Affiliate Group of the Week

Affiliate Group of the Week #20: Secular Student Alliance at the University of Michigan

May 30, 2013

The recently elected president of SSA at the University of Michigan, Alexander Coulter, took time out from his busy summer schedule to answer some quick questions about what their group has been up to, and how they got started.

First, please introduce yourself. Where you go to school, graduation year, your background. What’s your “atheist/secular conversion story,” if you have one?

My name is Alexander Coulter, and I am the recently elected President of our Secular Student Alliance at the University of Michigan. I am currently taking spring and summer classes to prepare for my junior year in college, and plan to graduate in 2015 with a BSE in Earth Systems Science and Engineering (climate science concentration) with minor focuses in mathematics and statistics.

My own experiences with religion have generally been positive, with my family taking my "coming out" very well. Perhaps the most stressful component of gradually publicizing my atheism was being mindful of my membership in the Boy Scouts. I actually enjoyed the time I had in the organization, and we have a decent family history of participating in it. Atheists, of course, are not permitted in the BSA, and weighing obtaining my Eagle Rank against open personal identification to this group of people was difficult for me. I ended up choosing the former, and do not think I regret my decision.

While I have not been met with any personal pushback regarding my atheism, the apprehension of being public about it was always present. That was and is my main impetus for getting involved in groups like the SSA: to help roll back the animosity toward atheists while simultaneously rolling out a welcome mat toward the same.

SSA at the University of Michigan hosted Dan Barker for a talk on their campus.
SSA at the University of Michigan hosted Dan Barker for a talk on their campus.

How did your group get started? What year was it founded? Was there a specific event or incident that motivated you or the founders to create the organization?
Our group was founded as part of the initial upswing of the national SSA movement, and was founded in 2007. Several still-attending members, part of a group of more that are no longer active with us, started a small SSA chapter here at the University of Michigan to provide a space to discuss secular world views, along with political and economic and moral topics that aren't the focus of many other groups on campus. In the past two years, our group has rapidly grown in membership from only a handful core to weekly meetings of twenty to thirty (sometimes, at our tedious but happy expense, to much more), and has expanded our focus to volunteer work and more pronounced involvement on our school campus.

What is your group’s name? How did you decide on that name?
Our group's name is the Michigan Secular Student Alliance. When it was first founded, it was only affiliated with the National Secular Student Alliance. We kept the name even though we are now also affiliates of the Center for Inquiry and the Foundation Beyond Belief.

How many members does your group have? What kinds of events do you hold? 
Our group's membership could be measured in a number of ways: each of our weekly meetings see about twenty to thirty people attend, though these are not always the same people so the number of active members is larger; we also have members that cannot attend our weekly meetings but can make events that we hold on other dates, and all the while maintain an email list that has over 400 members.

Our events (excluding weekly meetings) tend to be oriented toward social, volunteer, or activism aspects. We try to offer fun events for our members to participate in, to develop a "welcome mat" community where we can have fun; and as the only Volunteers Beyond Belief affiliate in Michigan, we take an active role in making our community - and the communities of areas around us - better places. Our activism events are our most popular events however, and we have had great success bringing in speakers and hosting debates that are open to the public.

Members of SSA at UMich volunteer at a rabbit rescue shelter.
Members of SSA at UMich volunteer at a rabbit rescue shelter.

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?
We heard about CFI on Campus through our associations with people who were involved with CFI. We have worked with CFI–Michigan on several projects including our large debate last year and we hope to collaborate more with them in the future. The next event we are planning with them is a Nate Phelps talk on campus.

As an example, could you share one thing your group accomplished that you’re most proud of in the past year?
An event of special note is a debate that we co-hosted last October with a local church in Ann Arbor, New Life Church, between Eddie Tabash and Frank Turek, on the topic of 'Atheism or Theism: Which Better Describes Reality?' We were quite honored to have each speaker agree to come and participate in what was easily our largest event this past year.

What is your vision for the secular movement?
We would like to see the secular movement bring about a society in which nonbelievers can be free from discrimination and disdain. We would also see the secular movement as a means of spreading the values of critical thinking and freethought to the world around us.


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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