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Rise of the “Nones” and Young Secularists on Campus: An Interview with a Secular Student Alliance Chapter President

A recent poll shows that 50% of respondents find the rise in numbers of American “nones”–the new term for people who tick “none” for the religion question of census polls–a troubling trend. However we feel about it, the phenomenon continues, and young people appear to be the driving force. The national Secular Student Alliance supports local chapters on college and high school campuses. The president of one such chapter, English major Daniel Bokemper from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, was gracious enough to answer a few questions for School of Doubt about his experience with the group.

1. How and why did you get involved with SSA?

Though I had heard of organization in high school, I did not officially join the Secular Student Alliance until my collegiate career, after hearing about it via word-of-mouth.  After signing up for a free, independent membership with the SSA, I sought my school’s chapter, achieving an executive position after doing so.  Largely, the SSA provides an avenue for education and discussion in a region that is largely devoid of it.  Not only that, but I wanted to feel more involved with the developing secular community of Oklahoma, and contribute in a more intimate and immediate than online forums can provide.

2. What impact do you hope to have on campus?

Like any other organization on-campus, I wish for SSA to be recognized and available to any student, faculty, staff, or alumni that is interested.  Beyond that, I’d like for SSA to garner a presence by means of events and other activities,that educate in regard to secular thought.  In short, I want SSA to impact U.S.A.O. positively and significantly.

3. For many young people, college is their first chance to differentiate from their parents/families, causing some religious figures to warn parents against it. Do you think exploring secularism is a common experience of that time of life, or that young adults who are in college are more likely to abandon religion than those who do not choose to attend college? 

I’d agree that it’s more common to explore anything outside the realm of one’s family, but I wouldn’t consider it simply a side-effect of being away from home.  Rather (and citing my own experience), I developed secular thought through education. I think learning, and keeping an open mind, will eventually lead to an individual to contemplating an ideology beyond one they were born into.

4. Have you witnessed any discrimination or hostility toward secular students on your campus? 

Not typically, but I do remember one instance during the school’s spring symposium, featuring Elaine Pagels.  During the Q&A, a student asked an unrelated question regarding Christ and his similarity to other religious figures, then concluded that the [person who had alerted him to the similarity] (his question sounded vaguely familiar to a section of Bill Maher’s Religulous) wasn’t knowledgeable or legitimate, because “he was an atheist.”

5. Do secular students at your college report any problems with religious proselytizing from instructors?

Fortunately, I can say no, not to my knowledge.  All of the instructors I’ve had, despite their varying beliefs, have never ostracized a student because of their secularism.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.

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