Thinking about Death as an Atheist

After spending a good amount of time listening to a CFI: Morning Heresy recording of an interview with mortician and death activist Caitlin Doughty, exploring her website, and watching videos on her YouTube channel, I have learned quite a bit about the industry of death and ways that people shy away from or become more comfortable with our mortality. This subject is new to me.

Until about two months ago, fear of and anxiety toward death were completely foreign to me. While I was growing up in the church, I was comforted by the promise of an afterlife in heaven with all my relatives and friends. During and after my transition out of faith, death was not something I thought about. After all, everybody dies and that’s that. Then, eleven months ago, my grandmother passed away — my first experience with the death of someone I cared for. Suddenly dying was something I couldn’t help but consider.

How do most of us approach death in the United States? We send the deceased to a funeral home, pay for their embalming, a casket, a burial plot, and a headstone. Doughty makes the point in her interview that we are removed from the process, which could play a part in our discomfort regarding not only death, but mortality itself. This can be true for religious and non-religious people alike. I felt very out-of-place at the funeral service for my grandmother, perhaps partially because of the undeniable religious undertones and readings from scripture. The whole experience seemed unreal though. We all cried, hugged, and mourned, but when I touched my grandma’s hand for the last time she felt like a Barbie, not a human. Is that death?

Doughty says that being around a dying body can bring a person closer to their loved one’s passing, but it also creates an awareness of your own inevitable death. While having time with the person and having a funeral or wake in a home is not a possible or desirable option for every family, it can bring people face to face with something that they frequently avoid.

How can we find comfort in someone’s or our own dying? I have no idea yet. But Caitlin Doughty does, and it’s not religious.

Fun resources by Caitlin Doughty:

OrderoftheGoodDeath on YouTube

California State University Sacramento

Links for the Sabbath

Religious tests for office are widely held to be unconstitutional, but what about tests for private businesses, or student organizations? This week’s topic: religious tests and student organizations.

Recently InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was de-recognized by the California State University system. The 23 university campuses stripped InterVarsity’s student organization status because each chapter requires a religious test for office, affirming Christian values in line with the national organization’s views.

Officers, not members, of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship must affirm the national org’s doctrinal basis. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has criticized the decision as detrimental to freedom of association. On the other side Eugene Volokh, prominent law professor at the UCLA School of Law, has previously argued that universities lack a duty to to subsidize student groups that have a discriminatory test for office.

Should student organizations be allowed to require ideological tests for office? Would it be reasonable for UNIFI to have Christian leadership? Weigh in and comment below!

The World and Us: Being A Spiritual Atheist

Recently over the summer, I had been thinking a lot about what I believe and what I know. I felt confused, lost, and frankly so frustrated that I couldn’t be content with conformity and the unquestioning nature that everyone from my hometown seemed to have about their Christian beliefs. I began to take long walks just to think, but eventually I found my inner dialogue would begin to mute as time passed by. I became content with silently soaking in and analyzing the beauty of each plant, animal, and cloud that I saw.

I began to wonder if by being an atheist, or at least agnostic, I was taking the wonder and beauty out of my perception of the world, as if by not believing in a supreme being I wasn’t allowed to appreciate nature or the connection that I felt with everything around me. Of course, I later realized that that was absurd, and that being an atheist only makes me understand and see this relativity to my surroundings even greater.

Spirituality, to me, is feeling like a part of the universe, connected to all of life around you. You don’t have to be religious and believe that you and all of life were specifically created by an external entity to feel an overwhelming connection to the universe.

647.original-1128The very atoms in the molecules that compose our bodies are traceable to stars, stars that once combusted to create the elements in which we are all made up of. Because of the death of these stars, everyone and everything that we see is connected not only to each other, but also to the cosmos. To quote the eloquent Neil deGrasse Tyson, “we are in the universe and the universe is in us.” I can’t see a more spiritual connection than knowing that you are made up of what you live in.

