Van Buren Secular Student Alliance first in Arkansas, met with some hostility

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 308 views 

They have only hosted one meeting, but a new student organization at Van Buren High School is already making waves after more than 60 students attended the first meeting of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) – the only such alliance among Arkansas’ public high schools.

Senior Aaron Centeno helped found the new student group and said its members were not attempting to evangelize secular beliefs, but rather trying to raise awareness of belief systems outside of the widely-held Christian faith prevalent not only in Arkansas, but across much of the United States.

"We're trying to gear (the) focus toward religious awareness and to kind of get people to know different religions so they get out of the mindset that their religion is the only one available to them."

According to a Pew Research study, 78.4% of Americans identify as Christian, while 4.7% affiliate with other religions such as Jewish (1.7%), Buddhist (0.7%), or Muslim (0.6%). About 16% of Americans identify as "unaffiliated," with 1.6% of Americans calling themselves atheists while 2.4% are agnostic (both fall under the unaffiliated group for statistical purposes).

In Arkansas, Pew reports that 87% identify as Christians, while less than a half percent identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim. Another 13% identify as unaffiliated, though Pew does not provide individual figures about atheism or agnosticism for Arkansas.

Sophomore Kieran Horne said the meetings would not focus on conversion of students or attempts at reinforcing belief systems, but instead would create a dialogue on a variety of topics.

"Really, any topic that's big at that moment, or becoming big. Like at our first meeting, we went over homosexuality and abortion," Horne said.

Faculty sponsor Michael Tilley said the students have also discussed bringing in guest speakers from local "free thinker groups" to discuss "certain topics like world religions, or philosophy, bible scholarship." (Van Buren High School's Michael Tilley is not related to or connected to The City Wire co-owner Michael Tilley.)

Centeno, who said he become an "agnostic atheist" during his sophomore year of high school, noted that part of the goal of the group was acceptance for students of all belief systems.

"Mainly, we're just trying to open people's eyes to different things that are out there. We're not trying to say that your religion is wrong or that our way of thinking is right. But we just want to set out information that they may not have seen previously so that they can say that, 'Hey, I'm not the only thing out there. There are other people who are not like me.'"

David Niose, legal director at the Washington, D.C.-based American Humanist Association and author of 'Non-Believer Nation,' told The City Wire that Secular Student Alliance groups are popping up all over the United States, noting that "several hundred" were in existence when he wrote his book more than two years ago. Having groups like SSA, he said, helps to take away some of the stigma of being non-religious in a faith-filled society.

"I think, generally speaking, secular student groups are a great idea. In fact, they are a very important tool in normalizing atheism and humanism in the public," Niose explained.

He said efforts by students like those at Van Buren High School are important in making others understand that atheists and others who share different belief systems are everywhere, even at a nearby desk in math or English class.

"A lot of people are kind of negative toward atheism, mainly because they feel they don't know any atheists and atheism is (thought to be) kind of at the fringes. It's really not. Atheists and humanists are everywhere. Through these groups, children will now see that kid on their little league team is an atheist or that kid they sat across from in first grade is an agnostic. It's a very good tool at normalizing the secular demographic, if you will."

Within Arkansas, the SSA has affiliate groups on the campuses of Arkansas Tech University, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. In nearby Oklahoma, SSA-affiliated groups can be found on the campuses of Cameron University, Oklahoma State University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Tulsa Community College, the University of Central Oklahoma, and the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.

The closest high school SSA-affiliated group listed by the organization is found at Sherman High School in Texas.

Junior Daniel Coughran, a Van Buren student and founding member of the VBHS SSA, said he was not brought up in a religious household like many of his classmates.

"It wasn't religious, more of whatever you want to be or think. And it really let me explore different ways of thinking and I guess the whole concept of a religion to me just didn't seem to click at all. I really didn't think there was a higher power and I guess just in the eighth grade, I just figured that I would be an atheist because it (religion) didn't really make sense to me."

The road for the three students to get the group up and running has not been entirely smooth, even though the three said turnout for the first meeting was beyond their expectations.

Horne said, "As expected, there was a lot of hostility. … It's looked at as the atheist club, the anti-God sort of satanist group. But if they would actually read the posters that they tore down, they would see that isn't the case."

An individual close to the group who asked to not be named due to the controversy surrounding the organization said each of the posters the students posted on two different occasions were torn down prior to the first meeting this month.

Even though there has been some contempt expressed to the founding students of the SSA, Van Buren School District Superintendent Kerry Schneider said he has received no calls or emails regarding the group aside from one note about the posters.

"One of the assistant superintendents sent me an email that said they put up fliers announcing the club and (posted) on Facebook. I said ok, everything's on Facebook eventually. But that's the only thing I've got."

Schneider said the group was allowed to meet like all student groups as long as they have a faculty sponsor.

"There wasn't any reason for us to try to stop that. It's a student organization and I think they're affiliated (with the national SSA)."

Horne said should anyone have concerns about the group, he hoped to make them understand that while it is secular by name, it is not trying to do away with religion or religious student groups on campus.

"It's not a non-religious club. We support every religion. It's what a lot of people have not found out yet."