Last year, Jason Baidenmann was walking through the Park Blocks at night when he heard songs of worship coming from the Smith Memorial Student Union. Baidenmann, who is non-religious, was inspired by the music. The songs did not inspire him religiously, but instead inspired him to create a group that would represent the non-religious community of Portland State.
Discovering life without God
Last year, Jason Baidenmann was walking through the Park Blocks at night when he heard songs of worship coming from the Smith Memorial Student Union. Baidenmann, who is non-religious, was inspired by the music.
The songs did not inspire him religiously, but instead inspired him to create a group that would represent the non-religious community of Portland State.
“There were student groups for all denominations and religious sects on campus,” Baidenmann said. “I thought about why there was no representation for non-religious students.”
Baidenmann, the founder of Atheist and Agnostic Students at Portland State, started the group last year because of this need. It was originally an online group on www.facebook.com, but in the fall it became a full-fledged student group.
Baidenmann was born into a Christian family and started on his path to becoming non-religious in high school, when he started thinking critically about the world. First went his belief in Jesus, then heaven, and then God. His path continued into college, when he enrolled in an ethics class that forced him to question morality in a world without God.
“It was like a really violent experience,” he said.
The goal of the Atheist and Agnostic group is not to discredit any god or religion, or come up with any definitive answer about the world, but just to get students to talk about these issues.
Baidenmann, along with the other student members, stresses the importance of self-awareness and critical thinking. Although there about 10 members who help make group decisions, as many as 25 come to hear speakers, discussions and other events the group hosts.
“We’re actually in a bit of an identity crisis right now,” Baidenmann said. “We are constantly asking ourselves why we’re doing this and why we’re here. We want other students on campus to understand exactly what we stand for, and I feel that sometimes because of our name we can be viewed in a negative light.”
“We’re not a hate group or anti-religious,” he added. “A lot of us are philosophy majors and are very interested in reading and talking about religion. We’re not opposed to any religious groups on campus; we want to encourage them to engage in conversation with us.”
Last week, author Austin Dacey was on campus to speak about his new book, The Secular Conscience. Atheist and Agnostic members invited him to campus in hopes of raising awareness about their student group while offering opportunities for discussion.
“Austin Dacey is such a great voice for us,” Baidenmann said. “Having him here gave us the chance to really explain all the various attributes that make up who we are as a group. In a weird way, we’re a kind of support group for students.”
According to Baidenmann, breaking down stereotypes while engaging in thoughtful and critical conversation is the group’s primary goal.
“Open understanding is a necessary step towards a society where we do not have to have superstitions and have no need for them,” Baidenmann said. “To think critically about science and our surrounding world will give us a more defined understanding of ethics.”
Baidenmann will graduate soon and hopes that the younger students within the group will continue to expand membership while remaining clear about what the group stands for and how to appropriately represent themselves.
“We want to be provocative yet respectful,” he said. “The more vocal we get, the more likely it is that we will see a negative response, so it is imperative that we continue to have conversations and raise awareness about the stereotypes associated with the words atheist and agnostic.”
Starting the group was a way to bring students together, Baidenmann said, and he hopes in the future the group will strengthen its bonds with religious student groups on campus.
“We are not looking to discredit anyone or any god. When we have intelligent conversations with them about faith and morality, some students leave feeling more reaffirmed about their faith than when they came in,” Baidenmann said. “People like Socrates and others have been asking these questions for 5,000 years. We want to continue that conversation with an open mind and a willingness to listen.”