The University’s Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics club is gearing up for its biggest semester yet, according to newly elected AHA president Chad Thibodeaux.
Thibodeaux, a 27-year-old chemistry Ph.D. candidate, has been involved with AHA for two years. AHA plans to host Louisiana’s first secular conference, “Reason on the Bayou.” The conference will take place April 14 in the Royal Ballroom of the Student Union.
Thibodeaux said freethinking and secular groups from across Louisiana plan to attend, as well as groups from Florida, Tennessee and Texas.
Economics sophomore and three-semester AHA member Garrett Ordner said he sees the conference as a sign of progress for both the club and Louisiana.
The conference’s keynote speaker will be Nate Phelps, estranged son of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. Nate Phelps is now an activist for secular thinking and LGBTQ rights.
The conference currently has 14 other confirmed speakers, including Zack Kopplin, who attended Baton Rouge Magnet High School and began the initiative to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act, which many have claimed violates the Constitution by allowing creationism to be taught in Louisiana public schools.
He said when he first joined, the group lacked consistency and structure.
“We used to be six people getting together to listen to one person or two people kind of just bash religion,” Thibodeaux said.
Official meetings were scarce, Thibodeaux said, and the group was rarely present in Free Speech Plaza.
Last summer, Thibodeaux and other club members decided it was time for a change.
The club began holding meetings every other week and setting up in Free Speech Plaza to talk to passersby during weeks in between meetings, Thibodeaux said.
AHA also booked four speakers last semester, including DeRidder, La., native and evangelical preacher-turned-atheist Jerry DeWitt, whose story was featured by The New York Times in August 2012. Other speakers included assistant professor of philosophy James Rocha, Southeastern Louisiana University professor of philosophy Barbara Forrest and professor of veterinary medicine Steven Barker.
Thibodeaux said trips to the Texas Freethought Convention in Austin and the Florida Secular Rally in Tallahassee — held in October and November 2012, respectively — were highlights of the group’s activities last semester.
Although the group’s activity level increased during fall 2012, its plans for spring 2013 promise to be even more substantial, Thibodeaux said.
English senior and four-year AHA member Joshua Hornsby said the group’s membership has fluctuated greatly over the years, but the recent reorganization has helped maintain membership.
AHA faculty adviser Aaron Lercher said the club is part of the education process at the University, adding that Agnostics, Humanists and Atheists tend to be well-informed about religions.
“It’s easier to access us, and more people are finding out about us and what we do,” said two-year member and painting and drawing junior Ellen Farrar.
Students can speak with AHA members every week in Free Speech Plaza, beginning this Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and alternating Wednesdays and Thursdays from then on. The club’s first speaker will be atheist activist and co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation Dan Barker on Feb. 21.