As the faintly yellow glow of Thursday’s sunset seeps through the windows, five students sit around a table in a rented room above the Bay Tree Bookstore. One tosses out a topic: the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools. First there is the quiet hum of minds at work, and then the conversation escalates as the students respond, contributing their personal experiences and anecdotes like logs to a fire. One thing is absent from their forum: belief in a higher power.
The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) provides a refuge for UCSC students who identify as atheist, agnostic or secular. Students are welcome to show up anytime, whether their approach is outspoken or tentative, militant or casual.
The SSA is one of 10 national 501(c)3 organizations under the umbrella of the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), a 501(c)4, and it reflects a growing population of young atheists.
Most Americans who describe themselves as atheist are young. 55 percent of them are under 35. Agnostics tend to be older than atheists, although still younger than the general population.
Ultimately, this means secularists and nonbelievers are steadily emerging from the American population by the generation, and, now, they’re identifying in more absolute terms: Younger generations are opting for the “atheist” label, which denotes a concrete disbelief in a god, whereas “agnostics,” who express doubt of divine existence, are becoming less common.
If this trend continues as projected, issues of separation of church and state may be amplified and U.S. legislation will need to adapt to the public view.
With the help of donations from the Secular Humanists of Santa Cruz County and some funding from the SCA, the SSA has brought in guest speakers like well-known atheist blogger P.Z. Myers and SCA executive director Sean Faircloth. Community support endures even if the group hasn’t exactly provoked a whirlwind of participation at UCSC. Its weekly meetings usually feature a motley crew of five to eight members.
But the students keep coming in spite of the low attendance. For them, the SSA is an important resource, politically and socially.
“There’s something political and engaging about being an atheist,” said SSA advisor and former president Nick Conrad, a graduate student and PhD candidate in history. “We’re trying to foster an environment for atheists [and] freethinkers to come together and talk about issues.”
Secular on the UCSC campus
Although there is a wide selection of religious organizations for UCSC students to participate in, there are significantly fewer nonreligious options.
The University Interfaith Council (UIC) collaborates with other universities to coordinate the activities of various on-campus religious groups.
At UCSC, the UIC is home to the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Muslim Student Association, Santa Cruz Hillel, and about 20 other religiously affiliated groups. While secular students are welcome to attend, there isn’t a UIC group designated for them.
“The meetings are open to [secular students] but we haven’t had anyone coming of that sort,” said Pamela Urfer, president of the UIC at UCSC. “To join the council, people have to make an application for membership … But we are open to all sorts of groups as long as people are willing to participate.”
Urfer said that “it would be good” to welcome any nonreligious students interested in creating a dialogue, and to “see what dialogue they would like.”
While the university does provide such channels for atheists to express their views and engage in discussion with others, the SSA is the only exclusively secular environment for students on campus.
Accepting the nonbelievers
Since atheists don’t pray, they don’t need a congregation. That doesn’t mean they don’t need a community.
Atheists are often subjected to a double-standard that makes it difficult for them to express their points of view to those of the religious persuasion, said Michael Fantauzzo, a second-year politics and history double major.
“I had a friend who tried to insult me and say, ‘You know what, you’re an evangelical atheist,’” Fantauzzo said. “We’re in the middle of having this discussion about our religious beliefs, and now all of a sudden I’m an evangelical? Like, you can express your belief and I can’t?”
Fortunately for people with experiences like those of Fantauzzo, the issue of discrimination against atheists isn’t an unrecognized one. An international organization called the Out Campaign encourages outspoken atheism with the help of its emblem, a scarlet “A” printed on T-shirts, pins, hats, and other merchandise. Its goal is for the nonreligious to gain respect and visibility in society.
Within the last few decades, debates over atheism have managed to permeate the political sphere. At a 1987 public press conference then vice president and former U.S. president George H.W. Bush, said, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”
In August 2009, Iowa governor Chet Culver claimed to be “disturbed” by Iowa bus ads with the message, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”
He refused to speak to the question of whether atheists are entitled to free speech, instead saying it was “a great question for the attorney general and for legal scholars.”
Kyle Jones, president of the SSA and a fourth-year majoring in ecology and evolution, said that the SSA is an important outlet for atheists to express themselves freely, in response to attitudes like those of Bush and Culver.
“People are not used to … hearing non-believers express their points of view,” Jones said. “And so when they do, it seems like it’s strident, when really they’re not. They’re just expressing what they think. I think a big part of this group is making it OK for us to just be who we are.”
A forum for free thought
At their Thursday 6 p.m. meetings, the SSA discusses topics relevant to the secular community as well as the interests of the individual students. It also hosts special events. In spring quarter of 2010, the organization presented on-campus screenings of short films of talks by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, two prominent atheists.
On May 20, the topic of discussion was Draw Muhammad Day, an unofficial, Facebook-hosted, international holiday intended to counteract the Muslim prohibition against drawing Muhammad. In light of the attacks and death threats against those who created images of Muhammad, the event encouraged free expression as an alternative to religious oppression. It also inspired controversy among the Muslim population and resulted in the Pakistani ban of Facebook.
Countless other issues of social justice are all part of the forum due to their relevance to religion. One of these is gay rights. During a regular discussion at an SSA meeting, one student asked whether religion lay at the root of homophobia.
