An Interview with Patricia Flanagan — President, Secular Student Fellowship

by | December 28, 2017


By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Patricia Flanagan: I grew up in the Ozarks near Branson MO, but most of my family is originally from California. My parents are divorced and I spent my childhood living with my mother. I am a first generation college student.

Mom worked mostly in the Branson hospitality industry, and my Dad did mechanics. I grew up going to church. I went to Catholic Sunday school when I was very young, but started attending a Methodist church around fourth grade.

Church and Jesus was always a big part of my life. My Mom was more spiritual than religious, but she has a strong belief in Jesus and wanted me to grow up in a Church community. I spent a lot of time involved in youth groups in middle school and early high school.

Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?

Flanagan: I first started to question my beliefs in my Junior year of high school. Learning in history class about all of the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity was very disturbing for me.

It became apparent to me that people around me whom I deeply respected (teachers, friends) did not share my beliefs, but were still good and happy people. This was in conflict with what I was taught about non-believers.

I was also starting to develop more progressive views about social justice which also seemed to be in conflict with my beliefs. There was not one huge event that changed my mind about Christianity and the supernatural, but one day I said to myself, “Jesus is like Santa Clause, I used to need to believe in him, but now I don’t.”

From that moment I have never looked back. Lingering beliefs in the supernatural have dissipated and I focus on building community for people like me who have transitioned out of them as well.

I fell in love with secular humanism and developed a passion for secular community building when I met Bart Campolo, the Secular Humanist Chaplain at University of Southern California my Freshman year of college.

I was a part of the secular community there, and Bart helped mentor me to be able to build a similar community when I transferred to Truman.

Jacobsen: You are the president of the Secular Student Fellowship. What tasks and responsibilities come with the position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?

Flanagan: Our group is still in it’s infancy. As president I am basically responsible for figuring out what we want to do at meeting and what events we want to have. I lay out what needs to be done and delegate tasks as needed.

The most difficult thing to do was find like minded people in the beginning to get the group started. I made a post on FB saying that I would be at a certain place on campus at a particular time every Tuesday for people who wanted to talk about being secular.

I found a couple of other people and we have all worked together to get the group off the ground. I have to admit that I pursue this mostly for selfish reasons. I wanted a community of people who have similar worldviews and experiences, so I worked to establish one.

I also do this out of a deep sense of empathy and compassion for the difficulty and loneliness associated with transitioning out of religion. I want to be there for the people who feel isolated and alone.

Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

Flanagan: Most of the fulfillment comes from the amazing friends I have made. We all share similar values and have a blast working together to create a safe and open environment for secular people to express themselves on campus.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?

Flanagan: I have not participated a lot in secularist activism. At this point our group is mostly focused on building community. We have found that it can sometimes be hard to do both because there are still broadly varying opinions of what activism and for what cause is appropriate.

If simply existing as a group of people banded together by humanist values and naturalistic worldview is activism, then my advice is to kill them with kindness. Its hard for people to hold onto their belief that you are an amoral, meaningless, empty person when you are smiling and handing them a cookie!

Also, reach out and connect with other groups on campus who share your values and vision for the world.

Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?

Flanagan: I don’t know of any on campus. I’m sure they existed at one point, but in all of the activities of this club we have felt supported on campus, even by religious organizations.

Jacobsen: What are the main areas of need regarding secularists on campus?

Flanagan: I can’t speak for all secularists, but I believe community is important. We are in the bible belt and while most people on campus are supportive, all bets are off when we step out into the real world.

Many secularists I have talked to have to hide their true beliefs from their families and pretend to be religious. This can be taxing and it helps to have a group of people who allow you to truly be yourself.

Jacobsen: What are the main events and topics of group discussions for the alliance on campus?

Flanagan: We talk about a large variety of things. Many of our members have interest in other religions, so we have talked about that. We have only been having official meetings for one semester, so a lot of our time is devoted to talking about what we would like to do with the club in the future.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved and maintain the secular student alliance ties on campus?

Flanagan: Simply by being an active member of the community. I think the biggest challenge for us is getting out there and showing people that atheists and secular humanists etc are just normal people.

Each new member brings their own special skills and talents which allow us to reach out and interact with our community in different ways.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Flanagan: I think building communities is one of the most important things we can do as secular people. There are so many people who hold onto religion not out of true belief, but out of a desire to have a community in which they feel connected and integrated.

If we can recreate that without violent ethnocentric narratives and logic denying supernaturalism, then those people will have a place to go. Parents who don’t believe but don’t what their child to believe “nothing” will be able to find similar ways to pass down values without all the extra stuff.

I really love the idea of secular churches like KC Oasis which I think are an awesome way to create secular communities beyond just on college campuses.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Patricia.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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