Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?
Karma Alvey: I was raised in rural Southern Illinois in a highly Christian, Conservative, and Poverty Stricken area. My family went to a Presbyterian church for a while, and we occasionally attended church with a grandparent, but usually our family was never incorporated in a church. My mother is a Christian with liberal-leaning values, my father and brothers are unaffiliated, and I am an agnostic atheist. Both of my parents hold Master’s Degrees, and I am currently earning a Bachelor’s. We are Irish and Scottish descent and all speak English as a first language.
Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?
Alvey: I actually used to pray a lot and was really involved in religion as an older child and younger teen. I was “saved” at church camp in 4th grade, went to church for a while in middle school, but moved away from organized religion in early high school. Some negative feelings about the church, their attitudes, and their actions arose and I realized I didn’t agree with any of it. I would still pray regularly, nearly every night, but somewhere in late high school, I realized that I wasn’t really doing it out of belief, but more out of fear and some twisted obligation. Questions arose and I started to understand that I didn’t know if there was a God (or gods). Further down the line, I started to doubt the existence of a “higher power.” I met a guy in Marching Band my first semester of college who introduced me to the Secular Student Alliance on our campus, and I’ve been a member ever since.
Jacobsen: Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?
Alvey: As a secular person, I see so many ways other secular individuals can benefit from having a safe place to discuss anything — from schoolwork to activism to how to tell your parents you don’t believe in God. It’s also just generally good to be generally good, in my opinion, and by raising money for the local animal shelter or picking up trash at the park as a group, we’re doing good and challenging people’s preconceived notions that atheists can’t be moral. Our activism is also important to religious people, too. By advocating for the separation of church and state and freedom of (and from) religion, we are working to ensure no one is pressured or forced to adopt one religion or another. We want everyone to be able to practice what they believe freely, individually, and consensually, whether that be Daoism, Catholicism, Atheism or any number of other religions.
Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?
Alvey: Personally, it’s really important to me to be able to help people. I’m not Iron Man, and I know I’ll never save New York from a massive alien invasion, but saving one person means saving a little piece of the world. It’s an earth-shattering feeling to know that you’ve made a difference for someone — that you changed someone’s life, and that they can change the lives of others moving forward.
Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?
Alvey: Get out there! If you establish yourself on campus and put a familiar friendly face to the “scary atheist agenda,” people will be more likely to ask questions rather than judge you immediately. Of course there will always be antagonists as well, which brings me to the next tip — don’t get discouraged. For every person who calls you a name, there is a person who thinks, “How brave of them to stand up for their beliefs.” For every person who tears down your flyer, there’s a person who is thankful to have a secular presence on campus. The payout is far greater than the pain.
Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?
Alvey: I can’t think of too many, thankfully. As long as I’ve been here, I’ve only seen our president continue to strive for inclusivity and respect. One instance that comes up repeatedly, however, is the prayer before the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Dinner on campus every year. It’s been suggested the prayer be replaced with a moment of silence, but no news on that so far. We live in a heavily religious area so I’m honestly surprised (and proud) that institutional religiosity isn’t a recurring problem.
Jacobsen: What are the main areas of need regarding secularists on campus?
Alvey: Support from others. One hundred percent. Our greatest need is for positive support for religious freedom from all faiths. Respect is a big one as well. When we advertise, we see a lot of negative backlash — torn down flyers, water on our chalk drawings, etc. It’s important to respect other’s advertisements in any capacity, especially when it comes to something as personal and defining as religion or non-belief.
Jacobsen: What is your main concern for secularism on campus moving forward for the next few months, even years?
Alvey: Right now, it’s hard to be anything in America other than a straight, white, Christian man. Considering the regresses our federal government is making concerning religious freedom and the separation of church and state, I am afraid it will become increasingly hard to be secular (or Muslim or Jewish or anything other than Christian) openly on a college campus.
Jacobsen: What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus?
Alvey: Betsy DeVos. Hands down. She could be the end of the secular movement on campuses if she’s not kept in check. I’m also quite worried about Missouri’s own state government — especially Eric Greitens. We’ve already seen some steps back with women’s rights and other issues that hinge on his religion, so there’s no telling how far he will insert his religion into state affairs. Overall, I feel that the current state and federal administration has encouraged a hostile environment to several groups of people — secular people included.
Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?
Alvey: The long-standing stereotypes about atheists are the biggest threat to our organization. Just general misinformation and negative attitudes make it hard to keep a group enthusiastic and strong. Things have slowly gotten better over the last few decades, but there’s still a lot of work to do before it’s generally socially acceptable to be secular, especially in Southeast Missouri.
Jacobsen: What are the main social and political activist, and educational, initiatives on campus for secularists?
Alvey: Here there’s not much. We have the Secular Student Alliance, obviously, and we’ve done some interfaith events to educate the student body. There’s Campus Democrats, — they do a lot of political activities, and we are trying to partner with them for some events, but have had no luck just yet. We take part in any event we can to try and educate and stay active, like involvement fairs, charity benefits, and organization showcases.
Jacobsen: What are the main events and topics of group discussions for the alliance on campus?
Alvey: We meet weekly and talk about everything you could imagine — fears, the Satanic Temple, food, television — you name it, we’ve had a discussion about it! We hosted an interfaith panel last semester that we hope to continue, and we host a lot of social events, like hikes and game nights. The only thing we try to steer away from is politics so nonbelievers from every walk of life feel comfortable sitting in on our meetings.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved and maintain the secular student alliance ties on campus?
Alvey: On our particular campus, we meet at the same time every week (Thursdays at 7 if anyone is reading). Go to meetings, volunteer to lead a discussion or present on a topic, table with your group, or join them for dinner or a camping trip. Follow them on Facebook (to plug us again, we’re on there as SEMO Secular Student Alliance), and join any Facebook groups or group chats they provide! It’s the best way to follow what’s going on and check for last minute changes.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Alvey: I was thrilled to be a part of this interview. Visibility is vital, so thank you for the opportunity to speak about our movement.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Karma.