Why More Graduate Schools Need Secular Student Groups

When I first become involved with the atheist movement, it was during college — the age when a lot of people I know first became activists. When I joined the board of the Secular Student Alliance, one of our main goals was to establish more groups on college campuses. We had fewer than 50 affiliated groups at the time.

While the organization’s mission has since changed (it’s now more focused on the quality of groups rather than merely quantity), that initial goal has been realized many times over. There are now more than 300 groups across the country:

The Secular Student Alliance’s map of affiliate groups. Red tags represent college groups while blue tags represent high school groups

It made perfect sense to want to create groups on college campuses. That was the age when students were more likely to want to meet/date/hang out with other atheists, they had the opportunity to get money from their school for their events, and they were really able to think critically about their own beliefs (without parental interference).

Along the way, we realized that college wasn’t the time when many students became atheists. Many students were already atheists by the time they entered college and this was just their first opportunity to find a community. That’s when we began to think seriously about high school. It wasn’t that the SSA had ignored high school groups — a couple of them were affiliated with us — but we really hadn’t focused on them. College groups were our bread and butter. Still, we could see the benefit of broadening the spectrum.

Then, in 2010, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, the SSA had the opportunity to establish the position of a “high school specialist,” someone who could focus strictly on establishing and helping out high school affiliate groups.

Within a couple of years, the number of high school groups had skyrocketed:

(Image via the Secular Student Alliance)

It’s that growth — and the problems that arose from it — that prompted me to write The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide.

The SSA is doing an excellent job with high school and college students. And there are plenty of off-campus groups for adults (like the ones through Meetup or local branches of national organizations). So we’re good, right?

Not quite. The SSA has expanded its reach downward… but there’s another segment of the population that’s gone underserved for too long: Graduate students. There are a handful of grad school atheist groups out there, but what we need to see are specialized groups that merge atheism with actual careers.

Consider the value of this. You can’t get through medical school without seeing the ways religion and medicine collide. How great would it be to see future doctors have a space reserved for discussing the problems of scientific illiteracy (like anti-vaxxers), alternative medicine (e.g. homeopathy, energy healing), and damaging religious beliefs (like Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions)? I want atheist doctors to be thinking about those issues when they graduate — not only so they can educate their patients but also so they can be the voices of reason in a media landscape dominated by woo-peddlers.

Similarly, in law school, we need people who can pay special attention to First Amendment and church/state separation issues from an atheist perspective. Granted the number of full-time jobs in those areas are sparse, but lawyers educated in those areas could always provide helpful advice to those who need it or possibly offer pro bono help. (Groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation often seek local partners when they’re pursuing a case in court.)

There are groups that already exist for some of these purposes, but very few do so with a decidedly secular outlook. (And, obviously, law and medicine aren’t the only areas where grad school groups would be helpful.)

As it stands, there are just a handful of “Secular Legal Societies” out there and even fewer “Secular Medical Societies.” I would love to see more of each.

There are a few obvious obstacles here. Just to name a couple, the amount of free time grad students have is very limited and I imagine many students wouldn’t want to list these groups on their resume out of fear it may hurt their career prospects. But it’s not like grad schools are devoid of student groups; it’s just a matter of which ones take priority. And while you can always leave the groups off your resume, it’s important to note that the focus of these groups is not to spread atheism, but to discuss the intersection of religion and your field of study — hell, there’s no reason religious students couldn’t be involved in those discussions, too.

The point is that there’s a huge advantage to broadening and specializing our focus as atheists to reach different age groups. We need to make the issues we talk about more relevant to people as they enter their careers, especially careers where religion plays a major role.

On a side note, since we’re talking about the need to aim older with these groups, should we move younger, too, to middle school and elementary school?

I would say no. We’re not Christians with a “4-14″ window. Our goal isn’t to “convert” kids before they’re old enough to think for themselves. (Not to mention there are thorny legal issues when it comes to religious/non-religious groups in elementary schools.) So while we can debate how young is too young, I hope we’re in agreement that grad school groups are a no-brainer. They may not be for everyone, but a lot of students — and atheists in general — would benefit from more of them.

I spoke with some staffers at the SSA about this idea and they told me they’re working on establishing guidelines for expanding these kinds of groups. It’s a good start. But ultimately, it’ll take students who are already in grad school who are willing to begin these groups and take a leadership role in them to make a real difference.

If you’re someone interested in taking those first steps, consider contacting the Secular Student Alliance or myself and we’ll work with you to establish a group on campus.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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