“There’s really no logical reason to be against gay people unless it comes from religion,” SSA participant Fantauzzo said.
A few seats away at the table, second-year psychology major Anisha Mauze, who manages the SSA’s finances and budget, agreed.
“A lot of these issues about society and how it should be are very influenced by religion,” Mauze said.
A self-described “agnostic in theory, atheist in practice,” Mauze was raised Hindu. Today, she lists comedian George Carlin as one of her favorite atheists.
“I think I was about 14 when I decided … I shouldn’t be going to temple all the time if I don’t actually believe in this stuff,” she said. “It’s like lying to myself, lying to everyone else.”
Education is also a regular topic of discussion at SSA meetings, especially science education in religious schools. SSA event coordinator Mat Furman is a third-year ecology and evolution major, so the matter is of particular relevance to him.
“As a Texan growing up in Houston, I had almost no touching on evolution in the classroom,” Furman said. “They just skimmed over it, mentioned it once. [But] I just think it gives you a much better perspective on life, and it’s a thorough understanding instead of a painted picture that has nothing to do with reality.”
The community conscience
Raised in Georgia and Florida by a fundamentalist Christian family, Sonya Newlyn now lives in Santa Cruz and actively participates in two local secular organizations.
Recently, Newlyn spoke with Mayor Mike Rotkin to change May 6 from the National Day of Prayer to the Day of Reason in the city of Santa Cruz.
“There should not be a National Day of Prayer where people are encouraged to go out and pray,” Newlyn said. “I’m a political person. That [holiday] excludes me.”
Following their discussion, Rotkin issued an official proclamation encouraging “all citizens, residents and visitors to join in observing this day.”
Newlyn participates in both the Secular Humanists of Santa Cruz County (SHSCC) and the Santa Cruz Brights. While these groups only meet monthly, they keep in touch online and the SHSCC provides support for the SSA on campus.
Newlyn said another problem with the enforcement of religion in Santa Cruz’s public sphere takes place during the holidays, when the Downtown Association’s “community tree” and a large menorah provided by Chabad by the Sea are displayed at the end of Pacific Avenue near Water Street.
Although Newlyn has spoken to the organizations responsible for the placement of these religious symbols, there’s no sign that plans will be changed for the 2010 holiday season.
For now, the SHSCC, Santa Cruz Brights, and SSA will be represented on a decorative banner that members of the groups will carry while marching in the downtown holiday parade.
“We’re not trying to be grinches,” Newlyn said. “We’re trying to give our point of view.”
A secular nation
Although Newlyn works locally, the issues she deals with are also present on a national scale.
Advocating for the separation of church and state, the Secular Coalition for America functions like the ACLU for secularists’ civil liberties by lobbying in Washington D.C. and meeting with White House representatives.
Sean Faircloth, executive director of the SCA and a former legislator for the state of Maine, said the intermingling of religion and government has been exacerbated in more recent years.
“There’s always been that strain of religious thinking, no doubt about it,” he said. “What has changed significantly about the nature of government has been over the last 30 to 35 years, because the religious right made a concerted effort to organize.”
Faircloth, who spoke at UCSC on May 17, said that secular Americans need to engage in lobbying in order to keep religion and government in separate spheres.
“There is a reason that secular Americans must unite, must organize, and speak out unless they want to end up in a theocratic society,” Faircloth said. “We need to organize, or we’ll get the short end of the stick.”
The SCA also sends action alerts, political news updates, straight to subscribers’ e-mail inboxes. One of the most recent Action Alerts expresses concern about pharmacists denying birth control prescriptions on the basis of their own religious beliefs. In four U.S. states, pharmacists are entitled to make that very refusal, even if the patient is a rape victim.
Another action alert opposed the potential incorporation of religious material into public school curricula by the Texas State Board of Education, calling the prospective additions “a telling of U.S. history that is based in extremist religious ideology.” However, this idea was challenged when a resolution to support “academically-based social studies curriculum standards” was introduced and referred to the United States House Committee on Education and Labor in late July. This was a small but pertinent victory for the secular cause.
“Now science and history are [deemed] ‘controversial,’” Faircloth sighed. “Things like evolution and Thomas Jefferson — that would never have been so, 40 years ago.”
Constructing the future
Back in the SSA’s meeting room above the Bay Tree Bookstore, in the dimming sunlight of a Thursday evening, students remain concerned about these social action issues and what they see as the threat of theocracy, but they won’t give up without a fight.
“The misperception of human nature, of human essence, by religion is one of the things I certainly fight for all the time,” said SSA’s Conrad.
Jones, the current president of the SSA, references one of the films the group screened last spring.
“Richard Dawkins was talking about how science is corrosive to religion,” Jones said. “I think that was definitely a main factor of why I rejected religion to begin with.”
As the group nods in agreement, Conrad sums up its raison d’être.
“Religion just kind of makes inquiry go dead,” he said. “I mean, if it provides all the answers, we don’t need to look for anything. We just need to save our souls.”
Although some see religion as a source of meaning, Conrad and his peers at the SSA work to deconstruct the influence of religion, focusing on challenges to American civil liberties and isolating the solutions. In the search for meaning, these nonbelievers have found their alternative.