Secular Student Alliance projects unconventional theological ideas

The Secular Panther Alliance discuss nihilism, a philosophy that argues that life is meaningless. Photo by Dayne Francis | The Signal

The Secular Student Alliance is a neutral platform for students, who rely on free thinking, agnostic and secular ideals, to come together and speak their thoughts in a non-judgemental environment.

It promotes civil discourse between religious faiths, and aims to focus on humanistic ideals and the separation of religion from state. They want to establish grounds for all faiths to feel welcome and stray from the emphasis of any specific faith.

Some perceive that secular individuals only consist of atheists, but there are multiple layers to having a secular mentality, some may be agnostic or some are simply not sure what they believe in, and try to understand everything in life.

The President of Secular Panthers Michael Nelson shared the truth about secular students and what the organization truly entails in an interview with The Signal.

What influenced the creation of this organization?

Nelson: Secular Panthers was chartered in October 2012 by Dave Churvis

Churvis:  I started SP because I wanted to be a part of a community of nonbelievers. I didn’t have any clear goals, but I knew I felt isolated as an atheist prior to entering Georgia State, and I figured if I felt that way, others must too. So from the very beginning it was intended to be an inclusive social group for nonreligious students, rather than the kind of intensive debate group that some other schools start.

What does secular mean in terms of this organization?

Nelson: In terms of our organization, secular means non-religious. With that said, our goal is to provide an open, safe environment for people of all faiths to discuss ideas and better understand how their fellow students think and feel about important issues, like morality and what it means to live a ‘good life. Even though we may come from different faiths, it’s important to recognize the commonalities between our various world views. Approaching these issues from a secular standpoint allows us to think critically about the basis of our beliefs and better appreciate the multitude of motivations that drive our student body.

How does this spiritual organization differ from the other ones on campus, in what ways?

Nelson: The word ‘spiritual’ has many different interpretations. For most people, being spiritual implies a connection to the supernatural. One thing we try to emphasize in Secular Panthers is that it’s possible to be spiritual even without believing in the existence of eternal souls or spirits. Personally, I feel a profound reverence for the interconnectedness of all life on Earth. With the methods of science, we can trace the iron in our blood back to the hearts of suns that died billions of years ago. This gives me goosebumps to think about, and evokes many of the same ‘spiritual’ feelings I felt back at church. Presently I identify as an agnostic atheist, but I feel even more spiritual than I did as a Christian.

Why do you think students would benefit or appreciate joining or seeing what this organization does?

Nelson: Students who join our events and discussions should come away with a new appreciation for the diversity of our student body. We often explore the origins of different religious practices and philosophies, and think critically about the effects of religious beliefs on our modern civilization.

What is your reaction to all the religious tension occurring in the world and, more recently, here in the US?

Nelson: While it pains me to see the needless suffering caused by all this tension, I am not surprised. But while religion may play a part in this tension, I suspect it has more to do with the tribalistic mentalities our species has acquired over millions of years of evolution. Our lizard brains scream from within, compelling us to act with primal emotions instead of reason and prudence. I’m reminded of something the late astronomer Carl Sagan once said: ‘In all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.’

Our emotions often compel us to act as if it’s us versus them, when in reality we are all in this together. We are one human species, and if we want to survive then we must figure out how to see past our differences and learn to better appreciate the diversity of our opinions.

Why did you get involved with the organization?

Nelson: I grew up as a devout Christian for the first 19 years of my life before eventually becoming an atheist. Since the church community was a large part of my life growing up, I felt like it was important to forge new connections with people with whom I could safely share my experiences without fear of backlash or attempted conversion. Before starting school, I attended different secular groups around the Atlanta area like the Atlanta Freethought Society and Southern Crescent Freethinkers. These groups resonated with my passion for critical inquiry, so I was happy to hear that Georgia State University had a secular group of its own – Secular Panthers.

Why is being open to all faiths important to this organization?

Nelson: The diversity of opinions and beliefs is one of the best our species has to offer for its own continuing survival. It makes us more creatively capable. With more individuals thinking unique thoughts informed by their various faiths, I think we are better equipped to innovate solutions for problems that may seem insurmountable. If we can rationally discuss the motivations behind these differences instead of succumbing to our tribalistic urges, then it might be possible to build a better world.

Past Events

  • “Spirituality” – what does it mean to be ‘spiritual’ and can someone be spiritual without believing in gods?
  • “Civil Disobedience” – discussion of the civil duty of disobedience amidst laws in violation of human rights
  • “What is Humanism?” – humanistic philosophies and the importance of helping fellow human beings
  • “Science and Religion” – exploring the intersections of science and religion through history
  • “Does God Exist?” – co-hosted debate with Ratio Christi, moderated by Dr. George Rainbolt (chair of Georgia State’s Department of Philosophy), debated by Dr. Ed Buckner (past president of American Atheists) and Dr. Richard Howe (president of the Society of Christian Apologetics)