Godless Grad Student

news and reflections from an active atheist and disabled graduate student

Archive for the ‘general’ Category


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For those of you that have not heard, a man who identified himself as an atheist held three hostages at the gunpoint.  The hostages are safe; the gunman was shot and killed.  It seems to be titled “Discovery Hostage Situation” through the media.  I first heard about it though a phone call yesterday afternoon.  I didn’t have Internet access all day, so I’m catching up with the media reports now.  Due to extremely heavy traffic on 95 S, I finally made it home at 2 AM and I’ve spent the last hour reading media reports and sharing some thoughts.

The gunman was James Lee, although I knew him as  just “Lee.”  Lee was active in the local atheist community.  In addition to the thoughts on overpopulation he “shared” yesterday, Lee believed the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy.  He was also adamantly anti-immigration.

In one of my first conversations with Lee, he informed me that he moved to the DC area to be involved in political activism… that this was where everything was supposed to be happening and he was disappointed that more was not going on.  He certainly did not hide the fact that he thought he could save the world but he never made any statements about breaking the law or using violence to obtain his objectives.

In short, he said he was staying here until he ran out of money – probably this year.  (He was not employed.)  I was suspicious that he was planning to commit suicide when that time came.

Lee never hesitated to share his thoughts at local events.  This quote (from CNN) sums up his behavior well.

During the negotiations, Lee exhibited a “range of emotions,” Manger said. At times he was agitated and at times he was calm, but he never strayed far from his grievance against Discovery, he said.

Lee would frequently have an outburst for several seconds and then resume a calm demeanor.  Members were frequently taken aback during these moments.  He was interested in public speaking and specifically honing his ability to convey his arguments more effectively.

I was concerned about some of his fringe thoughts and I warned other local leaders about Lee.  I also discouraged Lee from attending events with a group I lead.  Although he continued to be active in several other groups, he did not attend the group I lead since May of this year.  As I read the media reports now, many of the pieces are coming together and I’m now realizing that today’s events were Lee’s plan for quite some time.  I also went back and searched my e-mail and I noticed he used the name “Mister Guerilla” on his account… I hadn’t paid any attention to this earlier.

This entire situation brings up something else that I have been working on a blog post to discuss.  Atheism is only a statement about one thing – a lack of belief in god.  It says nothing about what else you may or may not believe or how you came to lack belief.  Some people do not come to atheism through critical thinking and other times those who do, fail to apply critical thinking to aspects of their life outside of religion.

Violence (or threats of violence) is never the answer.  I plan to share more thoughts on the situation tomorrow but it’s been a long day and I need to get some rest.  I specifically want to touch on what we, as local leaders, can do to create safe spaces for inquiry and reflection.

One last thought before I go to bed: I don’t think he did this *because* he was an atheist… more tomorrow.


Written by godlessgradstudent

September 2, 2010 at 2:45 am

Google in the classroom and a boy who hates atheists

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I’ve been taking art classes once in a while at Northern Virginia Community College.  I want to earn their AAA degree in Fine Arts and was working on it pretty consistently until about two years ago when the class I needed wasn’t being offered.  [It’s a personal interest… as I’m also in graduate school.]

This spring, however, it was back on the schedule (Art 132, Fundamentals of Design II taught by Lauren Anne Jacobs).  I was excited and things were fine until the third day.  The instructor unlocked the door for the students and then left the room.  We still had a few minutes before class and while I was unpacking my bag I overheard a discussion between two students.

Names (and possibly genders) have been changed.

Jack was telling Jill about a debate he recently had with an atheist.  (I, of course, hear the “A” word and start eavesdropping a little more intently.)  Jack asked the atheist what happens when they die.  According to Jack, the atheist replied that they “return to the earth.”  Jack didn’t really understand this and went home to think about it – he comes up with this  “really cool” idea.  Jack wants to kill the atheist, bury the atheist under a tree, and then return after some time to cut down the tree and have the Bible printed on paper made from the tree.

Unfortunately the hatred in his voice did not make it sound like Jack was kidding and – what I found to be even more astonishing – Jill never voiced an objection!  The teacher returned and class began.  I was terrified.  I kept to myself.  After what seemed like forever, the class eventually ended without incident.

(Note: Jessica has since informed me that there is a similar joke about an atheist ‘becoming’ fertilizer for a tree and being cut down to be used for the Bible.  I didn’t know about the joke but I think it’s a coincidental as Jack made several very specific statements and the joke does not include *killing* the atheist.)

I have to admit that I was hesitant to tell people I was afraid.  I should have but a part of me wondered what they would say – after all, I am the leader of the largest atheist group in the DC Metropolitan Area… afraid of being an atheist.

