Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week #16: Secular Student Alliance at University of California Irvine

March 28, 2013

This week's group is the SSA @ UCI (formerly AAR), another southern California gem of a student organization. Ian Merion, the group's vice president, answered a few of our questions for our Affiliate Group of the Week series. Thanks, Ian!

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What’s your “atheist/secular conversion story,” if you have one?
Hi, my name is Ian Merion. I go to UC Irvine and I should be graduating in 2015 if all goes according to plan. I spent my first two years as a psychology major but changed it to computer science at the start of my third year. I don't really have a conversion story. I was raised to believe whatever I wanted and decided I was an atheist towards the end of high school.

What is your group’s name? How did you decide on that name?
SSA@UCI. We figured that the name would bring wide recognition to the club.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you to create the organization? (One of the club's founders, Anthony Marsh, chimed in to answer this question!)
The club was founded in the school year of 2006-2007. I think it was officially registered in the spring quarter of 2007, although I'm not sure. The reason I mention it with such specificity is, besides the fact you asked, I fear that the cloud of hindsight may have obscured some of my original thoughts surrounding the formation of the club.

Anyway, as Ian alludes to in his responses, there are a lot of religious organizations at UCI, and there are a lot of religious people in Orange County. And we're not talking about the kumbaya squishies, either, but the hardcore Republican evangelical kind.

This period was around the time when Richard Dawkins and the other "four horsemen" were beginning to gain notoriety, and they left a huge impression on me. As the idea of atheism was beginning to gain public attention, I wanted to take ownership of the name "Atheist" and change it from a negative label to a positive one. I thought being open about who I was, and possibly finding like-minded people to do the same, was a major step in that direction. Additionally, I wanted to create a safe space where atheists could meet and speak frankly and openly about their worldview without fear of retribution and without worrying about offending everyone. Finally, I wanted to create a platform to engage in political advocacy, advancing science and secular causes.

A key consideration to the club was the name. The previous freethinker club at school was named the "Students for Science and Skepticism." I didn't want to white-wash the name of our club. I wanted to put front and center what we were and who we stood for. So, my co-founders and I settled on Atheists, Agnostics, and Rationalists (the latter being a catch-all for anyone who values rationality). We put atheists first because we didn't want to hide it.

We filed the paperwork, rented a room, and hoped for the best. We imagined 3 or 4 people would show up. About 8 did. We had a solid discussion, and had weekly meetings. We flyered the entire campus (our original flyers, designed by my incomparable cofounder Willa Chen, are still a tremendous point of pride for me). Our meetings were better and better attended every week, and we had an incredible group of regulars who ended up forming the backbone of the organization. We had great events, and what I felt was my club passed to next year's incredible group of leaders. It has been going ever since, and I couldn't be prouder.

How many members does your group have? What kinds of events do you hold?
We have about 200 people on the Facebook page but active members that attend meetings can range from 5-15 depending on the quarter and everyone's availability. We have lots of different kinds of events. For our poster event we put poster pages on a board and asked people to write down their answers to questions we wrote on the posters. The questions were things like "What is Atheism to you?" and "How has religion affected your life?".

SSA@UCI members ask other students to respond to questions like
SSA@UCI members ask other students to respond to questions like "What is Atheism to you?"

How did you hear about CFI On Campus? How have you worked with CFI On Campus in the past, and how do you hope to work with us in the future?
I heard about CFI through another SSA organization. We don't have much representation from CFI on our campus, but their supplies (fliers and handouts) have been very useful. We don't have a lot of money to work with so everything counts.

As an example, could you share one thing your group accomplished that you're most proud of in the past year?
The blood drive we had in the winter went pretty well.  We got a lot of people to participate and the nurses there sent us a letter thanking our organization for helping out.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Our group is one of the smallest groups on our campus. We do, however, have 40 some odd religious groups on campus. I like to think of our club as a safe haven, where people can feel less like a minority. What drives me, as a council member, is the importance of keeping the club afloat so that others like me can feel accepted for their beliefs. That was the main appeal for me when I was a freshman.

What is your vision for the secular movement?
I'm pretty cynical when it comes to the secular movement. Needing to argue for the civil rights of gay people has provided a stark reminder of what happens when people try to argue legislation based on religion; they just look like bigots trying to impose their lifestyles on others. It's the same way with the abortion debates, but at least our government has the sense to make that legal. If we complain when people try to impose their religious beliefs on us, we're the bad guys? We have a long way to go. 

SSA@UCI goes to Griffith Observatory
SSA@UCI members visit Griffith Observatory for a social, educational bonding experience.


About the Author: Sarah Kaiser

Sarah Kaiser's photo

Sarah Kaiser is a field organizer for CFI On Campus. Prior to her work at CFI, she got her start in the freethought movement as the co-founder and president of the Secular Alliance at Indiana University, where she helped organize a nationally recognized atheist bus ad campaign and large campus speaking events. As an atheist, a feminist, and a small part of the universe's way of understanding itself, she is thrilled at the chance to help advance CFI's mission. On Twitter: @sarahebkaiser.




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