Reflections on The George Washington University Secular Society’s First Year
June 5, 2013
The Secular Society at The George Washington University recently wrapped up its inaugural year. As students move back home for the summer, campus empties, and we begin planning for next year’s activities, I can’t help but reflect on our group and cause as a whole. We made a leap this year from a group of about six determined students sitting on the floor in a common room making posters in September, to a group with over 120 members by May. We’ve fought an uphill and successful battle to carve out our niche on campus. More importantly, I’ve watched us build a community for each other in the few short months we’ve been in existence.
We are, unfortunately, living in a country and a time that is disturbingly resistant to the idea of secularity. We see hate crimes and terrorist actions perpetrated in the name of religion, responses to these actions based on religious prejudice, and persecution of those who are non-believers. We see students who fight to keep prayer out of public schools vilified and threatened, secular and atheist bloggers in Southeast Asia threatened with death for voicing their opinions, and religious factions in the United States trying to prevent evidence based facts, such as evolution, from being taught in science classes. We see hatred against minority groups, anti-marriage equality sentiments, and distrust of non-believers, or believers of the “wrong” religion, spread on a global scale. And as young university students, we must learn to live in this world.
Everyone is part of our organization for a different reason, but we have some unifying desires and goals that bind us together. We want a community where we can voice and discuss our opinions, we want support for one another, we want a safe space, and we want to effect change on the way secularism is portrayed. The “This is what a(n) atheist, humanist, freethinker, agnostic looks like” campaign that GW Secular Society ran this past semester embodied many of those goals. We want to show those that disagree with us, those who are our friends and family and neighbors that we are humans too: that we deserve respect, consideration, and, most importantly, a voice in the society we live in. That secularism and all its connotations are not evil, but rather humanistic, thoughtful, and beneficial to our political system.
The face we present to our community has never been more important. The backlash we received even on our own campus regarding our “This is what a ________ looks like” coming out campaign showed me this. Though it was intended as a peaceful opportunity for our members to express their identities, our fellow students quickly twisted it into a bid for publicity, and an expression of arrogance. This backlash, which was distressing to many of our members, was our most immediate example of our pressing need for support networks. We need, more than ever, to continue our work building connections on our campus and in our area with both secular and non-secular groups. That’s why, this past semester, we’ve made connections with student groups across our campus and our city, friendships that have built a network of understanding and community on which to build further. We’ve reached out into our national community, attending conferences,meeting new people, and exchanging ideas.
Our new executive board has determined a new focus for next year: building community, connections and a positive image for GW Secular Society, and for the secular movement as a whole. We can only achieve this by including new and old members alike in conversations and decisions, promoting a positive image of our group to the rest of the university, and expanding the networks we have already built to increase understanding and conversations with other groups. We need to reach outside the city blocks of our campus, out into our immediate and far-reaching communities, to build friendships and understanding that will last.
It’s a common refrain at universities – “You are the world’s future.” And in this case, it couldn’t be more true. Students who promote secular values are immeasurably important to our political and social systems, both in this country and across the globe. Our image, our interactions with the community, and the conversations we enter into, begin here. Secular Society is more than just “that atheist club.” We’re a voice of reason, an argument for change, and an inclusive, safe community for belief, non-belief, and rational freethought. The more conversations we build, and the more visible we are, the better it is both for us as human beings and community members, and for the global image of secularism as a whole. We’ve built a successful image over the past year – let’s continue from here.
About the Author: Magdalena StuehrmannMagdalena Stuehrmann is the Public Relations and Outreach Coordinator for the George Washington University Secular Society.
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