An Interview with Elizabeth Loethen — Executive Member, SSA at St. Louis Community College (Meramec Campus)

Image: Elizabeth Loethen.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — culture, education, geography, language, and religiosity/irreligiosity?

Elizabeth Loethen: Currently I go to school at St Louis Community College-Meramec with my brother, though before that I was primarily homeschooled. I am an Atheist, along with my parents and little brother.

Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?

Loethen: Well, I was raised secular right from the get-go. My parents were both Catholics growing up and once they got older and started dating they both “converted”, for lack of a better word, to secularism and Atheism. So, I was raised not believing in any god and knowing that science is the answer. When I was little, I really wanted to believe in a god. All of the kids at school believed and they often talked to me about the things they learned at church or Sunday school, and so the naive five-year-old in me wanted to believe and fit in. Although she wasn’t, I thought my mother was against me wanting to believe in God and so I almost did it to rebel against her. Instead, she encouraged me and helped me to learn more about it until I finally realized that I just simply didn’t believe. This, of course, made it hard to make friends since children at that age are told that anyone who isn’t their religion are bad and Atheists worship the devil, so I didn’t have many friends growing up until college where people just don’t care what your religion is, they just care if you’re nice.

Jacobsen: You are an executive member of the SSA at St. Louis Community College (Meramec Campus). What tasks and responsibilities comes with this position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?

Loethen: Since this group is struggling to even get off the ground, the curse of the commuter college, I spend a lot of time promoting the group and encouraging people to come to meetings. As of last semester there were five people, including myself, but when I fell ill and had to drop out of school, that number dropped. I’m unsure how successful the group was after my departure, but I’m hoping to get the group up and running again in the Fall of 2017. I pursue this because not many people on my campus are Atheists or secular in any way. I want to create a space for the secularists to converge and talk about things that matter to them.

Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

Loethen: There are seven Christian clubs on campus. Seven. And that’s not to mention the Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, ect… Nearly every major religion is represented on campus, and Christianity is OVER represented, in my opinion. I’m thrilled that these clubs are a place for similarly-minded people can go to meet each other, make friends, do charity work or read their holy text together in safety. My SSA group is the only one on campus, period. There is no safe place for Secularists to discuss things that matter to them without the influence of a god. Personally, I have always been alienated from other kids my age and adults since I do not believe in their god and there was no one for me to talk to about issues that meant something to me. I had my parents, but I wanted someone on my level to talk to. It would mean the world to me if I could create a place for people to speak freely without religion in the picture.

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

Loethen: Don’t be afraid to promote and talk about it! Due to my alienation, I have lots of anxiety when it comes to outing myself as an Atheist or Secularist in fear that people will simply stop talking to me. However, the more we talk about our group the more interest others will have. Do charity work! Our group was nowhere near organized enough to do charity work, but the more charity you do the more charitable people will take notice. Also, attend as many on-campus social events as possible. Once a semester we have something of a “club fair” where all of the clubs set up tables to recruit new members. Get to the location early and snag a table that will be right where the heaviest traffic will be.

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

Loethen: Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any. My campus is a commuter campus so people go to class and leave. No one really has their entire focus on a club. I am guilty of the same, so I don’t know a whole lot of what goes on on campus when I am not there. Like I mentioned before, there are dozens and dozens of religious groups on campus and not a single secular one, so a major success was getting the SSA group started in the first place. At my school you have to get ten people together in order to create a club, so our president at the time was able to get ten people interested in a club like this. We have not had success since, but getting started was really hard in the first place.

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

Loethen: We need a voice. A presence. The SSA chair at the Student Governance Council is vacant with no one to fill it. I am doing everything I can to give us a voice, but it’s not as easy as one might think.

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

Loethen: That there will never be enough of us to keep a stable place for us on campus. Every semester at the club fairs we get at least a dozen names on our sign up sheet all interested in joining, but when it comes to the actual meetings we’re lucky to get anyone. I’m worried that it will always be like this and alone, I cannot come up with any solutions.

Jacobsen: What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus?

Loethen: Surprisingly, the secularists themselves. Our club wasn’t terribly organized and, despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to bring any sort of organization to the club. There simply wasn’t enough of us to call ourselves a proper club. So, the lack of willing participants severely threatens our spot on campus.

Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?

Loethen: Our club isn’t that old, a year or two at most, but there are already people who don’t want us to exist. Our posters get ripped down and thrown away and defaces and we get primarily hate mail and angry texts. There are more people who want to destroy us than there are people who want to join us or to help us.

Jacobsen: What are the main social and political activist, and educational, initiatives on campus for secularists?

Loethen: Our president has graduated this most recent semester, and his main goal was to create a safe place for likeminded people to meet each other and have civil discussions. He was also extremely focused on charity so most of his efforts went towards helping our school charity project, which was “Project Peanut Butter”, helping children in underdeveloped countries beat malnutrition. The two of us really enjoyed working on the project and doing everything we could to help. We never really got to discuss what kind of education aspect we wanted to bring to the table on campus. Personally, I wanted to educate people on secularism and Atheism to see if I could bring down the stigma about our irreligiosity. Just because we don’t believe in the same things you do and we rely on things like logic and reason to give us the answers we seek doesn’t make us any less of people.

Jacobsen: What are the main events and topics of group discussions for the alliance on campus?

Loethen: As I’ve mentioned profusely, our club was horrifically small and had very little support, so one of our primary discussions was about how to make people interested and want to join us. The other topic that we discussed was events we wanted to hold on campus, and how to make them happen. Only one of our events ever happened, but our president always put lots of emphasis on our visibility on campus, even though we had very little.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved and maintain the secular student alliance ties on campus?

Loethen: Join us! Work with us at our various charity or recruitment events even if you can’t make the meetings. Talk with us about how we can make your involvement work for you. Our community is rather small and we could use all the support we can get. You can still reach us through the information on the posters, though it’s likely you won’t reach me directly but feel free to ask whoever you DO reach if you would like to know more. Like I mentioned, we’re pretty unorganized at the moment but we’re working hard to remedy that and make sure that you have a safe, comfortable place to be.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Loethen: Keeping this club afloat is a struggle and there have been many times when I just wanted to throw in the towel and give up. Since no one seems to want to be a part of it, then why should I keep trying? When I fell ill this last semester, I had no choice but to give up, even if temporarily. For a while, my mother was a student on campus as well and together, we worked incredibly hard to keep this club alive and for awhile, it was working. However, now that our president is gone and my mother will not be on campus any longer, it is up to me to keep our club alive. It is not going to be easy, and I am desperately going to need someone to lean on, but if I can make this work even if just for a while I will consider my time at the local community college to be beyond worthwhile.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Elizabeth.