We can also see this connection in the history of our own DNA, which shares characteristics with all species on Earth. Humans are just one tiny speck of life in the ever growing and evolving tree of life, which started billions of years ago and now continues into the unknown. It blows my mind that we share common ancestors with everything from butterflies to bananas. Everything on Earth is related to every other thing, and though the thought of this huge tree of life, where humans are not the central and most integral branch, may at times make you feel tiny and unimportant, it can also make you feel big and vast when you realize that you are a part of something so all-encompassing.

I realized two things that summer. One, I really love nature. And two, I don’t think that I will ever find my answers nor know the meaning of life, but I do know that I can feel the trees whispering when it’s windy, and when the stars engulf the sky I feel big and small at the same time, and I know that everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone, and that’s the most beautiful truth that I know.



Events for the Week, 9/15/2014

Wednesday, September 17, 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM: Know Your Arguments: Why God Exists

Join us in the Elm Room of the Maucker Union to hear arguments for the existence of god and a critical discussion. We’ll be headed to Beck’s after to continue the conversation.

Friday, September 19, 5:00 PM: UNIFI Goes to Food!

This Friday join members of UNIFI as we eat together in the Piazza dining center! We will be eating in one of the meeting rooms (to be decided) and would love to see you there!

Sunday, September 14, 11:00 AM: OUT WEEK BRUNCH!

Show your secular colors by wearing a UNIFI shirt to brunch, and buy a raffle ticket for our raffle next week to support the Northeast Iowa Food Bank! Speaking of…

Next week is Out Week!

Helping secular students be out about their beliefs, or lack thereof, with a week of service events! We’ll be raising money for the Northeast Iowa Food Bank with a raffle for donations from local businesses, tabling in the union with “Ask an Atheist” signage, and cap off the week with our Flying Spaghetti Monster Dinner on Thursday, September 25th!

Links for the Sabbath

This week’s topics: blasphemy rights and free expression in the United States.

A Pennsylvania teenager was charged with “desecration of a venerated object”. Local news in Everett, PA report that he could get two years for lewd photos a statue of Jesus. The relevant law defines desecration as “Defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise, physically mistreating in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.”

Creator of conservative political documentaries Dinesh D’Souza had been indicted for campaign finance law violations and now faces sentencing. D’Souza’s defense argued that he was facing selective prosecution on account of his conservative views and attacks on the administration; failing that, he has since pled guilty. Arguing for leniency, famed atheist and author Michael Shermer penned a letter that caused strife in the secular community. The vitriolic twitter controversy doesn’t bear repeating, but it’s frustrating to see the secular community rally against free expression1 and participation in the legal system.

My take on these cases? Whether someone agrees with your beliefs shouldn’t be the basis for determining whether or not what they did was wrong. No one deserves to go to jail for outraging the sensibilities, even if they were being an idiot. And if the alleged selective prosecution took place, no one deserves to go to jail for outraging the establishment (or atheists), even if they did create 2016: Obama’s America. If you only support the speech that agrees with you, you don’t support free speech.

  1. This author, at least, doesn’t agree with campaign fraud; but that’s an issue beyond the scope of today’s Links for the Sabbath. []
Know Your Arguments: Why God Exists

Do You Know Your Arguments?

This year UNIFI has a bold new take on our event series, Know Your Arguments. As part of this reboot, we will be taking on the common arguments that are professed by many we disagree with. Not the abstract and philosophical, but the concrete arguments that are taught in churches, youth camps, and private schools. We will take those arguments and present them respectfully and honestly. In the past, this event series has focused on the arguments for climate change, for evolution, and for disbelief in a God. When we begin our new series we will focus exclusively on the the opposite; arguments against climate change, against evolution, and against disbelief in a God1.

The first event of the new series is Know Your Arguments: Why God Exists. This isn’t a trick, or a bait and switch. We will present and advertise this as a critical analysis of the arguments for the existence of god. It’s important for us to be able to cogently discuss these arguments without building up a straw argument. That means not mocking the argument, or poking fun at those who believe its merit. This isn’t a way for the non-religious to have a laugh at someone else’s expense. Most of our members will not accept the arguments we present, but this event is intended to help everyone articulate why they do or do not accept them.

