At USD, there at least a half dozen religiously affiliated groups where students can gather around their collective faith. In contrast to the variety of religious groups, there is only one group on campus where non-religious students can express their feelings toward religion, or lack thereof.
USD’s Secular Student Alliance, a chapter of the national group of the same name, was launched six years ago to give students the opportunity to gather around a common interest — secularism and how it impacts students and people in general.
The group works to bring together both religious and nonreligious students, said Secular Student Alliance President Mason Calhoun, a senior history and secondary education major.
“SSA is about bringing secular, freethinkers and both religious and nonreligious people together to kind of create a dialogue of what it means to live in a secular country and what it means to have secular values,” Calhoun said.
Along with working to unify the religious and nonreligious, Secular Student Alliance works to bring in special guest speakers and organize special events.
Last year, the group arranged a screening of the movie “Daddy I Do,” in conjunction with the Association for the Advancement of Women’s Rights (AAWR).
The movie, Calhoun said, is about the effect of religion on public education, especially sex education.
Another highlight for the Secular Students Association last year was the visit of the “Friendly Atheist,” Hemant Mehta, who achieved fame in 2006 for selling his soul on eBay.
Heather Townsend, the secretary of the Secular Student Association and a junior history education major, said Mehta’s presentation was a basic overview of atheism in the 21st century and a conversation on why secularism is on the rise in the United States.
“He (Mehta) talked about some of the problematic practices some religious institutions have been implementing that foster an ‘us versus them’ mentality as well as fostering the evangelical Christian persecution complex,” Townsend said. “He also talked about how to help foster an accepting community for secular people and he answered questions from the audience.”
Many students involved in SSA said they enjoyed the presentation Mehta gave, including sophomore secondary english education major Dillion Eberle.
“Hemant has worked with SSA groups around the nation and is a prominent voice in the atheist community,” Eberle said. “He lived up to his name, being extremely friendly and an absolute joy to be around. He’s been a big inspiration of mine to make my lack of faith mean something more than just not believing. Meeting him was something I never thought would happen, and I will always cherish the memory of meeting one of my heroes”
Getting Mehta to come to USD was no small task, Calhoun said.
“We just started talking, in whispers, about how we should have a speaker and how it would be really fun,” Calhoun said. “Our standing president last year really jumped on it. She noted that we were interested in a speaker so she found several speakers that were affordable, that the school would be willing to chip in and help pay the honorarium. Once we landed on one that we all liked, we started going forward with the planning process.”
Eberle said that many of the group’s events have materialized from brainstorming at Secular Student Alliance meetings.
“Having Hemant here was actually something that we brought up in one of our meetings, and we were able to make it happen,” Eberle said. “We also had an idea the week before Darwin Day once to do a Darwin piñata filled with animal crackers, which we were able to accomplish. Basically, if anyone has a realistic idea for an event we can make it happen, and everyone’s ideas will be included and considered.”
This year, the group hopes to host an event called “Graveyard of the Gods” in October. “Graveyard of the Gods” will feature a makeshift graveyard where each grave belongs to a god that is no longer worshipped.
The group plans to use the gods as an example to not make legal and legislative decisions based on religion, Calhoun said, because there have been hundreds of religions throughout human history, many of which are long defunct.
As well as the “Graveyard of the Gods,” the group may host a spaghetti feed for the Pastafarian Holiday in December. The event celebrates the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” the deity of Pastafarianism, a psuedo-religion that spoofs other religions.
Besides planning events in its meetings, the group discusses how secularism impacts the lives of its members.
“During meetings we discuss things, such as recent news articles that pertain to secularism or talk about what we’ve been doing for the past couple weeks and how that relates to secularism,” Calhoun said, “as well as what we feel about what’s going on in the world today.”
The purpose of Secular Students Alliance is not only to discuss secularism and plan secular events, Eberle said. The group tries a place where students can be themselves and feel free to discuss their thoughts without judgement.
“I’m an atheist, and as such was looking for something where I could discuss religion without feeling like I was being forced into joining,” Eberle said. “At SSA we discuss religious texts and the meaning without being forced to adhere to any sort of belief system. SSA is a place where anyone can come that is looking to better understand religion.”
Eberle said even religious students are welcomed to come to meetings.
“You don’t have to be a non-believer to join, or to come to the meetings, and we actually encourage religious people to come to our meetings and activities,” he said. “Any one of us is happy to talk, discuss, or debate any questions or issues you may have with your religion, a different religion, or something that isn’t religious, because not everything in life has to be religious.”