By Simon Isham–
Religion, ideally, brings people together, helps us see similarities across societal boundaries and gives us the ability to love one another more perfectly. The point of the Secular Student Society at U of L is likely something similar, but without requiring members to believe in a deity of any sort. These good intentions come out a bit muddled when atheists begin charging for hugs.
On Nov. 15, the SSS held their Hug an Atheist! event on the West Lawn by the SAC. Students could pay $1 to hug a member of the organization. Proceeds were “donated to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.”
As a member of a few student organizations myself, I understand the need for a low-cost, low-maintenance fundraiser like this; they’re especially prudent when the club doesn’t expect a return on the investment. But the concept of “Hug an Atheist” brings up different issues than do embracing a francophone, a feminist or a fratboy. Religion, or lack thereof, stands in the way of what is otherwise a pretty solid charity event.
Specifically, the fundraiser may give students, who are not involved with the SSS, the false impression that atheism is a belief set centered on material reciprocity—that they’re pimping out their love. ‘If you give me your money, I’ll give you the emotional satisfaction of a hug.’ Quid pro quo, Clarice.
On the other hand, many religions espouse the value of unconditional platonic love to all; in a perfect world, hugs from religious people would be on the house. Why would I want to pay a dollar to hug an atheist when I could hug a Christian for free?
Furthermore, Hug an Atheist Day is already ‘a thing.’ It’s celebrated on the first Friday in June, but for reasons entirely different than those practiced by the SSS. Hug an Atheist Day was founded by William Bermudez on Facebook in 2009 as a way of showing love to people who do not believe in or doubt the existence of a god. Hugging an atheist on this day is symbolic of a person’s sympathy for atheists and agnostics, who take a lot of flack from religious communities. According to a 2011 study done by psychologists at the University of Oregon and the University of British Columbia, atheists are as distrusted as rapists in certain situations.
I’ll concede that it was probably an unintentional blunder on the part of the SSS to hijack the concept for this “holiday.” I’ll concede as well that the SSS’s fundraiser probably did more good for the victims of a tragic disaster than the harm it may have wrought in my ideologically nit-picky scenario. It certainly shows character that members of the organization were willing to suffer outside in the cold for four hours in the name of charity, while I charged right past them to buy some hot coffee at Jazzman’s.
What I won’t concede is that the fundraiser would have been better, in theory, if it had been a bake sale, a clothing drive or a car wash. I think that every day should be Hug an Atheist Day.