I extensively considered leaving the course.  I concluded that I could slide through without attracting too much attention.  These people didn’t know who I was and I didn’t have to tell them.  I took my buttons from national secular organizations off my bag.  Things quietly progressed for a few weeks.  I did most of my work at home and kept to myself during class.

Our projects consisted of a physical art project and a 3-4 paragraph written statement.  The first time we had a project due I was the only one who brought in a written statement.  I wasn’t really comfortable being the center of attention when I was asked to read my written statement aloud.  Here I am, someone who regularly speaks to large groups, and I’m terrified to take my eyes off the paper.  At the end of the class, I went up to the instructor after Jack and Jill had left.  I was going to say something but before I could she told me how much she “appreciated” my written statement… I ended up just rolling myself out of there without saying anything about Jack.

About 4 weeks into the class, I realized there was probably someone in disability services I could speak to… and I did try… it’s a long story, but essentially I didn’t get to talk to anyone.

For a few weeks things just proceeded along.  Although I did most of my work at home I do enjoy art and the situation never affected the quality of my work.  If anything, I did better work at home than I would have rushed through during class.

One day she lectured on “professionalism in the arts” where she told us how important it was that we all had a physical website.  So at the next class meeting, I wasn’t surprised when she asked if anyone in the class had an online presence.  I said I did, because I assumed it was a survey question and I assumed several of my classmates did as well.

She asked for the address of my website.  I told her I did not want to share and it wasn’t about art.  She asked what it was about and I said it was a collections of articles I wrote.  She asked what the articles were about and I said “leadership.”  She still wanted the address.  I told her I didn’t want to answer and she proceeded to Google me *during* class.  Due to a technicality she only found one link about my Automotive Technology degree.  (She asked if I had a NVCC degree to confirm that she had found me and I replied in the affirmative.)  She asked several more times for my address and finally told me her fiancé was great at Internet searching and she would have him find my site.  When I left class I knew it was only a matter of time.

That evening I considered writing to the instructor to privately express how inappropriate I think it is to Google a student during class but after composing a few drafts I discarded the message.  The instructor is young.  She frequently shares quirky observations and stories about her other students.  I felt she was only persistent with regards to my website address out of curiosity and I didn’t think I could explain this to her without giving her even more interest in finding me online and I had no idea how she would react.

After we returned from Spring Break, another assignment was due.  I came into class late and she was already discussing the project.  (Although I always completed the work, I frequently came a few minutes late to avoid conversing with the other students in the hallway before she arrived to unlock the door.)  I said that I had my project and started to get it out.  I was wondering why she was not walking around the room with her grade book when I realized I was – yet again – the only one with the assignment.  I wanted her to just look at it and move on so I again said that I had it.  Jack turned around and stared me down like he wanted to kill me right then and there.  He could have been jealous, or perhaps just in a bad mood but of course all I could think about was Google.

During that class, one of the students did not bring all of his materials to work on the assignment and he went home.  After he left, the instructor discussed his performance and personal life with the rest of us. I was a little taken aback.  Did she talk about me when I was late?  Would she talk about me if I was not there?  Had her fiancé found me on Google?  Would that be the topic of conversation?

Unfortunately I was going to be leaving class early the following week!  I had already told her I needed to leave for an event but I didn’t tell her what the event was.  I had arranged for Tom Flynn to come to Mason and I needed to pick him up at the hotel, set up the room, etc.

There was one class before the Tom Flynn event and I arrived on campus fashionably late – as usual.  Only this time, I couldn’t get out of my car.  I thought about the shooting on campus. I thought about being Googled in class.  I wondered if next week they would be talking about me.  And I knew it would not be difficult to figure out where I was.  I turned the car back on, drove to my mother’s house, and tried to relax before work that evening.

The next day I sent the instructor and e-mail to inform her that I wouldn’t be returning.

She withdrew me from the class.  Quite frankly, I felt relieved.  I’m not at all excited about saving up another $450 to take the class again but it’s great to not be in an environment where I’m in fear all week about every upcoming Monday and Wednesday class.  I am a very outgoing extroverted person but I had become so reserved and silent in the class.  I didn’t even realize how stressful all this really was until I spent a week without the class.  I’ve continued to create art – in fact, today, I was working something that would have been for that class.

