An Interview with Professor Michael J. Berntsen — Faculty Advisor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke SSA — Part 2

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

Professor Michael J. Berntsen: Raising awareness and seeing people embrace new ideas motivate me. Since I became advisor, 42 faculty and staff members as well as 14 students have trained to be Secular Safe Zone allies. These training sessions offer a chance for like-minded people to share their ideas and stories as well as opportunities for unlike-minded people to learn more about others, producing many moments of enlightenment. My greatest joy is when I can dismantle preconceived notions, stereotypes, assumptions, presumptions, and misguided opinions. When people realize that atheists have similar moral codes and identical views concerning the importance of family, they empathize and understand who we are, which is an important step in moving from ignorance to tolerance to acceptance.

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

Berntsen: Avoid ever being concerned with numbers. Whether one person or a thousand people attend, embrace the people who can help you grow and your organization.

Plan events you want to attend. Think as a group and organize events that everyone is excited about.

Attend the SSA conference each year to generate and refresh the passion for your group and your sense of activism.

Despite how many other groups may behave or believe, campus is a place for exchanges, but not for conversions. Secular activism on campuses should be meant to educate and create useful dialogues rather than bent on changing people’s minds.

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

Berntsen: The main issue is the prayer disguised as an invocation at every commencement ceremony. While it is inclusive to cover anyone who believes in higher powers, it still represents how religions attempt to dominate public spheres. This fight is ongoing.

Overall, our UNCP campus has not suffered heavy violations. While our students have had issues with family and friends, they have always felt comfortable on campus. The only time we encounter resistance is in an immature, passive way. Whenever we post flyers on campus, they are inevitably taken down. Campus police and the administration are aware and concerned about this juvenile form of protest, but it continues to happen at times.

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

Berntsen: Enthusiasm and perseverance from students are essential. Students need to celebrate their secular philosophies and be confident in sharing them, which is why the SSA and other such groups exist. If students are interested in forming or reviving an SSA affiliate, they must continually inspire students from each year to join and show the group’s relevance.

Depending on area, secularists need confidants, friends, and mentors to be visible. While proclaiming one’s secular tendencies and identities can be risky for many, each one of us must normalize secular thoughts and actions.

The greatest challenge is making people understand the secular spectrum and encouraging them to think of atheists as people rather than god-haters. The crux is that certain dogmatic and fanatical groups cast atheists as the ultimate sinners, so there is a certain difficulty in finding common ground and helping them perceive atheists as human. I’ve met a few Southerners in North Carolina and Louisiana who are openly gay with their family, but will never reveal their atheist beliefs because that would permanently destroy any relationship.

Jacobsen: What is your main concern for secularism on campus moving forward for the next few months, even years?

Berntsen: Popularism or populism, depending on which word you prefer, and blind faith are the highest threats. While secularism is on the rise in Western cultures, America will be a believer’s battleground for decades to come. Political leaders in many states continue to push evangelical agendas even when religious leaders unite against bathroom bills and anti-abortion bills disguised as building regulation bills. I am worried that many students in oppressively religious areas will remain silent and hidden. I fear they will let others speak and shout even when their falsehoods and emotions poison the public discourse.

“Have a Blessed Day” exemplifies the current trend of over-extending church into the public sphere. This phrase was not common before the 21st century. Now, everyone feels obligated to say it rather than “have a good day.” Most people say it because it is normal to them now. When others, such as myself, politely confront them by highlighting its unnecessarily religious connotation, they simply respond, “that’s how things are done.” If people can be convinced that bringing religion into all sectors of conversation from a cashier’s good-bye to closing a deal to a friendly thank you, even more dangerous dogmatic ideas can permeate the American consciousness on campuses.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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