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Forming a Secular Student Organization – A Journey

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Forming a Secular Student Organization – A Journey
By Sean Banerjee and Braeden Harpool
West Virginia University



“Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” – Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

The above quote from Thomas Paine symbolizes the philosophy of secularism. Had Paine been alive today he would see that the dream of keeping church and state separate has been difficult to achieve. Every politician, philosopher and preacher expounds that our youth are our future. Yet, for our youth, finding the path to a secular lifestyle can often be difficult. One of the hurdles along the way is the
ostracism from family members who simply refuse to acknowledge points of view that lack an invisible watchdog. Young, bright minds are faced with a choice on forging ahead into the unknown and being shunned by their family or living in a proverbial closet until they can one day step forth and embrace who they are. Making matters worse is the theological message being shouted in advertisements on mainstream media and by street side preachers. Even across college and university campuses the message is clear: “Either accept my religion or be forever shunned.” Student organizations sprout in every corner spreading the message of religion to masses. The secular voice is quiet, often silent and repressed, hiding away in some corner café.

West Virginia University currently has 26 religious organizations catering to the masses for every major faith – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and more. Yet, surprisingly not a single secular student organization survived until the creation of the West Virginia University Freethinking, Inquiring, Secular Humanists (FISH). For a brief moment in time Morgantown Brights existed, providing students with the opportunity to interact with fellow nonbelievers. A few community groups, namely Morgantown Atheists, Morgantown Coalition of Reason and WV Skeptics allowed an outlet but the presence of college aged students was limited to a handful. Many atheists of college age fear “coming out” and embracing their secular life style. The repercussions from family and friends keep them in a proverbial “closet”. So much so that Dr. Richard Dawkins started The Out Campaign asking atheists to stand up for what they believe in and to be proud of their secular lifestyle.

The idea for the group began one evening, after yet another argument over the existence of some invisible being. Asking to scientifically prove the existence of such a being led to the age old “go and read THE BOOK” argument. Read what? Read a book which lacks any concrete facts on its authenticity and authorship? Anyone can write a book expounding world knowledge, but unless peer reviewed and critically evaluated, its weight in factual value is non-existent. We should question all claims of the supernatural, but being secular doesn’t simply mean going around deriding every single faith. Secularism extends far beyond that, into a life stance that uses empirical evidence and facts to make decisions. Simply forming a group out of anger would not yield success, we had to have a more
definitive reason. That reason was simple: secular students at the university had nowhere to turn to, no one to talk to. Thus began the West Virginia University Freethinking, Inquiring, Secular Humanists (FISH).

Getting where we are today required taking a few small steps, the first of which was registering as an official student organization. This step was surprisingly easy, requiring nothing more than filling a form, finding an adviser and creating a charter. Upon submission of all relevant paperwork, we were recognized as a legitimate university based student organization. The second step was to affiliate
ourselves with a national organization, in this case the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). Once again, a step that required filling a few forms and only a few moments of time. Having achieved legal status as an organization, we began welcoming fellow secular students into an organization where they could express their thoughts and ideas freely.

We initially reached out with calendar advertisements in the school newspaper. This gained us a handful of members and a couple of interviews for an introductory English course. By doing the interviews we were able to divulge the existence of our group to a much broader audience. Yet, one issue remained: the lack of student members. Were the students afraid? Did they fear repercussions from their family and friends? We had student members join, only to suddenly disappear and ask to be removed from our mailing lists. Did family members find out and force them to go straight back into their proverbial closets? By speaking to a few students we discovered the glaring issue. Some students were afraid to be
associated with our group, fearful that they would face consequences for their choices. This fear was shared even by adults. Grown men and women who were parents themselves were afraid to tell their own parents or spouses about their religious (or non-religious) stance. Is secularism that bad? We have members of one major religion crying to the skies about how oppressed they are, yet they are not singled out for as much verbal abuse as secular individuals are. In fact, many Americans have said they will never vote for a secular president. What has come of the whole desire for separation of church and state?

As a group we have not allowed such setbacks to prevent us from achieving our goals. Finding students was a major hurdle, censorship from administration and other students was another to overcome. During this current Fall semester we chose to participate in the annual Diversity Week, a series of events promoting this year's theme of “Peace, Love and Understanding”. Mysteriously our request to have a booth or a presentation venue was ignored. The matter had to be pressed to other faculty members before we received support to set up a table, but our acknowledgment came too late to host an event. Having a table was mostly a positive experience, considering that only one student hoped for our deaths.

As we come close to our first anniversary as a group, with our first official meeting coming up on Novermber 8th, we can't help but be proud of what we have accomplished. Our member base is slowly growing, and we have advertisements out in the local papers and digital billboards at the student union. Our Facebook group is becoming more active with discussions among members. We would certainly like to have more activity, but having 30 some student members after less than a year is a promising start. To all students out there that are questioning their beliefs and what they have been taught, you are not alone. Your school has a group that can help, or if it doesn’t please reach out to the SSA or even our group and we can help you find others like yourself. Do not be afraid, the initial steps will be difficult but you will find happiness in knowing you have made a choice that brings you happiness. The dream of a nation and a world free from the oppression of religion is still alive. Religion has its place in the past; not in defining the morals of society or in the pursuit of scientific endeavors. We should try to be the catalysts for change in our lives and in our society, and we don't have to do it on our own.

About:
Website: http://darwinfish.studentorgs.wvu.edu
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/100002822321170
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/wvudarwinfish

• Sean Banerjee is the founder of West Virginia University Freethinking, Inquiring, Secular Humanists (FISH) and a Computer Science graduate student at West Virginia University.

• Braeden Harpool is the President of West Virginia University Freethinking, Inquiring, Secular Humanists (FISH) and a Wildlife and Fisheries undergraduate student at West Virginia University.

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