Questions and answers from non-believers about their growing community
The Secular Student Alliance — an organization dedicated to fostering a community for non-believing students across the country — held its annual conference at UNLV this weekend. We spoke with a few attendees about their hopes for their burgeoning community of atheists, agnostics and humanists.
Evan Clark is the co-founder and former President of the SSA at California Lutheran University.
The Rebel Yell:Where do you think the Secular Student Alliance will be in five years?
Evan Clark: I will be the first to tell you that I have no idea. I think we’re at a place where we know we’re going to be massively impacting society … We’re becoming part of the culture, We’re entering a strategic planning process on the national level. In general, I think the SSA is having a large impact on culture and I think we’re going to be a household name five to 10 years from now.
RY: Why did you choose to go to a Lutheran school?
EC: Because it’s an amazing school, it’s an up and coming small liberal art school. It’s committed to education first, so while Lutheran is in the name, university is what they communicate. Religion is there if you want it and not there if you don’t.
RY: Do you think that students neglect to identify themselves as secular for fear of retribution?
EC: Yeah, I mean one of the struggles on various campuses are students not being out yet. We’re not to a place in society where we have pluralism or radical acceptance, where anyone can be out at any time. Even at our conference people are choosing to not have their photo taken, because they’re not out yet. So that is still a struggle, but most of our student leaders self-identify as some form of non-religious.
Ryan Cotter is a UNLV student and member of the SSA on campus
The Rebel Yell: Did you know that UNLV had a SSA group?
Ryan Cotter: I saw an event promoting Darrel Ray’s book, “The God Virus,” which was going to be held at UNLV … I had never heard of an event like that at the university, so I went to check it out and I found out about the organization, which I didn’t know existed here … I started to go to meetings and I was really impressed with the community and the types of conversations that they were having.
RY: Would you say that the SSA feels like a close-knit community?
RC: It’s a very supportive community. People come from different backgrounds and are open-minded, so in that way they are really close-knit and welcoming … They also aren’t judgemental and they’re willing to lend an ear and talk to you, so in that way, it is.
RY: Do you identify yourself as a SSA member?
RC: Definitely. When I talk to other students I give my major, my year and say that I’m a member of SSA, it just sort of falls into that introduction routine … I do really feel a personal connection with that group.
Lori Fazzino is a UNLV grad student, sociology instructor and member of SSA.
The Rebel Yell: How do you approach being an instructor, but also a former SSA member?
Lori Fazzino: I took a step back when I finished my master’s degree at the end of last year. This year I haven’t been involved at the local level at all, but I stay involved on the national level … I teach sociology of religion, you can’t talk about religion without bringing in non-religion … My goal is to support the local group [SSA] here on the backends … If they bring in a speaker I’m happy to offer extra credit, even if it doesn’t have to do with what we’re doing in class. I think being exposed to different ideas is important, that’s why we come to university.
RY: Have you ever encountered any discrimination since you’ve been a member of the SSA, either in school or in the community?
LF: Not in school … In the community, no one knows what I do. I have never experienced first hand discrimination, but there’s a difference between individual discrimination and systematic discrimination. I experience systematic discrimination just by my identity. When I’m doing something with the Las Vegas Atheists I have to wonder, “Is it okay if I put a sign here?” … If I do for one of our meetings, I know it’s going to be torn down … It’s little things like that that people are unaware of.
RY: What is the purpose of the SSA?
LF: This group is not about eradicating religion from society. It’s just about having a voice and realizing that we’re a group of people that are culturally invisible from the dominant discourse of American history … It’s not that we hate religion … We just want to have a voice. It’s about recognition and it’s about coexistence.
Michael Gobaud is the President of the Secular Legal Society at the UNLV Boyd School of Law and the former president of the UNLV SSA.
The Rebel Yell: Do you think that UNLV recognizes the SSA just like it does any other school organization?
Michael Gobaud: Oh, yeah. In my experience when I was working on the undergrad group [SSA], UNLV was very amenable, they worked with us quite well and it was pretty easy to start the group. They treated us quite fairly.
RY: And where do you see the secular legal society at Boyd in five years from now?
MG: I should clarify that we’re one of the first couple secular legal societies affiliates of the Secular Student Alliance, it’s an offshoot of the SSA. It’s going to offer the same services and everything it’s just going to be at law school, with my group, I’m graduating, I’ve got one more year, and my hope is that the Secular Legal Society at Boyd law will continue without me.