social night, we had a chance to catch up, and I invited him to speak for us on Darwin Day. Michael’s background in zoology and extensive experience in fostering science appreciation made him a natural fit for our event. Thankfully, he happily agreed to my proposal, and JREF even co-sponsored the event.

Michael’s talk is entitled “Inspired by Actual Events: Teaching Critical Thinking and Inspiring Awe by Examining What’s Real.” It’s perfect for our vision of Darwin Day. As the American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once put it, “Everyone is entitled to [their] own opinion, but not [their] own facts.” There certainly are a variety of opposing opinions in contemporary society. But if only we can agree on the basic facts as they are, on the best method for finding those facts, and for validating their interpretation, then we have a fighting chance at progress.

That’s what Darwin Day is to me: a chance for secular humanists and religious humanist—and humanists that don’t even know they’re humanists!—to come together; to celebrate truth and reason, to celebrate science, to be inspired by it, to be awed and empowered by it. That’s why we’re also setting up a table in the student union to gather signatures for the American Humanist Association’s petition for a national Darwin Day and handing out leaflets on campus to encourage students to sign it on their own time. We feel this is something everyone should be able to get behind.

Let’s get real, let’s get our facts straight, and let’s celebrate Darwin Day.

Conrad Hudson is the vice president of the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA) at the University of Kansas. He grew up in Topeka, Kansas as a faithful Jehovah’s Witness and left the church at 19. His passion revolves around providing community for the non-religious and pushing for a society that accepts them and all others.