Secular Students Alliance

Secular Students Alliance February 19, 2013

Katherine Don, from Religion Dispatches, about the rise of secular student alliances on college campuses:

This month at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a select group of students will show their humanitarian spirit by participating in the Bleedin’ Heathens Blood Drive. On February 12, they will eat cake to celebrate Darwin Day, and earlier this year, they performed “de-baptism” ceremonies to celebrate Blasphemy Day, attended a War on Christmas Party, and set up Hug An Atheist and Ask An Atheist booths in the campus quad.

These activities and more are organized by the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA), one of 394 student groups that are affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance (SSA). “We brand ourselves as a safe place and community for students who are not religious,” says Derek Miller, a junior at Illini and president of the ISSA.

Secular groups on college campuses are proliferating….

A recent SSA presentation entitled “The Unstoppable Secular Students” compared SSA to Cru. Cru takes in $500 million a year, while SSA takes in $998,000; Cru has three paid staff members per 1 campus group, while SSA has 78 campus groups per 1 adult organizer. And yet Cru is growing at a rate of 16 per cent while SSA is growing at a rate of 116 per cent. The presentation concludes:

“Cru has a massively larger budget, the majority of the U.S. population to draw from (76% Christian), an organized political voting bloc to give them politicians and laws and supreme court justices in their favor. But they are losing in the cultural war. The secular students are winning, and they are unstoppable!”

This hawkish stance is understandable in light of Cru’s rather unilateral mission statement: “Win, build, and send Christ-centered multiplying disciples who launch spiritual movements.” No doubt many student secular groups hope to find those freshman questioning their faith and prevent them from becoming multiplying disciples. “As the secular students clear up misconceptions about what it means to be secular, I feel that more students will leave their faith,” says Galef.

Most campus groups are more concerned with strengthening the community, visibility, and tolerance of secularists than engaging in the cultural war. Hashman at the Center For Inquiry says that some students come from homes and communities where they have to hide their secular identity, and secular student groups become an important community for them. “It has now become more acceptable for people to state that they are questioning or no longer religious” says Hashman. “We are dedicated to free inquiry and freedom of expression, and that can come off as abrasive, but we believe it necessary for a free and democratic society.”

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  • I hasten to point out that growth rate statistics (specifically, “And yet Cru is growing at a rate of 16 per cent while SSA is growing at a rate of 116 per cent.”) can be misleading. Presumably, Cru is still quite large, having been around for a long time, while SSA is presumably much smaller by comparison. The figures posted in this entry certainly seem to bear this assumption out, although hard membership numbers are not present.

    It is FAR easier to boost a growth percentage of a small organization than it is a large one. Just to use an absurd example to make the point: If an organization has only 1 member, but grows to 10 by the end of the year, they’ve grown 900%! That same 10-person organization, if they add another 10 members in the following year, has only grown 100%, yet they’ve added 10 members that year to the previous year’s 9 members!

    Thus, by using growth percentages, it is possible to have a higher growth percentage despite adding fewer actual members. I do not have the facts to say that this is happening with SSA vs. Cru. I just feel that the statistic, as cited, needs to be put in some context.

  • More to the point, as an organization grows, the growth rate generally slows down. SSA has a long way to go before I can take their claim that Christians are “losing in the cultural war” seriously.

  • I agree with Mark Baker-Wright and also point out that there are often several christian groups on one campus (such as Navigators and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship as well as groups from local churches).

    Yet even so, this piece is disturbing. I’ll be speaking next month to Intervarsity students at the U of I and hopefully can encourage them in light of this information.

  • Just a few comments…

    Re: Mark’s comment. Amen, and amen.

    Re: “the culture war”, and declarations of winning and losing. I would suggest to everyone reading this: ignore those declarations. In other words, the kinds of faithfulness to Jesus, e.g., lives of witness to gospel, care of the poor, etc., really are the best practices of discipleship that have the reign of God front and center.

    Otherwise, we’re allowing folks like SSA to determine our ends, and, perhaps, our means. Just to tease this out a bit, why would we want to go to “war” with others in our universities, and the culture at large? And, for that matter, what does SSA mean by “culture”? And, given their metrics, it’s easy to announce to “their own” and to others: We are winning, and now it’s just a a mop-up.

    I’m much more in favor of the kinds of living that Scot, among others, has described in his writings. But, there is one matter in the university that I would suggest everyone keep in their prayers, and keep their attention upon.

    It’s become an increasing practice of student affairs officers to revise policies of inclusion for student organizations. We need to commend those efforts toward diversity. Where the revisions are increasingly moving toward, however, are the removal of philosophical adherence and doctrinal commitment as a condition of serving as a leader within the student organization. Plenty of campus ministries- like InterVarsity- have experienced decertification or are no longer recognized by some universities because the student leaders are expected to believe in the statement of faith of the respective ministry.

    It will be interesting when- not if- the day comes when a campus ministry becomes decertified because of its doctrinal commitment requirement for student leaders: and that takes place on the same campus where SSA is a recognized student organization…

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    There is a XKCD cartoon for this:

  • Joshua

    The one comment that caught me was this one: “As the secular students clear up misconceptions about what it means to be secular, I feel that more students will leave their faith.”

    Here, he may have a point. I suspect that will certainly be the case, provided that current misconceptions about what it means to be Christian persist. Regardless of how the SSA can mislead people by playing with the numbers and leaving out vital information that would otherwise provide context FOR those numbers (as Mark Baker-Wright has pointed out), the church should take statements like the one above as a reminder of the ever-present need to disciple students in the faith, unafraid of challenging their misconceptions, while providing a safe space in which to ask questions about God, suffering, justice, science – everything.

    Whatever the SSA’s “numbers” are, let’s remember how often we bemoan fellow Christians who judge meaningful growth and health by the mere presence of more bodies. There’s more to the gospel then making people nod. Let us heed the call of the Great Commission, including the call to teach them to observe everything he has commanded us.

  • Tanya

    Interestingly, the Humanist Community at Harvard has been participating in interfaith events, and not just flame-throwing. I believe they even co-sponsored a spring break trip with the Intervarsity chaplaincy a few years ago– so that students could get to know one another as people, and not just as labels. They also realized there was work they could do together in the world. They can tutor, they can feed the hungry.

    It seems to me that we Christians need to take a deep breath and ask ourselves why we’d need to quake in our boots. Yes, there will be some atheists who are more aggressive than others — but let’s ask ourselves why they are angry, and what we can do that is helpful in response. Some of the behavior seems immature — but there is no reason why this movement (secular humanism its called) can’t grow up and behave less dismissively towards others. Chris Stedman, the associate director at of the Humanist Community at Harvard, has written a book, asking for just that.

    As for numbers — I just wish we’d have a good conversation about why we have a stake in showing “more Christians” — as the world counts them — than atheists, or whatever. So maybe the culture won’t underwrite Christendom anymore — oh well.