Religious students have the opportunity to go to church, Bible study, temple or mosque virtually every day of the week. They have options within the 29 religious student organizations on West Virginia University’s campus through which to network and meet like-minded people.
But, what about students who aren’t religious?
Sean Banerjee, a WVU PhD student in computer science, founded the WVU chapter of the Secular Student Alliance student organization to create a place for the nonreligious students.
This group, officially recognized by WVU and the national chapter of SSA, has been on campus since 2011. Originally known as the Freethinking, Inquiring, Secular Humanists, the group recently chose to align with the national SSA to make a clearer identity for itself and gain access to more resources.
“We’re a small group, about 20 active members, but at the same time those people need a place to go, to just generally make friends,” said SSA President Caleb Davis, a junior in WVU’s social work program. “That’s the most important thing for people to realize: they aren’t alone.”
Categorized as a “political, environmental and special concerns” student organization, SSA focuses on humanist issues: a way of thinking that embraces reason, ethics and justice in order to become better humans separate from a religious perspective.
“For a lot of us, there is a challenge finding like-minded people,” Banerjee said. “We’re bringing like-minded people together. Now, students coming in are aware that ‘hey, there are people like this present to talk to.’”
SSA meets every Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Blackwater Room of the Mountainlair. It uses meetings as a chance to go over what events the organization has planned and as a discussion forum about secularism, how people come to be secular and how to raise awareness in places that oppress it.
With no membership fee, joining WVU’s chapter of SSA is as easy as attending the meetings. Becoming a member gives you not only a place on campus, but access to resources nationwide, including eligibility to participate in national SSA events like its annual conference.
“When people explore atheism and agnosticism, people feel alone,” Davis said. “Seeing that and hearing that from most people makes it important to create a community. It’s good to be around people that think like you but can challenge you.”
In addition to the community it’s building, the SSA simply wants to raise awareness of its standing on campus and promote its mission.
“There is a confusion of what it means to be secular,” Banerjee said. “We put our pants on the same way, go to school, go to work. Our ideas are no different than anyone else’s.”
The organization has taken part in several activities, including a bake sale to raise funds, handing out informational fliers on Sundays and various forms of public outreach and volunteering.
It also held Secular Safe Zone training, a program designed to educate people, so they can better create an environment in which secular students feel safe to open up, question, criticize and talk about whatever is important to them. Five members of the WVU chapter underwent training at a national conference earlier this year. In October, Andrew Cheadle-Ford, national coordinator of the Secular Safe Zone, trained 20 more members of the WVU community to be “allies” to the SSA cause.
WVU was the first university to host this workshop and now has the most allies of any campus in the country, Banerjee said.
Their efforts did not go unnoticed: the group was recognized with the Award for Outstanding Activism in 2013 by the national SSA chapter for its work with the Safe Zone.
CONTACT: Sean Banerjee, Secular Student Alliance at WVU
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