We have discussed these arguments before, as most of our community identifies as atheist or agnostic. But it is primarily the counter-arguments that are plentiful; our blog has seen many of these by members and officers. Whether through my own argument that other people don’t believe in God, or the counter-apologetics posted by others on the moral argument or the teleological argument. The emphasis has been on presenting “the secular counter-argument”. I think a change of pace might be in order.

For us to meet that change, each event in our new series will begin with the arguments we disagree with. Again, not to poke fun at the arguments, but to provide a basis for meaningful discussion. Once the presentation is over, we will invite the audience to discuss in groups. I expect there will be proponents and opponents, and the conversation may be vigorous and passionate, but at no point should it be disrespectful. With arguments wrapped up, the presenter will call the groups to address the points and counter-points they came up with.

This format is an effort to push secular individuals outside of their comfort zone, and be willing to discuss arguments they may not believe in. Secular and atheist organizations often look inward to their own counter-arguments as their bible. I don’t want to dismiss that as valid, as there are very large and successful organizations that need to root out supporters by expressing uniform beliefs. And these organizations cannot afford to spend time addressing nuanced arguments at the scale of a national campaign. But at our local level with students and a small community, it fits our mission better to advance a dialogue with our peers and address exactly those nuanced arguments. And for once in the life of this organization, I will be able to answer the question, “If you’re a freethinker, why don’t you consider all viewpoints?” in the affirmative.

  1. I would be remiss not to mention that there have been counter-examples, but they have been in the minority. []

Amateur Astronomy with Alex: How far is Mars?

Let’s pretend we want to go to Mars. It’s not hard to do, if you set aside the health effects of significantly reduced gravity, an unbreathable martian atmosphere, average temperatures resembling those in the colder parts of Antarctica1, and planet wide dust storms that last for up to several weeks2. Good, we’re almost ready to go. But how will we get there? Mars is pretty far away you know.

Due to its relatively high orbital eccentricity, the distance between Earth and Mars varies quite a bit. The furthest Mars can be from Earth is approximately 401,300,000 km, and the nearest it gets is around 56,000,000, about 1/8th of the first figure. Those are big numbers, literally astronomical. How can we really wrap our heads around that sort of distance? We’ll try a few approaches.

For simplicity’s sake we’re going to consider the rough minimum distance, as stated, 56 million kilometers. Recently, the Earth and Mars have come about this close together about once in each of the last few centuries3. So our first question is this: how long would it take to walk that minimum distance between home and the Red Planet?

A comfortable walking speed for most human beings is around 5km/h4. If you were to walk non-stop at that speed for 24 hours a day, for 365.25 days a year, you could walk 43,830 kilometers per year. And at that pace, you could walk the minimum distance to Mars in about 1277 and ⅔ years. To reach Mars5 before the end of 2014, you would need to start walking (and not stop) in 737. Supposing an average human life expectancy of 80, you could live and die about 16 times on your way to Mars. Maybe we should drive?

Suppose the year is 1909, and your family happens to be the proud owners of a brand new, state of the art, Model T6. It gets a whopping 13-21 mpg, fantastic by contemporary standards. This baby can hit a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour! Wow! But we’ll be on the road for a while, so let’s go easy on the engine and drive a steady 40 mph, or approximately 64 km/h. That’s 564,530.4 km per year, and at that rate, we could make our trip in just under 100 years! Some people actually live that long. They’re called centenarians. In the United States, about 17.3 per 100,000 people were living at the age of 100, according to the 2010 Census7. So, if you began the trip in your Model T as an infant in the year 1909, ignoring the imaginable health effects of spending your entire life sitting in a car, there is a non-zero chance you would be alive when you reached your destination, right around 2009.

The point of this post isn’t to help you plan a road trip to Mars. It is to get an idea of how far apart planets are in our solar system. By the way, Mars is far away from our perspective on Earth, but on a cosmic scale it might as well be our next door neighbor. We’ll talk more about bigger distances in a later post about the nearest star to our sun.

