An Interview with Professor Michael J. Berntsen — Faculty Advisor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke SSA — Part 3

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Jacobsen: What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus?

Professor Michael J. Berntsen: Anger and insulation. Most campuses have provisions for free-speech, but people’s anger and inability to listen to unpopular thoughts have threatened those policies. The main issue is that Americans have confused unpopular with controversial and illegitimate. For example, anti-vaccinations have no right to speak in public forums because their views are unsubstantiated just as a science teacher should have no right to teach creationism. This denial of speaking is not a violation of free-speech because they are free to believe and speak in other private and public forums. The real issue is that in public education spaces, we should welcome controversial and unpopular views that have foundations in reason, measurable research, and experimental validity.

Another example I always provide is Take Back the Night events. Organizers would be irresponsible if they invited a rapist to speak. This form of exclusion is not censorship, but rather a logical omission. We don’t need to hear the side of a rapist. A rapist lost all rights to participate in public forums by committing one of the most disgusting violations. This idea that every side has to be included is a form of fanaticism. Logical reasoning would deduce that educational spaces require educated and reasonable voices. The blend of expertise and common sense is crucial to protect fundamental freedoms.

We are at a crucial time in American democracy in which we have to define exactly the parameters of free-speech since many people are confusing it with chaotic-speech. Groups who seek to pervert free-speech into an anarchical extreme will do more damage to secularist freedoms than religious zealots.

Other threats carry over from American culture include what I call Machiavelli Christianity and the return to Romanticism. Machiavelli Christianity is demonstrated by Christians voting against public safety in order to preserve strict dogma. All the outrage against needle programs and marriage equality and transgender rights produces terrible laws that threaten the safety and freedoms of all. Under Mike Pence’s leadership, Indiana experienced an AIDS epidemic that should have drawn compassion from Christians, yet this issue was abandoned given Pence’s push for supposed religious freedoms.

The return to Romanticism is another overarching threat. Even though Steven Colbert parodied this sentiment over a decade ago, the notion that emotions are more trustworthy and truthful than facts. This impulse explains why people are quick to believe fake news and so quick to reject expert opinions. This aspect is linked with Machiavelli Christianity. There is a certain arrogance inherent with believing that you know the truth above the rest of the world. This idea parallels the notion that personal instinct is greater than other people’s perspective.

Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?

Berntsen: Not comprehending that atheists are good people and thinking all secularists are atheists. These confusions hurt all of us who think complexly and embrace all sorts of secularist philosophies. I’ve known many heathens and humanists who would love to join the SSA, but think it’s an atheist club or fear others will assume their affiliation will mean that they are atheists, which threatens creative and productive collaboration.

Jacobsen: What are the main social and political activist, and educational, initiatives on campus for secularists?

Berntsen: This aspect depends on the needs of the school. Establishing Secular Safe Zone allies is a great start because it can educate all members of the university communities.

We should also copy the Secular Safe Home programs in areas where children and young adults are abused for questioning religious leaders and ideas.

Ultimately, we need to stay visible at all costs. While many of our billboards around the country are vandalized, we need to keep putting them up. Right now, placing “Thank You, Jesus!” signs are everywhere, so we need to counter with “Thank You, Science!” ones. Any initiative should attempt to showcase the importance secularism had on American history and its necessity to unify American citizens in the 21st century.

Initiatives that rely on collaboration are the most essential and will be the most successful because doing so immediately eradicates the notion that atheists are militant.

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

Berntsen: Types of events also depend on the campus. Holding events that are open to the public and campus are crucial. The UNCP SSA held a “History of Witches” lecture on Halloween, we hosted a “Gender in Advertisement” debate, which we organized with the GSA and Gender Studies department. We also hosted a “Truth about Evolution” night with the Episcopal student group, which helped to show the scientific proof why creationism couldn’t actually work. Again, for any secular group on campus, aiming for collaboration is indispensable in promoting and maintaining the group.

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

Berntsen: The best way is to establish sustainable resources on campus and share responsibilities. If a faculty member wants to establish a Secular Safe Zone, be the founder and go-to expert, but don’t be afraid to co-host training sessions with colleagues or students. Make sure there is someone to take up any activities if you leave. The same applies to students. Even if you don’t have someone in mind when you first start out, make sure, as the group grows and catches momentum, that you inspire the members to become leaders. Embracing the small steps and small victories is a great way to avoid being discouraged, so you can keep on keeping on.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Berntsen: Thank you for all, you do!

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Mike.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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