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Free Hugs a success! Plus, “We Declare Peace” this Sunday

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Hi everyone!

The Free Hugs event was a blast! We had a fantastic time offering free hugs to students, faculty, & staff coming through Speakers’ Circle, and gave out at least several hundred hugs. When we first arrived around 11, there was a preacher (who I later learned is named Gary) with a megaphone doing his bit in the circle. Technically, megaphones are not allowed at that time, but nobody really seemed to be 1) bothered nor 2) paying attention, so I decided not to bother him about it, and we set up our area. By “set up,” I mean that we attached two banners – both 3′ x 5′, one with the international Peace symbol and the other with the “Coexist” symbols – to two tall mic stands, and we got to work making our Free Hugs sign. It was a bit of a slow start, but when the 11 o’clock classes let out, we got plenty of takers!

By noon our group had swelled to 7 SASHA members – fortunately, I’d brought extra foam board to make more signs – and we were giving out hugs like crazy. Ashley was especially assertive and came up with some great slogans: “Have you hugged a ginger today?”, “A hug a day keeps the doctor away!” (followed by disclosures from the rest of us that “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease”), and “I’ll come to you; this is a Mobile Hug Zone” for people passing by on the other side of the street or across the circle.

Gary the Preacher seemed to realize that no one was listening to him, especially once we got started, and he went to sit on the concrete wall in the shade, where he stayed the rest of the afternoon (more on that later). Best line of the day: “Who needs a megaphone? We have Ashley!”

Lots of people wanted their pictures taken with us, and lots more stopped to take a picture, even if they didn’t want hugs. Although this was technically a SASHA event, we didn’t really advertise that aspect of it much – later in the afternoon we did display our SASHA sign:

but it wasn’t our focus. A proportion of people asked if we were with a group, and we decided that if people asked directly, we would say, “Yes, we are with SASHA, the Mizzou atheists’ group, but we’re just doing this for fun – to make the world a little smaller – and because the 9/11 anniversary is this weekend.” We decided just to work on promoting good feelings on campus today. At some point in the future, when we do this again (and we certainly will!), we may promote the atheist aspect of it more.

Here are some more pictures of the afternoon:

At one point, Seth decided to introduce a competitive pricing model:

Seth is at far left.

You can see how well this worked out for him:

Though he did up getting 2 takers! (He gave both their money back afterward.)

We asked Gary the Preacher if he wanted a hug a few times, and he was extremely angry at us about even suggesting it. He said that what we were doing is shameful, and he told me specifically that he didn’t want to hug a fat guy. Honestly, I think he could have used a hug more than anyone. I went over to talk to him to find out what his story was – I almost always make an effort to engage with street preachers, if for no other reason than to find out who they are and where they’re from – but he had absolutely no interest in engaging in a dialogue.

I let him preach at me one-on-one for almost 10 minutes but whenever I tried to ask a question or interject, he would put up his finger and angrily tell me to listen, as though that’s not what I had been doing all along, and he said that all I want to do is talk but I’m not willing to listen. I said, “You’ve been talking non-stop for almost 10 minutes! How can you say I’m the one who won’t listen?” He kept telling me what God wants and requires of us, and I kept trying to ask, “Why do you believe that?” and he would just get angry at even the suggestion that I dared to ask such a question. He told me I should read the Bible, and that he wouldn’t talk to me unless he saw a Bible in my hand. I said, “I have a Bible app in my phone” (actually I have several dozen translations in my phone, including a Greek NT and the Vulgate), and showed him my Vulgate.

He kept going on about the fact that he had been a practicing Christian for 50 years (he said several times that he’s 71) and repeated himself a several times with certain statements, seemingly unaware that he had already had gone over that part of the “script” when me, like he couldn’t remember where he left off. Eventually I cut him off and finished his metaphor (about a cardboard box), saying, “Yeah, you told me this already,” and he seemed confused by my knowing what he was about to say. He repeatedly pointed his finger in my face and yelled at me, to the point that I eventually asked him to stop yelling, and at one point (we were both sitting) he got up and stood directly in front of me, pointing and yelling in my face, until I asked him to stop yelling and to please take a step away from me. He did neither.

