An Interview with Karen Loethen — Previous Member, Meramec Secular Student Alliance — Part 1

Image: Karen Loethen.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Karen Loethen: Thanks, Scott. I come from a small town in Illinois, just your basic homogeneously white, lower-income Christian small town. My family didn’t really practice religion much until I was in my younger teens. My own parents come from differing religious, Mom was Methodist and Dad was Catholic.

Their two families clashed over these differences so we kids were mostly kept away from religion just for the peace of it for my parents. But I was very attracted to it so I visited churches of many differing Christian denominations over my childhood years. I truly thought that “good” girls went to church and I was a good girl!

Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?

Loethen: Luckily enough for me, I was also a reader and a researcher. After grad school I got married and had my first child. It was during this period that I was doing massive reading on the historicity of religion.

The obvious man made nature of religion allowed me, first, to reject any contact with religious institutions. This was satisfying for me for about a year.

All of the doubting and reason (not to mention the complete absence of historical support for religious claims) simply couldn’t support the religion any longer. During that time I was still thinking of myself as a deist. I was 34 years old when I realized that the existence of a deity was simply inconsistent with all observable and known reality.

I was reading the Bible, perhaps not ironically, when I got a thought out of the blue: BAM. This book is ridiculous and there is no god. It makes no sense.
 It was an incredible moment for me that truly changed my life!

Without the slightest bit of exaggeration, a ton of weight slipped off of my shoulders that moment and I’ve been incredibly happy ever since.

Jacobsen: You were a member of the Meramec community for a semester. The semester was spent in the freethinkers’ club on campus and the SSA. How did you find them, eventually? Why were you drawn to them?

Loethen: I was interested in the fledgling club because I believe in the process of THINKING and in the power of COMMUNITY. The group’s founder, Kyle, was very active on campus with various campus clubs, including being president of the Student Governance Council (SGC).

SGC is the group that oversees campus clubs. He was so busy and also about to graduate to he asked me, begged me really, to help build the Freethinker’s Club that he had started on campus.

I’d seen one of his little flyers on a bulletin board one evening when I was taking a break from my class. I took a picture of the flyer on my phone and contacted the email address a few days later. I was delighted to see an atheist presence on campus! I am very drawn to people who take initiative and who are true thinkers like Kyle. I was very excited to support his efforts.

What I discovered, though, is how very new and ailing the group was. Kyle was simply too busy to put in the kind of time he longed to offer the club and the students on campus didn’t seem interested in a secular club.

Kyle and another guy worked hard, but I think they had a lot to learn about group organization and planning and such, just like any student would; that’s not a criticism. Most other clubs on campus were continuous groups that had been in place for many years, faculty support, campus presence, tons of inherited momentum.

Kyle, knowing he was about to graduate the campus, begged me for weeks to give the club a hand in getting a stronger foothold. I resisted for a long time because I felt that the clubs on campus were for the kids and I am, well, not a kid. I finally agreed to give it a single, intense semester of push.

The first thing I did was take our group over and join the national organization Student Secular Alliance, the SSA, because why reinvent the wheel? SSA offers tons of support to groups seeking to have a secular voice on campus, including a personal advocate online to help in any way they can.

Jacobsen: Now, you remain a parent, of a secular student. While a student at Meramec, you took your kid to school too. How does bonding with a child through a common ground, secularism, help build trust and friendship within the family?

Loethen: Oh, that one’s obvious, I think. With no forbidden subjects, no belief in the concept of sin, and no ridiculously male-oriented overseeing body of rule makers, our family is extremely open with and supportive of our kids’ interests and activities.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for secularist activism on and off campus?

Loethen: I’m not sure I can say what is a road to successful secularist activism on campus because our club wasn’t successful. Perhaps that was because of the Christian vibe on campus, or the young minds’ inability to think outside of their religion, or maybe it was simply the commuter nature of our campus.

I’m sad to think that the club doesn’t have a major presence on campus because I know of several students who would approach, then avoid, then approach, then avoid the group activities. I could see the cognitive dissonance working in them; I could see that they were thinking and I know that a secular entity being available is important to their journey.

But I’m happy to tell you things that we tried over the two semesters of my involvement with the club. We put out press releases for activities that we did on campus.

We had some very interesting speakers come to our meetings, from activists and scientists to philosophers, we did several fundraisers for Project Peanut Butter (a wonderful program that funds a nutritious peanut butter-like product that gives intensive nutrition to the most needy populations of children in Malawi and Sierra Leone), we created social events, and we held informational tables on campus for both secularism in general and for our group in particular. We also had a couple of social events for members.

As for off campus, I’m a huge atheist activist. I have several blogs, I have a podcast called The Secular Parents on a Youtube channel called Secular TV, and this month I will be speaking to the atheist community at an atheist convention in St. Louis called Gateway to Reason.

How to be an activist? Be openly atheist and live a life of integrity, peace, knowledge, and reason.

Image: Karen Loethen.