Student organization Secularist Students United tackles an enduring stereotype
by Michelle Simmons
October 12, 2011
SSU executive-board members prep for their weekly meeting. From left: Margaret Price ’14, Max Weylandt ’13, Elic Weitzel ’14 and Amanda Helling ’12. Not pictured: Eric Collins ’14.
Atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, secularists, humanists, skeptics—the terms are varied, but the general public’s response tends to be the same: suspicion and hostility. National polls consistently report that an atheist would be the least likely of any minority group member to be elected to public office.
“We’re probably the most disliked minority in America,” says Max Weylandt ’13 of Dickinson’s Secularist Students United (SSU). “Atheists by far are the most threatening to Americans’ values.”
Yet a recent study by the Higher Education Research Institute, “The Spiritual Life of College Students,” found that 15 percent of college students have no religious preference or are uninterested in joining any specific faith tradition. Although not all of them identify as atheist, a significant portion do—or, they would, if they didn’t feel so stigmatized by the label.
That’s one of the reasons Amanda Helling ’12 co-founded SSU. “In high school I had some experiences with very religious people that kind of made me feel alone, and I didn’t want to feel alone for being a nonbeliever,” she explains. “I wanted a community, so that spurred starting the group.”
A safe space
Some members grew up in religious households; others have not. “Most of us are agnostic or atheist, with a few exceptions,” says Elic Weitzel ’14. “Some people have shown up who are still spiritual but leaning toward being secular.”
“It’s a safe space for us,” adds Helling, who received a scholarship this year from the American Atheists, a national civil-rights organization for nonbelievers. “[As an atheist], you have to censor yourself in the world. Here you don’t have to be afraid that you’ll say something that will offend other people, even if you didn’t mean it in a negative way.”
In addition to planning campuswide events such as the annual Superstition Bash, SSU gathers weekly to discuss or debate a wide variety of topics—from church-state separation to strategies for “coming out” as a nonbeliever.
There are parallels to the hostility that other marginalized communities face, says Weylandt—so much so, that last spring, SSU partnered with LGBTQ student organization Spectrum to bring journalist Ted Cox to campus. Cox spoke to a packed house in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter auditorium about his coverage of the “ex-gay” movement.
In December, SSU will host J. T. Eberhard, activist and founder of Skepticon, a national convention for atheists.
Members also hope to dispel myths and misconceptions about nonbelievers. “People think it’s an attack on religion, but it’s not,” says Helling, adding that contrary to stereotype, atheists adhere to moral and ethical principles, and they find their lives as meaningful as anyone else’s.
Ironically, secularists score highest in knowledge of world religions, notes the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life—outperforming Mormons, Jews, Protestants and Roman Catholics.
“I’m fascinated by religion, and it’s really nice to have a group to discuss these issues,” says Margaret Price ’14, who is taking two religion classes this semester: one on religion and conflict and another on Buddhism. “Everyone here is really knowledgeable about all sorts of different traditions.”
At a recent meeting, Chauncey Maher, visiting assistant professor of philosophy, helped SSU members navigate dialogue with people of faith—often a tricky proposition. “One of the most reasonable people I know is a devout believer, and there are things that atheists deeply value,” he told the group. “It’s worth finding common ground.”
“They’re definitely thinkers, and they question societal norms,” says Vanessa Tyson, assistant professor of political science and SSU club advisor. “It’s a benefit that this kind of inquiry takes place at the undergraduate level. Their presence alone is a balancing force.”