I had a friend with me, a Marine actually, and it’s not that I was worried about things getting out of hand; it was more a group dynamic thing. Whenever I tried to ask him a question, he accused me of not listening, and he insisted that he already answered my question, even though he failed to address the point (e.g. “Why do you believe the Bible is true? Why trust THIS book?” and he would tell me what God said, and I would say, “The Bible says God said that; there’s a difference. Why believe the Bible at all?” and he would just yell at me that I wasn’t listening).

At one point I went to my car and got my Interlinear Bible – it’s a whopper, a full-size hardcover around 4 inches thick – and showed it to him, since he kept insisting that I need to read the Bible. His tone changed for just a minute when he saw it, and he said “I have that same Bible,” and he suddenly wanted to shake hands, which I did. But as soon as I said that yes, I’ve read it, many times, I just don’t believe it, he got angry again. He said we’ve both read the same book, and therefore I shouldn’t be disagreeing with him. I asked him why he believes the Bible instead of the al-Qur’an, and at first he didn’t seem to understand the question, and then he got angry again and said “You’re one of THOSE,” and told me that the Bible is true and the Qur’an is from a false prophet. I asked him how he knows this exactly, and he either didn’t understand the question or just chose to get angry instead.

At one point he explicitly told me to shut my mouth, because (according to him) I was making unsubstantiated statements. I said, “Everything I have said so far is a question. I’ve asked why you believe what you believe, why you believe the Bible, how you know the Holy Spirit isn’t just your imagination… All I’ve been doing is asking questions,” but he didn’t want to hear it. Several times he said “This discussion is over” and turned away, and I said, “You don’t have to answer, but I’m sincerely asking you because I want to know: Why do you believe Christianity?” and he would get worked up again and say, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” and then he would forget that he decided not to talk to me and start to yell/preach at me again. Eventually he gathered his suitcase and moved to a different part of the circle, and I didn’t bother him after that.

I apologize for the long description, but I wanted to make it clear to our readers that this is the sort of irrationality that goes on when someone get too deeply involved in something that doesn’t reconcile logically. This is CLASSIC cognitive dissonance: Signs include anger, blaming, and denial when something you believe is challenged and you realize you don’t have evidential or logical justification for it. This is something we need to watch out for, not just in others but in ourselves as well. It’s like the bumper sticker says: “Question everything.” If something you believe is unsupported by evidence, reason, or logic, acknowledge this and move it to the category of things you are willing to reconsider until you have better reason to believe them. The alternative is to get angry, like Gary.

The way to understanding, knowledge, and coexistence is rational inquiry, dialogue, and understanding. Gary displayed none of these traits. The best I could get from him is that he has faith in his religion (although he insisted that Christianity is not a religion – “it’s the Truth”). The fact is, faith fails as a justification for belief because faith is not exclusive to any one belief. You can have faith in anything – as I was saying to someone the other day, you can have faith that you have a million dollars in your bank account, or that Brad Pitt is secretly in love with you – but that doesn’t make either statement actually true in reality. You have to look at the evidence, and the logical reasons for believing or not believing such statements, and base your confidence off of those.

When someone says, “You just have to have faith,” what they are really saying is, “Here is the evidence. Here are my logical reasons. I acknowledge that on their own, neither are sufficient to tip the scale in favor of belief that this statement is objectively true. But I don’t care; I want to believe it so much that even though I admit the evidence and the logic are not good enough to warrant belief, I choose to believe anyway.” Faith is what you have to use when your arguments fail, but you are unwilling to see the logical conclusion that, on account of your arguments failing, your next step is to reconsider whether you should continue believing your claim. Faith is cognitive dissonance, manifested.

At 12:55, we played John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a boom box. I teared up a bit while continuing to give out lots of hugs for those 3 minutes. I have always loved that song. I’d hoped that we could get a bunch of us to sing along, but we were so busy hugging people that we didn’t get a chance!

