UCF’s Secular Student Alliance hosted its “Ask an Atheist” event outside of the Student Union this past week.
On Monday, April 18, the campus organization pitched a tent and encouraged students to stop by and chat, asking participants to text in any questions they had about atheism and SSA. All questions were answered live on the patio.
“National Ask An Atheist Day is an opportunity for secular groups across the country to work together to defeat stereotypes about atheism, and encourage courteous dialogue between believers and nonbelievers alike,” the club’s website states.
“I think the hardest question that I got asked was, ‘What happened to you to make you stop believing in God?’” said SSA President Emalee Schierman.
“In the past, I wanted to be a pastor,” Schierman answered. “It is difficult because it is not one single, horrible event or something. The God of the Bible teaches that we are sinful, horrible creatures. Psychology, my major, teaches that, that kind of mindset is very harmful. The God of the Bible teaches you to blame the devil for your problems and God for your success. This type of external locus of control is not conducive to success or happiness.”
Club members also confronted contentious beliefs about the perceptions of gay, lesbian and transgender people through the eyes of atheists.
In response to the question, “How are LGBT people perceived by SSA?” Director of External Affairs Jordan Rivera quashed negative stereotypes about the atheist community.
“UCF’s SSA in particular is a highly inclusive environment that welcomes individuals of all sexualities and gender identities,” Rivera said. “The atheist community, like any other, is comprised of individuals. There will always be individuals that have their own prejudices and preconceived notions, so at the end of the day being an atheist doesn’t inherently make one any more or less inclined to phobic outlooks.”
Students were surprised to learn about SSA’s impartiality.
“I always thought that atheist groups would exclude certain people or judge them if they were LGBT associated,” said UCF sophomore Rebecca Dyke. “I’m glad that they’re more open than I thought.”
SSA not only aims to be accepting, club member said, but also intends to harbor a designated environment for nonbelievers to mingle.
“Our main goal is to provide a safe place on campus for those who don’t identify with Abrahamic religions,” said SSA member and UCF sophomore Victoria Rose. “We also advocate for the separation of church and state.”
Although atheism tends to have a negative connotation for most people, UCF junior and SSA Director of Outreach Austin Stanley pointed out the club's desire to promote tolerance.
“What people don’t realize is that we actually encourage equality when it comes to the importance that is placed on different religions,” Stanley said. “If any religious group is being treated unfairly, we try to advocate for better treatment and better equality.”
Some students were shocked by SSA’s take on peace and equality between religious groups.
“I originally thought that everyone had certain beliefs for a reason, so I assumed that they would strongly try to instill their thoughts on other people,” said UCF senior Todd Condon. “It’s actually really surprising to me that they are accepting toward other groups and don’t try to force their beliefs on other people, which is refreshing to hear.”
As students texted in their questions, Stanley noted that one question in particular popped up frequently.
“I just love answering, ‘If you’re an atheist, where do your morals come from?’” Stanley said.
Along with raising awareness about misconceptions regarding atheism, SSA provides a fun environment for secular students to get to know each other.
Landon Hughes, a UCF freshman and director of Internal Affairs at SSA, said the group tries to make the most out of their gatherings.
“We do potlucks, game nights, and are currently planning a senior night for those who are about to graduate,” Hughes said.
He also expressed his gratitude for the club.
“I was an atheist in high school and lived in a conservative community, so at college I just wanted to find some people who thought the same way I did,” Hughes said. “I’m really glad I joined SSA.”
Lexie Menyhart is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.