An Interview with Cayman Travis Gardner — President, University of North Alabama SSA
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?
Cayman Travis Gardner: Family background is where one derives a majority of their childhood moral compass. Depending of where in the country one grew up in, (Bible belt vs. northern states) they will be subjected to a number of cultural and religious factors during childhood. These factors can guild one’s life in terms of faith, or lack thereof, which in turn guild the rest of their opinions and moral reasoning.
Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?
Gardner: Personally, I was raised in a semi-religious Christian household where there were irregular, but forced, visits to church. Church always gave me anxiety as I have never agreed with the philosophies of the Bible. I considered myself Agnostic for much of my adolescent years, beginning when I began to understand independence from religion and what that really meant for me. But when I got to college I began to discover more about myself, as everyone does, and started to determine my exact ideals and how I wanted to support them. I familiarized myself with some philosophies about religion itself and this led to my declaration as an Atheist as I found problems with Christianity and religion as a whole that I could no longer associate myself with even partially, as I was as an Agnostic.
Jacobsen: You are the president of the University of North Alabama SSA. What tasks and responsibilities come with the position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?
Gardner: UNA Secular Student Alliance has opened many doors for myself and others in the group for self-exploration in the means of religion. We hold weekly meeting where we discuss a topic pertaining to religion and faith in our community/university, the area we live in and ultimately in the U.S.A. as a whole. These discussions often open the minds of our group members as well as myself. Alongside weekly meetings we have an assortment of events that we orchestrate on campus to spread awareness of Secularism, have open forums with the public on campus, and attempt to gain new members. For example, one of our events in Spring 2017 was named “Ask An Atheist Day” and we set up a table in one of the most popular buildings on campus all week and allowed any and all to ask our members any questions about Atheism or Secularism. This event is very helpful for bridging the gap between the Atheist and religious communities here at UNA.
I perused the title of President of UNA SSA because I could see no higher duty in my community for opening minds to the Atheist, Agnostic, freethinkers, AND religious individuals alike.
Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?
Gardner: Our weekly meetings are also used as a safe place for secular individuals to escape the hyper-religious culture of the south that we live in. I have no better feeling than knowing that my meetings and events help others and myself in this fashion.
Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?
Gardner: Specifically in the south, we as Secularists and Atheists are not the most liked individuals on campus. However in the growing culture of acceptance of LGBT groups and other social “outliers”, our Secular group is growing more accepted by the day. In contrary to this, some believe that by UNA SSA holding an event such as “Ask An Atheist Day” in such a public space, we are attempting to infringe on their religious freedom or in some way are attacking their religion. While of course this is not true, it is important to understand as a group that holds events such as these that some individuals believe this and you may be on the receiving end of some hate. Do not be discouraged by this, our organization exists in part to spread awareness of Secularism and promote friendly discourse between differing opinions, thus resulting in coexisting peacefully.
Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?
Gardner: Generally speaking, UNA is a Christian majority campus where many organizations and groups are united under the umbrella of faith. There have been times where a Christian organization has set up their advertising tent in front of the residence halls. This is a breach of secularism on campus because the individuals who live on campus are subjected to experience their attempts to spread faith as they see it, making them unable to avoid the tent since they have to walk by it to return to their dorm. There has been relative success with this issue as the organizations have not done such advertising since.
Jacobsen: What are the main areas of need regarding secularists on campus?
Gardner: I believe the main requirement for Secularists on campus is a space to feel welcome. Having a group of friends or individuals where they can feel safe to not “hold their tongue” so to speak. As anyone does, we too desire a place to feel safe and welcomed.
Jacobsen: What is your main concern for secularism on campus moving forward for the next few months, even years?
Gardner: Specifically here at UNA, my worry is the cessation of having an SSA on campus after I leave in a couple of years. Our group numbers hover around 10–15 active members. Before I became the President there was a crisis within UNA SSA and the group’s continuation was threatened by the absence of a President. Thus, I became the President and have done my best to grow the group while also providing a successful organization for our current members. I am happy to say that we have done a great job so far with this goal!
Jacobsen: What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus?
Gardner: The biggest, most current threat to secularism on campus is stigma. The stigma surrounding Atheism both historically and currently, though diminished, causes many people to assume our organization has ill-intentions. We are here to provide a healthy outlet for our members as well as spread awareness through de-stigmatization.
Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?
Gardner: Stigma once again. The ideas of a few radiate through friend and social groups who think alike, thus propagating stigma.
Jacobsen: What are the main social and political activist, and educational, initiatives on campus for secularists?
Gardner: Sadly, the UNA Secular Student Alliance is the only organization providing for Secularists in campus currently. In the future, I would like to see a growth in either number of groups or size of the UNA SSA to better help those who are possibly questioning their faith.
Jacobsen: What are the main events and topics of group discussions for the alliance on campus?
Gardner: Our events often focus on educating the public by spreading awareness. Our discussions often relate to injustices among social groups or individuals based upon their defining traits (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) and how those injustices differ among the Secular crowd, and the religious crowd.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved and maintain the secular student alliance ties on campus?
Gardner: Through attending meetings and participating in events individuals can help UNA Secular Student Alliance with our mission as well as become a part of a welcoming group on campus.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Gardner: It is truly a new world, one where acceptance of groups or ideas that are not shared among the majority populous is growing. However, even though acceptance is growing, this does not mean our work is done. Many individuals emerging from their childhood, finding adolescence and/or emerging from their adolescence finding adulthood are searching for answers. We are able to help these individuals in their own pursuit of defining their faith, or the lack there of.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Cayman.