We wrapped up around 3 PM, and after putting our stuff away, Robbie and I had an interesting conversation with a few LDS (Mormon) missionaries. I gave them my card and invited them to our next meeting to come and talk to us about why the believe what they believe, and so we could ask them some questions. I hope they call.

Have a great weekend, everybody! We’ll also be around this Sunday for the “No More Victims: We Declare Peace” procession from the mosque to the courthouse at 1:30 PM, if you would like to join us. Here is the Facebook event:


– Dave

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is

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Helpful resources:
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an

YouTubers: Evid3nc3, Thunderf00t, TheAmazingAtheist, The Atheist Experience, Edward Current, NonStampCollector, Mr. Deity, Richard Dawkins, QualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta Christina, PZ Myers, The Friendly Atheist, WWJTD?, Debunking Christianity, SkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too! :)


About MU SASHA Administrator

University of Missouri SASHA (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) University of Missouri-Columbia

9 comments on “Free Hugs a success! Plus, “We Declare Peace” this Sunday

  1. Jay
    September 10, 2011

    Great description. Wish I could have been there, but I don’t have that time of day free anymore since graduating…Also, props on having patience with Gary for as long as you did! I would have gone away disgusted after 5 minutes. I get embarrassed for people when they’re being incompetent in public.

  2. Scott Weber
    September 10, 2011

    What an event!!

    Thought you might like this video. It’s moving.

  3. David Fitzgerald
    September 10, 2011

    What an awesome event! Well done, guys!
    -Dave Fitzgerald

  4. Jared Caspari
    September 10, 2011


    It’s too bad your conversation with Gary went like that. I’m pretty sure I know who you are talking about. I’ve talked to Gary a few times myself, and there are a few things that should be obvious to you. 1: Gary, though he would identify himself as a “preacher”, is not a preacher. 2: Gary is somewhat mentally ill, (I know that he wanders the streets of downtown yelling and being angry at everyone he meets. I guess its possible that you are talking about a different Gary, but your description of his behavior and response fits the bill perfectly. 3: Gary’s irrationality comes not from his “faith” in a religion. It comes from more basic psychological problems.

  5. MU SASHA Administrator
    September 10, 2011

    I’d argue that faith is inherently irrational. As I said above, faith is cognitive dissonance, manifested. It *is* a basic psychological problem. The psychiatric definition of a delusion, according to the DSM-IV, fits religious belief. It’s bizarre, counter to evidence, held dogmatically, and patently untrue. The *only* part of the definition that doesn’t fit is that the belief has to be outside one’s particular culture or sub-culture. Frankly, I don’t see how a belief being part of one’s culture or not makes it any less delusional. It’s still bizarre, counter to evidence, held dogmatically, and patently untrue. Faith is delusional. – Dave

    • Jared Caspari
      September 11, 2011

      Your missing the point Dave. Whether faith is rational, or irrational, is irrelevant. Whether faith is a basic psychological problem is irrelevant. I’m saying that Gary’s responses and overall behavior, and what you are attributing to cognitive dissonance, is not a result of his faith (I seriously doubt that he has any faith at all), but the result of years of bitterness and mistrust of people and anger. Though you might find some similarity in his replies to those of any faith that deliberately choose ignorance in regards to factual knowledge, you need to realize that there are other, more fundamental issues that lead to the kind of behavior that Gary manifests. My point is, if you simply want to argue that faith is irrational and inevitably leads to cognitive dissonance (and in this case, down-right stupidity), then Gary is not the kind of person to serve as an example.

      • MU SASHA Administrator
        September 11, 2011

        I agree that Gary’s mental problems (he seems to be headed toward dementia – that would explain the repetition, the irritability, the confusion, etc) are influencing his ability to communicate clearly and to understand what he’s saying. However, I don’t think *what* he’s saying is off the mark as far as what Christians teach and believe. His manner of communicating those teachings is certainly abnormal – anger, etc – but what he’s saying is right out of the Bible.

