Why Would Atheists Be So Excited About Convergence?

Nick Stancato, Campus Organizing Manager, Secular Student Alliance

May 2, 2017

If you haven’t heard of the 2017 NASPA Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence event yet, it is an upcoming, exciting, gathering designed for professionals and students working in higher education to discuss and share ideas on what it means to support religious and non-religious identities of the students they work with every day.

Working with students on their religious or secular identity has been an aspect of student support often missing on many campuses, and it is very, very important that colleges and universities not only be places of learning but also of personal growth in every part of a student’s identity.  Students in college are exploring nearly any and every facet of their identity, especially because this is their first time outside their social circle, made up of their family and close friends. Many students may be doubting or changing their religious viewpoint at this time, sometimes to a worldview that wouldn’t necessarily be accepted easily by previous social circles (or unfortunately, sometimes even on their campus). College professionals can play a key role in supporting these students regardless of where their journey takes them or what identity they decide to settle on over time.

Historically, secular students in particular (including atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious identities), have not felt comfortable, or even welcome, to discuss their concerns and needs as they relate to their secular worldview and to their secular values within their local community, with their family, or with college personnel. American society at large doesn’t highly value secular viewpoints in the public square; in Invisible, Marginalized, and Stigmatized: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Atheist Students, Kathleen M Goodman and John A. Mueller point out that atheists are one of the least trusted segments of the American population, with many polls and studies showing less trust or acceptance of atheists than nearly any other included group, such as Muslims, LGBT Americans, and immigrants.

Because of these common issues in American society, many secular students come from communities or families who don’t value or accept their secular identity; some have even experienced outward hostility as a result. We’ve worked with and supported secular students who have been thrown out of their home, harassed by their local community or politicians, lost financial support, and suffered other negative consequences for simply being honest about their secular identity. Many more secular students, who are not out about their worldviews, fear losing access to scholarships or financial support from their families because they see how demonized and not accepted being honest about their secular identity can be in the United States.

To help combat much of this, the Secular Student Alliance helps secular students build communities on their college campuses to create spaces for secular students to feel safe and comfortable with being out and open about their values and worldview. But we cannot reach every student on every campus alone - college professionals, who work with secular students daily on their campuses, are key to helping to make secular students feel welcome, wanted, and valued on their campus. We eagerly seek to work with higher education professionals to foster a safe and welcoming environment for secular students on their college campuses.

We at the SSA are passionate about creating a culture where all religious and secular identities are welcomed and valued on college campuses. While we focus our own efforts on secular students, we also understand that many other religious identities, particularly among minority faiths, often face very similar challenges to those of secular students. Only by seeking to make all students welcome can we succeed in fostering a college campus that values all viewpoints, offers guidance as students explore their identities and values, and allows them to feel safe while doing so. We are also passionate about working with allies, such as NASPA, and interfaith organizations to meet these very common needs. We are excited that SSA’s Program Manager, Nick Stancato, has been actively involved in Convergence’s planning committee, that SSA staff will be speaking at the event, and we are proud to be an official sponsor as well.

We hope that you can join us for this important event and that we can work with you on your own campus so that we can build college campuses that are able to offer the resources, support, and guidance that every student needs at some point in their time on your campus. The event promises many exciting speakers, workshops, sessions, and opportunities for growth in your professional life. More than ever, in our current political and social climate, we must work to build bridges and support the diverse identities that students hold in every part of this country. 

Nick Stancato manages the Campus Organizing Team, the SSA Annual Conference, and other SSA programming. He has been with the SSA since 2010, when he first began as an intern. In college Nick was the Chair of the SSA at The Ohio State University, where he successfully revived it from its previously inactive state. He also helped to found the first IFYC-sponsored interfaith group on campus.

He graduated from The Ohio State University with a major in History as well as minors in Roman Classics and Religious Studies, and is also a Board Member of the Ohio chapter of American United for the Separation of Church and State. Nick has spoken at the President's Interfaith Community Service and Campus ChallengeCreating Change, and is a member of the Executive Planning Committee for the NASPA 2017 Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence event.

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