In the mean time, think about this. Today, the time it takes to send a probe to Mars is well under a single year. The initial cost to build, launch, and operate the most recent rover was $820 million. It’s reasonable to assume that the price of a spaceflight carrying humans to Mars will be measured in billions. While we will one day travel to Mars, and perhaps even maintain human colonies there, it is likely that almost if not all humans alive today will live their lives here on Earth. It’s one of those ideas that doesn’t seem especially peculiar until you really think about it, until you learn a little bit more about all the other things happening out there in the universe.

A few relevant links:

One of several good, to-scale, browser friendly models of the solar system. Just scroll down (at several times the proportional speed of light!):

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot monologue, which largely inspired my amateur interest in outerspace:

HD comparison of outer space objects, from our tiny moon to some pretty damn big stars (feel free to turn down the dramatic music):


  1. NASA “Mars Fact Sheet” []
  2. NASA “Planet Gobbling Dust Storm” []
  3. Aug. 23, 1924; Aug. 18, 1845; Aug. 13, 1766, according to NASA: “Approaching Mars” []
  4. Wikipedia (I checked the citations, WP is easier to read) Preferred Walking Speed []
  5. If you actually try to travel in a straight line between planets, the only thing you’ll reach is empty space. For some interesting, technical information about interplanetary flight paths, you can start here []
  6. All Model T info from Ford: “Model T Facts” []
  7. Census 2010 []


Events for the Week, 9/8/2014

Wednesday, September 10, 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM: Know Your Arguments: Secular Identities

Join us in the Elm Room of the Maucker Union to find out what the heck a freethinker is, how many kinds of atheists there are, and more! Afterward, some of our members will be headed out to Beck’s for dinner.

Sunday, September 14, 11:00 AM: BRUNCH!

Start (or end) your week right with UNIFI Brunch! Rain or shine, you can expect to find us gorging on #HyChi every Sunday at the College Square Hy-Vee.

As this is the first Events for the Week in some time, I’ll take a moment to recap the events we have held over the past couple weeks.

Sunday, August 24, 11:00 AM: First Brunch

Dozens of members, new and old, made that trek out to Hy-Vee for brunch, conversation, and a fun start to the year. I was happy to see that despite everything going on with UNI’s new and improved “Welcome Week” activities, I saw many new faces!

Sunday, August 24, 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM: Progressive Picnic

On Sunday, August 25th we co-hosted our annual kickoff with six other progressive student organizations, who collectively saw at least a hundred sign-ups. And wouldn’t you know it? I saw a miracle! Close to two hundred pounds of ice were transubstantiated into snow cones and relief from the heat.

Sunday, August 30, 11:00 AM: Brunch: Space Cat Edition

Over Memorial Day weekend we had more new members join us for Chinese food and interesting conversation!

Tuesday, September 2, 4:30 PM – 7:00 PM: UNIFI Game Night

Cards Against Humanity left us in stitches, and I tried my hand at narrating a game of Werewolves that took up the rest of the evening. I hope our raucous laughter and heated accusations of treachery had the students in the coffeehouse floor above wondering what they were missing out on.

Thursday, September 4, 6:30 PM: New Member Cookout

Each year UNIFI hosts a New Member Cookout to introduce the officers. This year we had our first ever UNIFI Olympics organized by our own Laurelin Berkley. The sun and the humidity didn’t stop us from giving it our all in a t-shirt relay, bobbing for gummy worms in whipped cream pies, and racing those classic red cups across an agonizing three feet using only a straw. Team “#1”, led by VP Kate Heetland and Alumni Coordinator Margaret Nervig lived up to their name and secured gold.

Sunday, September 7, 11:00 AM: Bro Tank Brunch 2

UNIFI Bro Tank Brunch 2

I think this banner speaks for itself. Did Carl Sagan come back to attend? Did Neil deGrasse Tyson stop by to give us his approval? Let’s just say there’s no evidence they didn’t.