        Jared, what is the definition of a Christian? I ask because I often hear Christians, speaking of other Christians who don’t represent them in what they consider to be a positive light, say things like “He’s not a True Christian™.” Yet on demographic studies, they have no qualm about pointing out the “fact” that there are 2 billion Christians in the world. Well, which is it? There are approximately 38,000 denominations of Christianity (World Christian Encylopaedia 2001), and many of them disagree wildly about very basic issues. It’s easy to say someone’s not a “True Christian™” just on account of them disagreeing with YOUR idea of what a True Christian™ is. How do you know you’re right and they’re not? No doubt they would say the same thing in reverse. – Dave

  6. Jared Caspari
    September 12, 2011

    @Dave: You are displaying textbook confirmation bias here Dave. It would behoove you to do a little more of your own research in this regard, or at least read a little more into your source (World Christian Encyclopaedia). I don’t know if you actually have it or if you just heard or read these numbers from someone else. Barrett does in fact site such a number, but your idea of what a distinct denomination differs from what he defines one as. Barrett gives such a broad concept of denomination, that if he were to actually include congregations or groups of 100 or less, the actual number would be ridiculous.

    Barrett defines “distinct denominations” as any group that might have a slightly different emphasis than another group. The distinction is made on the basis of jurisdiction, rather than differing beliefs and practices. What Barrett refers to as “major ecclesiastical traditions”, is closer to what your idea of a denomination is. These traditions are parsed into 7 major eclesiastical blocs: 1: Roman Catholic – 16 traditions. 2: Protestant – 21 traditions. 3: Orthodox – 19 traditions. 4: Non-White Indigenous – 20 traditions. 5: Anglican – 6 traditions. 6: Marginal Protestant – 6 traditions. 7: Catholic (non-Roman) – 4 traditions. So really, by your idea of denomination, there are 92 main Christian denominations that disagree majorly on doctrine, theology, and practice.

    Barrett further clarifies in his preface to the first addition, “Perhaps the first impression to strike the reader will be of the enormous diversity and fragmentation of Christianity. The proliferation of 20,800 denominations is sure to cause unfavourable comment. Some will see it as a sectarianism run riot. But here several points to the contrary can be noted. Diversity – divergences in faith and practice from one denomination to another – is not divisiveness; it is what we would expect when Christianity is being spread among some 8,900 peoples speaking 7,010 languages in the modern world.” In other words, your quote of 38,000 is a matter of “jurisdiction” (self-autonomy), not a matter of differing beliefs. They simply emphasize one thing over another.

    You wrote, “speaking of other Christians who don’t represent them in what they consider to be a positive light, say things like “He’s not a True Christian™.” Yet on demographic studies, they have no qualm about pointing out the “fact” that there are 2 billion Christians in the world.”

    Those who like to quote this “fact” are simply displaying “triumphalism”. Personally, I don’t believe there is really that many. But that is irrelevant.

    You wrote: “I don’t think *what* he’s saying is off the mark as far as what Christians teach and believe…. but what he’s saying is right out of the Bible.”

    Soooo, your criteria for determining if someone is a Christian is being able to say things right out of the Bible? If so, then, according to the Bible, satan is a Christian, for he quotes scripture too. The fact of the matter is Dave, what makes someone a Christian is not being able to quote the Bible, nor even saying that what the Bible says is true. Neither of those criteria makes someone a Christian. What makes someone a Christian is not their knowledge of the Bible or confession that it is true. Rather it is their knowledge and understanding of, and their relationship with the God that is revealed through it. No Christian alive today would disagree with me on that statement. They might say it a little differently, or add some things to it, or emphasize something else. But I didn’t make that statement to be a universal statement that all believers must profess anyways. I made that statement to open your eyes to the error of your logic. – Jared

  7. Pingback: Our 100th Blog Post! « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

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This entry was posted on September 10, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, SASHA Events and tagged .
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