Nowadays, I always await the beginning of a new semester with a mixture of hope and concern. Not in terms of my classes, which I always look forward to with enthusiasm and which rarely disappoint me, but in terms of the Secular Humanist Club, of which I have been the faculty advisor for several years.
The SHC was born in response to the experience of freethinking students on the Bronx Community College campus. Some of these, in daring to express unconventional views on religion or ethical behavior in a class, found themselves on the receiving end of a torrent of anger, derision, accusations of immorality and worse. The professor may have helpfully intervened, nervously changed the subject, or apoplectically entered the fray, depending on the case, but in general these students were not enjoying the respectful marketplace of ideas that marked my own CUNY college years. Some of these young people approached me in hopes of formalizing a supportive group, and here we are.
Before the start of each semester, we plan activities for the next few months, make preparations for the Club Fair, reach out to such organizations as theSecular Student Alliance, Center for Inquiry NYC, and New York City Skeptics, put up posters and pamphlets, and send out an email bulletin to all registered students, announcing the club’s purpose:
The SHC is open to all students who are interested in exploring the possibility of living a life guided by reason, justice and ethics rather than by religion and superstition, and who believe that human achievement and worth are fine and noble things in themselves. Whether you consider yourself an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, rationalist, doubter, naturalist, freethinker, or no label at all — or are simply interested in learning more about secular humanism — the Club provides a “safe space” for students to support one another, foster a sense of community, discuss ideas, share resources, and engage in activities that further the cause of reason-driven thinking and living: reading groups for recent popular books that question or critique belief in religion; screenings of films dealing with secular humanist subject matter; panel discussions about important issues related to secularism, science, and the separation of church and state; roundtable examinations of more local issues related to the college, our communities, and our personal lives; charitable and community-oriented activities both to pursue the ethical aims of humanism and to counter the prejudiced association of atheism and agnosticism with immorality; and guest speakers, debates, and other events designed to bring secularist concerns to the attention of the college community. (Food and fun are also on the agenda.) Faculty are invited and encouraged to attend Club meetings as well.
This announcement has, at various times, elicited as many as 20 requests for further information — and as few as one. The club has had as many as 25 participating members — and as few as two. For a full year, the club chugged along with an enthusiastic and dedicated group of members — who all simultaneously graduated, leaving a year-long empty room in their wake. One semester a trip to a Richard Dawkins lecture, an on-campus critical-thinking workshop by Massimo Pigliucci, and an undercover visit to a Scientology center — and the next…
(The unpredictability of our level of membership has other consequences as well. BCC requires a membership of 10 students and 6 officers with acceptable GPAs and credits earned for a club to be officially chartered and funded.)
This time around, I received five email messages. [Update: Several more responses have come in since.] Three were from students who were very interested in what the club had to offer, but whose schedules made it unlikely that they would be able to attend many of our weekly meetings. I assured them that their participation was not limited to these brief gatherings, and shared a quick list of activities we’re putting together for the semester.
The other two messages were heartbreaking. I won’t reproduce them verbatim or share their specific contents, as I don’t have permission and wouldn’t risk the consequences anyway. In both cases, the writers expressed wistful support for the club and its aims, but apologetically explained that they dare not involve themselves in our meetings or activities. One writer described the oppressive expectations of her family, friends, and community; the other said that she feared for her safety if her beliefs were to become known.
In both cases I offered a sympathetic ear (and total discretion) should the students ever want to talk, and pointed them to a variety of resources on and off campus.
I wish I could say that these surprised me, but I hear similar accounts every semester. In addition to the classroom confrontations mentioned above, students have shared stories of fellow students becoming hostile when confronted with their skepticism and of professors openly mocking their lack of faith. Last year, the SHC’s acting President was heatedly (and loudly) accused at the Club Fair of betraying his race by rejecting the religious tradition of his ancestors and community; he spoke patiently and rationally with the increasingly agitated accuser, who was politely escorted out by the fast-acting Assistant Director of Student Life. And while some events on campus — such as the “Religion and Nonreligion” panel discussion I was recently asked to take part in — and the efforts of concerned instructors and administrators have gone a long way toward increasing the visibility and acceptance of nontraditional views on campus, there are still our students’ families, communities and cultures to consider. I have been told of forced evictions, emotional blackmail, and traumatic (and even violent) family rifts in connection with revelations of a secular outlook. Little wonder that the “safe space” the SHC offers doesn’t mitigate the cost of openness for everyone.
It was without much enthusiasm, then, that I waited on the second floor of Colston Hall last week to see if anyone would attend our first meeting of the semester. Five students showed up, shared a bit of their histories and thinking about faith and the nature of existence, and talked about what they would like the club to be. (They also gave me two great new phrases in describing the “lopsided Christianity” of relatives and the “sparkle of religion” that might still stick to a naturalistic worldview.) The open enthusiasm and honest self-examination of these young people assuaged my concerns and reminded me of the importance of the work at hand. We may not get chartered status this semester (only two of the students in attendance were eligible and available to serve as club officers), but I’m delighted, privileged, to be part of their ongoing conversation.