UNIFI Alumni: Alex Popinga

UNIFI’s Alumni Program is growing! This year’s newly appointed Alumni Coordinator will be profiling several alumni over the course of the year as well as sending out a quarterly newsletter. If you’d like to receive the newsletter and stay up-to-date with alumni things, please sign-up for the alumni program here. Our Annual Alumni Reunion will most likely take place on Saturday, December 27th in Cedar Falls. Save the date! 10654027_10203928866317887_1284466488_n

  • Alex Popinga
  • Major: B.S. Honors Research in Biology, B.S. Bioinformatics, minor in chemistry
  • Graduation Year: 2013
  • Hometown: Hampton, Iowa
  • Current Location: Auckland, New Zealand
  • UNIFI Position: Director of Membership



What are you doing with your life now and how has UNIFI influenced it?

I am spending many a happy hour as full-time slave to science, better known in academic circles as “PhD student” or “doctoral candidate” for the posh. Specifically, I study scientific programming and conduct research in the Computational Evolution Group at the University of Auckland. Ours is a fascinating, multidisciplinary and international field of research. We are geneticists, computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, software engineers, physicists, epidemiologists, zoologists, ecologists, psychologists, climatologists, and wine scientists (yep, no joke).  We do theoretical and also practical work. It’s pretty wicked, and I absolutely owe UNIFI partial credit to the way I’m currently passing my greatly improbable and astounding existence.

Obviously, the first UNIFI event I attended was BRUNCH!!!1. As you do. The second event was one of a series UNIFI used to put on called Grab a Brew, Share Your View. It was debate-based, there was beer, and it was brilliant. Over the course of the next few years attending UNIFI events such as these and hanging around its members vigorously honed my skills in thinking on my feet and general engagement in debate, but it wasn’t all just rhetoric. I suppose I have at least somewhat of a nature-driven propensity toward logic and reasoning, but as with so many other components of a human they require practice and refinement. And although I cannot make a causal statement, I do know that my involvement with UNIFI and a sudden, fierce interest in science and mathematics (I had been a music major previously) developed right around the same time, and it was like a Cambrian freaking explosion of fascination.

Also, the UNIFI members who were my closest friends absolutely impacted me by their friendship and support, but also by the various expertise and interests with which they inspired me.  I had an extraordinarily low opinion of philosophers before a few UNIFIers straightened me out, and the programmers and mathematicians in the group assisted me immensely – whether they realize it or not – in developing my own intuition in these areas, which are vital to my current research.

Tell us a little bit about some of your research projects.

Primarily, I have been working on problems in epidemiology.  This past year I have been focused on developing models for epidemics that follow what we call an SIR model – that is, outbreaks in which a host undergoes periods of susceptibility (S), infectedness (I), and removal (R) from the effective population by death, quarantine, recovery with immunity, etc.  This includes viruses such influenza, HIV, HCV, and possibly the ebola virus (although ebola infections also include a latent or “exposed” (E) period and may be modeled with an SEIR model instead).

Interestingly, a colleague of ours in cognitive psychology who recently published a Science paper with my research group in language evolution has proposed that we may actually observe the spread of certain religions from an epidemiological perspective.  The concept is not entirely new – Richard Dawkins, for one, has spoken of religion as a virus – but our research group actually has both the tools and now the data to sit down and model it.  From these models we will be able to tease apart the underlying parameters that cause the epidemic behaviour, e.g., rates of infection, rates of death, population sizes throughout time, and so forth.  With abundant metadata we may also be able to find correlations between environmental factors and prevalence/incidence of the infectious agent, in this case religion.  For example, what effect does economic or political turmoil within a country have on the spread of religion within it?  What about natural disasters?  Does religious fervor gain momentum under such circumstances as we would intuitively predict?  These are the types of questions we may be able to provide insight on using such techniques as the SIR model.

Were there any specific experiences you had or professors you worked with while attending UNI that led you to pursue this career path?

