Charlee Vance is the President of the Maverick Secular Society at The University of Texas at Arlington.
Here we talk about Charlee’s life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Charlee Vance: I was born and raised here in North Texas, just two hours North of Arlington. I’d say I had a pretty traditional American family. I tell people that I was raised secular, because I can’t recall a single instance where my parents put me in the car and took me to church. It just never happened. I would sometimes go to church with friends or extended family, and when I came home worried for my parents’ salvation they just brushed it off. They would tell me they believed in God, probably just to shut me up, but they didn’t want to go to church. Later when I realized I was an atheist, we had a more open conversation about their perspective and while I don’t think either one of them would want to identify as an atheist, I consider them that way. I went to a very small conservative school on the outskirts of my hometown. The assistant principal would often invoke God when talking to students, and teachers at all grade levels would be very open about their belief. Our AP Biology teacher refused to teach evolution to us. “Evolution is crap,” she told us, “It’s chapter *some number* in the book if you want to read it.” At the time I really didn’t think too much of it, though I was a little surprised. In that same class, when students didn’t know the answer to a question on a test they would write “Jesus is always the answer” and receive one point on the test. Looking back, I wish I would have been more aware of what was happening; that teacher was breaking the law and pushing her dogma onto her students. If an atheist teacher promoted their non-theism to students in that way they would be fired immediately, and vilified in the community.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Vance: I am a senior at UTA this year, so I will be getting my bachelor’s degree in May of 2020, but the public library has always been my favourite place to learn new things.
Jacobsen: Freethinkers of UTA at University of Texas Arlington was the original group. It collapsed. Why? It became or a new group was formed called the Maverick Secular Society at The University of Texas at Arlington. How old is the new group?
Vance: The Freethinkers group dissolved a few years ago when the leadership of the group graduated and they didn’t have anyone to pass the torch onto. When I came to UTA there was still talk about the conflicts between the Freethinkers group and the rest of the campus community, so we started a new group with a new name to distance ourselves from the negative impressions some people had of The Freethinkers. The Maverick Secular Society became an official student organization in March of 2018.
Jacobsen: As the President of the Maverick Secular Society at The University of Texas at Arlington, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Vance: Typically I plan and coordinate our weekly meetings as well as events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area at large. For meetings this involves lining up a speaker or discussion topic, getting the paperwork approved to reserve space on campus, and then advertising for the meeting. Of course, I sometimes need to enlist the help of other officers or members to get all of that done every week. I also coordinate our tabling and involvement fair activities where we let other students know about our group and invite them to join us (I’ve been told I’m our best recruiter). I’m basically the go-to contact if someone wants to plan an event with our group, on or off-campus. When the other secular groups in the area are hosting events or activities, they usually reach out to me directly and I report back to the Maverick Secular Society and encourage them to participate.
Jacobsen: How do the surrounding religious communities treat secular communities in Arlington?
Vance: I think it depends. Especially if we’re talking about the secular groups in Arlington or the Dallas-Fort Worth community. People are generally very polite and respectful when we have social events or other get-togethers in public spaces. However, when we participate in activism events like protests or other awareness-raising campaigns people become less polite. For example, we marched in the Arlington 4th of July parade with another atheist group in the community and, for the most part, people were polite to us. Of course, we got a few comments from people that felt the need to speak out, but overall it was a great time. When we keep to ourselves the surrounding communities don’t pay much attention to us, but when we make ourselves more visible we get a little more feedback.
Jacobsen: What is the general religious and secular community like on The University of Texas at Arlington grounds?
Vance: The religious community at our campus is large and diverse. There are 17 different religious-based student organizations at UTA (11 of them are christian affiliated) and there is one group on campus for non-religious students. There are also several buildings on campus that are owned by one or another of the religious groups and are used solely for their regular services and activities. Our group isn’t as big as most of the theistic groups on campus, and we certainly don’t own a building, but we are a close community of students and friends. As far as the campus itself, everyone is welcoming and friendly when they see us around. If they are uninterested, students will politely keep walking or respectfully ask a few questions and then carry on. Even the religious organizations at UTA are welcoming to us, but that is in part because we go out of our way to market ourselves as non-threatening and non-exclusive. Every now and then we meet someone that is excited to learn about our presence on campus and eager to join us, this actually happens more than you might think.
Jacobsen: What are some of the fun social activities of the Maverick Secular Society at The University of Texas at Arlington?
Vance: We just kind of hang out. We tend to tell students that we are a social group, and that every meeting is a place to be social and chat. We’ve had a few cookouts, we go out to eat after every meeting, we’ve had a movie night, several members came to my apartment for Thanksgiving, and so on. We don’t have any regular social activities, just plan things as they come up. This month some members are going to the San Marcos River to swim and escape the Texas heat.
Jacobsen: Who are important mentors and supporters of the Maverick Secular Society at The University of Texas at Arlington?
Vance: Well, we wouldn’t even be an official organization without the support of our two faculty advisors, Dr. Daniel Levine and Dr. Sally Parker-Ryan. They have to approve all of our on-campus activities before we can submit any paperwork, and they provide valuable guidance to our group. We are also supported by the countless other non-theist groups in the DFW area. Mostly all of our off-campus events are in partnership with a secular organization outside of the campus. We are very closely tied to the Metroplex Atheists, but we also attend events with the Fellowship of Freethought, FFRF Dallas Chapter, The Crossroads Assembly, the Atheist-Christian Bookclub, and more.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Vance: You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as Maverick Secular Society! You can email me directly at email@example.com or reach out to us via our social media channels. Membership, unfortunately, is only available to students of UTA, but all are welcome to come to our meetings and be apart of the conversation! We keep our profiles, mainly Facebook, updated with all of our upcoming events, both on and off-campus.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Vance: It’s my understanding that Canada is considerably more secular than the United States, while Texas is one of the least secular states in our country. Groups like the Maverick Secular Society, Metroplex Atheists, and many others are formed in direct response to the overwhelming religious presence in our communities. At times it can be frustrating to see just how pervasive the theistic dogma is in the public sphere, particularly in public schools in the South. We, along with others, exist to show our community that their worldview is not universally adopted, and that we as atheists, agnostics, or what have you, are very normal everyday citizens. So many students are shocked when I tell them I’m the president of the atheist group on campus. “You mean you’re an atheist?” they ask with wide eyes. It’s as if those that have been deeply embedded into religion truly view us as an immoral “other” and are very surprised that an atheist could be a friendly classmate. Of course, not all students have this reaction. But for many on campus, interacting with us is the first interaction they have ever had with a professed atheist.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Charlee.
Vance: Thank you!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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