Gavin Riley is a persistent student at the University of New Hampshire. Our focus here, today, is on the ways in which even for the best of efforts; the student groups and secular initiatives can fail. Our aim is to provide a lens on the honest failures and real successes of attempts to form a secular student alliance student group or organization, and what can be learned from the experience for others.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, education, and religion or lack thereof?
Gavin Riley: My family is all from the North Eastern United States we are a solely English speaking family (as most are in America). Culturally we are essentially an amalgamation of European countries. On my mother’s side my grandfather’s family came to America from Germany just after WWI and my grandmother’s family came from France when the surrendered to Germany in WWII. I don’t know much about my father’s side of family though. As far as religion was concerned my great-grand parents were extremely Catholic, my grandparents were catholic by name only and my mother was a Sunday Baptist. She wasn’t super religious but I was sent to a Christian middle school and it changed me. I became radically Christian, I was taught and believed the Earth was 6000 years old, it was flat, and humans walked along side dinosaurs.
Jacobsen: What is personal background including the discovery or development of a secular outlook on life and philosophy?
Riley: I grew up as the eldest child of three in the house of a single mother. She sent me to a private Christian school (on scholarship) to attempt to fill in any gaps, in raising, she might have missed, she didn’t miss anything except maybe teaching me how to cook a decent meal. Anyhow, while I was there, 2 school years, I grew to believe some patently ridiculous things. Near the end of my time there, a friend came out as a member of the LGBT community. I don’t want to go into detail but many students, myself included, treated them very poorly to say the very least. The next sermon, we had them biweekly from what I remember, was focused entirely on disparaging the LGBT community. Sadly, at the time, I was so indoctrinated, I agreed with the preacher. That was of course until my friend attempted suicide. It was a wake up call. I realized there must be something fundamentally wrong in what I believed if my beliefs made me treat someone so poorly. I then had to ask myself ‘what is right? what is wrong? and why?’. I started with an extremely deep read of the Biblical texts, then the Jewish texts, then the Quran, and half a dozen eastern religions. I couldn’t convince myself that any of them held the truth. In the course of seven or eight months I read more about religion than I had in the 14 years before it and over that time I want from an extreme Christian to an Agnostic Atheist. My middle school friend and I still talk and I have never forgiven myself for how I treated them.
Jacobsen: What happened with the University of New Hampshire Secular Student Alliance in terms of failures with the signups?
Riley: When we began to float the idea around of a student organisation centered around secularism we got a pretty good response. We had probably five or six dozen people saying they wanted to participate and probably double that express interest in hearing more. However, when it came time to set up an exec board only two of us were willing to step up and do it. That was no matter, I could let a member hold a title and just do the work myself. So we had five people set to hold the title and two people to actually do the work. Now came time for sign ups. Attracting attention for a project is difficult; I’m sure you have experienced difficulties with outreach before, with the publication. But not only did people seem indifferent but the only people we were able to have a conversation with people who were members of religious organizations on campus. We decided to reach out to a bunch of the people on our email list and ask why they hadn’t signed up officially to be a member. The general consensus was that they felt the organization was not needed or that religious intrusion was not a problem.
Jacobsen: What were some of the failures of some of the executives for the University of New Hampshire Secular Student Alliance?
Riley: The main failure was on the part of myself and the VP Eli Morgan. We tried to set up an organization without knowing if people would actually step up. We didn’t make sure we had a solid footing with a good exec board so when we tried to reach out it crumbled beneath us. We failed to establish a relationship with people that signed up. They just signed a paper and got an email but I don’t believe we connected with people enough individually to draw them back.
Jacobsen: What are the lessons to gain from the failures in signups and executives for the University of New Hampshire Secular Student Alliance?
Riley: Well there are three really. 1]You need to make sure that those around you, those you are relying on to help will actually rise to the challenge. 2] make those personal connections, getting a name on a sheet is almost entirely useless. If they won’t remember your face in a week, then they won’t remember your organization in an hour. 3] even is you try to gauge interest in something, the likelihood of people actually following through is minuscule in comparison. If 300 people say they want to take part, you can safely assume 295 won’t return your email.
Jacobsen: What were the requirements for the university to recognize the University of New Hampshire Secular Student Alliance as a legitimate group?
Riley: A constitution outlining the purpose of the org, how it will run, how elections for the exec board will be held etc., a full exec board of a President, VP, secretary, and treasurer, and there was a requirement for membership. I can’t remember the numbers on that one but we didn’t make the cut.
Jacobsen: How does the surrounding non-religiosity of New Hampshire influence the dynamics of the University of New Hampshire campus and culture, and student body and faculty attitude and belief demographics?
Riley: Well we don’t have religious monuments being erected in front of our state house. We don’t really have large opposition to abortion rights and our public education system isn’t riddled with pseudoscience. People here haven’t seen the destructive side of belief for a long time. I saw first hand with my friend in middle school how destructive and alienating personal beliefs can be on the small scale. I have a reason to care about the encroachment of false beliefs while few people here have seen it.
Jacobsen: Why was religion such an off-topic for the campus community?
Riley: I don’t think it’s that people don’t want to talk about it. I think many people find it a mentally exhausting exercise and would rather do other things. There are Jehovah Witness’s and other groups that table on campus and the individuals I have met are… not the fairest in the argumentation. It’s not all religious people, not all JW’s, not even all street preachers. But when a largely atheistic state’s only experience with religion are bad faith arguments they won’t be very interested in a group meant to counter these exhausting arguments.
Jacobsen: What are the next steps for you?
Riley: I figured if I still wanted to help stunt the flow of bad ideas politics was the best way to go. I am working with Young Americans for Liberty to help facilitate civil political discussion on campus, hopefully the best ideas will survive while the weaker ideas die off. You can’t have evolution without competition, so we let the ideas compete and hopefully open some minds to ideas they may never have considered.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gavin.
Riley: Thank you as well. Best of luck to you and yours Scott.
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.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
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Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.