I mentioned before that UNIFI did influence me in a tremendous way.  There are also several professors to whom I am grateful to have worked with at UNI, namely:  Ira Simet (chemistry); Jeff Tamplin, John Ophus, and David Saunders (biology); and of course my thesis advisors Jim Demastes and Theresa Spradling (biology).  Demastes and Spradling certainly provided the most direct effect on where I am today, literally and figuratively.  It was Demastes who initially lit that fire of interest in scientific research under me, it was the joint effort between Demastes and Spradling that nurtured the flame, and it was through their research lab that I discovered my current field.  (And it was during a trip to Skepticon with a few UNIFI mates that I discovered my current PhD supervisor and research group!)

The NASA internship, too, was certainly made possible by these experiences.  Plenty of students can get a decent grade in class, but it’s what you choose to do with your time outside of the classroom that really counts.  Not only does it look good on a C.V., but you’ll write a better essay when you actually have something to write about.

What do you miss most about UNIFI?

The people, the inside-jokes, and the activism.  There are certainly issues in New Zealand that could and need to be addressed (e.g., million-dollar tax breaks for churches), but everything is turned down several notches in comparison to the U.S.  For example, after finding a flat the first thing I did when I moved here was search for a UNIFI-esque group to join.  The closest thing I found was the university’s Reason and Science Society, which may sound ideal, but it is quite a different group than UNIFI.  Yes, there is circle-jerking over Carl Sagan, and there is scientific, philosophical, and political debate aplenty.  However, there is also an outspoken evangelical Christian as our secretary.  And they go beyond being simply not exclusive; for a while there was a disclaimer at the start of every event that:  “We are NOT an atheist group!”  It makes me uncomfortable, in that it is very reminiscent of the time I felt ashamed of the word “atheist”.  It’s a very different atmosphere.

Any advice for current members?

Be a go-getter.  Attend all the conferences you can – you never know what you might learn or who you might meet there.  And wear a UNIFI shirt while traveling for insta-best friends.

UNIFI: Not “Those” Atheists

The word atheist is often said with the same inflection certain cable news correspondents give the word liberal, and I’m ready to sigh as soon as I hear it. Atheists are known, strictly for worse, for being as stubborn as they are awkward. Online, atheists are associated with fedoras, trench coats, and an unyielding desire to remove the word “God” from our dollars and change. It’s not a good image to have.

We aren’t those atheists. I want every student to know that we’ll welcome you with open arms and an accepting community. I want every group at UNI to know we’re willing to work with you on issues we agree on, and have a conversation on those that we don’t. To that end, we have partnered with over a half-dozen organizations this year already. UNIFI will continue to find common ground with organizations like Threehouse, also known as the UNI Wesley Foundation, and if you’re in a campus ministry or religious organization, we want to work with you too.

We aren’t those atheists. I want every student to know that we’ll welcome you with open arms and a community that will accept you.
We can dispel the stereotype of atheists with service and activism. That will often mean standing behind other groups when it’s their cause, and standing with them when they want our support. This past weekend UNIFI co-hosted the fourth annual progressive picnic with six other student orgs. We didn’t put ourselves front and center – or even right next to the snow cone machine. We were just another group among the rest. This sort of organizing is the future of our group and our movement, and it has to be if we are ever going to move beyond the stigma around the word atheist.

On issues of reproductive rights, we stand behind our friends at UNI STARR. When it comes to equality, we’ll stand behind, not before, UNI Proud, One Iowa at UNI, and the Feminist Action League. When it comes to our politicians, we’re non-partisan, but I would be remiss to say that most of our members don’t also go to meetings of the Northern Iowa Democrats to lobby for political action. And when we’re making moral judgments or bad arguments, we’ll listen to our friends in Philosophy Club. If those things matter to you, you might be interested in joining those groups.

But if you’re looking to talk about science, skepticism, and religion, we think we’re the group for you. We won’t hold back when we say evolution and climate change are matters for science, not religion. We’ll not mince words when it comes to psychics that promise to speak to your loved ones. We’ll pass on arguing about “God” on our currency, but we’ll readily give voice to the harm done by centuries of religious dogmatism. We will do these things with honesty and integrity, and I invite you to join us for an exciting year.