I did eventually tell the instructor why I decided not to return.  She agreed that what Jack said was unacceptable and she offered to speak to him about hate speech if I would provide a name.  There are only 6  students in the class so it wouldn’t be hard to figure out but I decided not to do that at this point because I don’t know if I’ll still see him around campus.  She also said that she should have realized I was uncomfortable with her Googling me in class.  She did not, however, seem to understand that Googling a student *during* class is inappropriate overall.  I did try to explain to her that there was a difference in searching for someone privately to satisfy curiosity and searching *during* class… I asked her what she would have done if she Googled a student and discovered something about them that clearly was not information to share – perhaps a criminal record, or pornography.  She replied that she would simply have closed the browser and said she did not find anything.  I told her that this really would not remove the tension for the student.  They would be uncomfortable just knowing she knew which is quite different from realizing a teacher could *potentially* know from searching at home.  I also told her that even if a student had nothing of interest online it could make *other* students uncomfortable.  Would they be next?  She didn’t respond.

As a result of all this I’ve changed the topic of my term paper for one of my graduate classes.  I was researching the performance of students who transferred to 4-year schools after spending time in a 2-year college versus those who directly entered a 4-year college.  I’ve decided to research the discrimination of atheists in the college environment.  I’m disappointed to say that it’s much more of a problem than I ever would have imagined.  The paper will be about 30 pages but I am planning to post it when I’ve finished revisions this May.  Perhaps I’ll put it on my website for the next teacher who Googles me.

I’m really proud to be a part of the nontheistic community.  For quite some time I was afraid to tell people how scared I was but everyone has understood.  Although I’ve received Bibles at my door and tracts about hell on my windshield, I had never personally come across anyone who verbally expressed the desire to kill an atheist and I’ve never been in a situation before were I was afraid to tell someone I didn’t believe in their god.  (I have received two death threats but they turned out to be staged.)  I’ve heard plenty of friends from conservative areas tell me they had been threatened with physical violence due to their lack of belief but I now truly understand the extent of discrimination against those of us who don’t believe in god.

Note: One person has privately inquired about my grade in the class.  I don’t know what my grade was but I assume it was an A or B.  I turned in everything on time.

UPDATE: I did speak to someone in the disability office who was very responsive and has corrected the problem which kept me from speaking to someone.  I also spoke to the Program Chair and his response was that he would put the incident in her file.

New Directions!

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After the success of my Darwin Day (Pasta?) Dinner post, I’ve decided to change the direction of this blog…  specifically, I’ve discovered that people actually are genuinely interested in hearing about when leadership fails.  Maybe it’s just because it’s more dramatic, but I’d like to think I’m helping someone out there.

So, that’s the new direction I’m going in and I already have 4 interesting stories to share since the Darwin Day event.  Hopefully I’ll get a chance to type them up this week.

Also, if you *were* coming here for news stories you may have noticed those posts are gone!  I’ve moved them to a new mailing list tojust for posting and discussion of secular news stoires.  There are already almost 300 messages on the new list!  It’s opperated by District of Columbia Atheists, Incorporated but it is open to the general public.

Written by godlessgradstudent

March 26, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Posted in general

Wondering why I’ve started this blog?

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First of all, hello, and welcome to my blog!

Since I became Organizer of Beltway Atheists, in July of 2008, I’ve been posting news stories and current events to the Beltway Atheists mailing list.  I began this practice simply because it was something routinely done by the previous Organizer.  Many people like the stories, some feel I spend too much time crawling the web on the look-out, and a small minority complains of excessive e-mails.  However, there’s also a vocal group outside of Beltway Atheists who would like access to these stories but don’t want to join the group for one reason or another.  Often, it is simply because they have heard of my work from a friend but do not live in the the area and would not be interested in events.

As a result, I’ve decided to place links to these stories here on my new blog rather than on the mailing list.  Actually, I should take that back… I *may* also decide to send out a weekly summary on the mailing list.  I will have to see how much time I have once the blog takes off.  I also do not want to severely impact the level of activity on the list.  There are also a few other reasons I’ve chosen to start a blog.

Primarily, I’d like to comment on some of the stories.  Since I am the “leader” of Beltway Atheists, I’ve been hesitant to comment on the stories.  Secondly, I’d like to talk about other issues.  One of the things I’ve been hesitant to discuss in the past is my disability and how my disability (a spinal cord injury) and other medical issues affect my role in the atheist movement.  I have not discussed this in the past because I wanted people to look at my activism rather than form a view of my based on my disability.  I feel that I now have an established role in the community, however, and can bring light to my disability without it overshadowing my contributions to the community.

I had been thinking about starting a blog for several months.  This is, for the most part, unfamiliar territory for me… last weekend, I asked Hemant Mehta about it and he suggested WordPress.  So, here I am!

– Shelley

Written by godlessgradstudent

January 12, 2010 at 1:21 am