An Interview with Nick Khaligh, Vice President of the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University

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

Nick: My father is a native Iranian, and my mother’s side of the family is a mix of Italian and Irish. I’ve lived in Northern Virginia my whole life, and am now in my fourth year studying psychology at George Mason University.

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

Nick: I am incredibly grateful for the way my parents raised me and encouraged me to think critically. My mother, although raised in a catholic family, refused to tell me how to think regarding religion. She always made it clear to me that she would support me no matter what I believed, and she encouraged me to come to my own conclusions. Whenever I brought up God or Jesus (Christianity was the religion I came in the most contact with), and asked if they were real, she wouldn’t give me a yes or no answer. She would instead ask me what I believed. This deliberate refusal to indoctrinate me is one of the things I am most grateful for, and I am under no illusion that I would be who I am today if she had simply told me “yes” all along.

My father played an equally important yet different role. He has told me many times that I was an especially inquisitive child. Whether it was about his instructions or just about how the world works — I always wanted to know why. As cliché as it sounds, my parents joke about how my go-to line as a child was “prove it!” And, to my great benefit, my father always did his best to do just that. Even though it’s much easier to fall back on “because I said so,” he would explain things to me, and he wouldn’t sugar coat his answers either. I am incredibly grateful for the way this set me up to be inquisitive and skeptical as an adult.

Jacobsen: You are the vice president of the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University. What tasks and responsibilities comes with this position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?

Nick: I pursued the role of Vice President not because I was especially keen on organizing group events or doing internal housekeeping, but because I wanted to try and be a model representative of not just our group’s, but secularism’s ideals as a whole. I’m aware of the widespread misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist, and I try and dispel them whenever I can by being not only outspoken and forthcoming about my views, but also by being as reasonable and articulate as possible in discussing them. Far too often, atheists become too combative or condescending when discussing religion, and this does more harm than good.

Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on

campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations? What are the main areas of need regarding secularists on campus? What is your main concern for secularism on campus moving forward for the next few months, even years? What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus? What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?

Nick: I think all of these questions can be touched on with one answer. While this isn’t something I have witnessed first-hand on my own campus, but rather something I’ve heard and read quite a bit about, there’s a disturbing rise of the censorship of ideas, topics, and speakers that make people (especially college students) uncomfortable. In fact, within the past week, it was revealed that a radio station cancelled an appearance by Richard Dawkins because of his previous criticisms of Islam. In addition to this, there is a very real and well-founded fear that speaking out against or criticizing a religion as a set of ideas will be misconstrued as bigotry or hate speech. I know this is true because I closely follow the work of Sam Harris, who is one of the most reasonable, articulate, and intelligent people I know of, and yet he is still commonly misrepresented by many religious apologists as a bigot. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest threats secularism faces both now and in the future. Free speech is at the absolute core of our western values, and an inability to have honest discussions about sometimes inconvenient truths will hinder our social progress and prevent our policies and practices from lining up with reality.

Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

Nick: I get great fulfillment out of playing devil’s advocate, challenging beliefs, and seeking the middle ground. The human mind tends to see the world in discrete, black-and-white terms, and this is especially so when it comes to politics or religion. I always strive to (I’m under no illusion that I’m perfect at this) be as reasonable, impartial, and logical as possible, and I take pride in my perspective. I try and always embody the values I believe in, so that others may follow.

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

Nick: Stop hiding in the shadows. There is most definitely a stigma against atheists, agnostics, secularists, etc., but neglecting to speak up and hiding your true views does nothing but contribute to it. While there is obviously a time and place for everything, I know many people who habitually shy away from expressing their beliefs out of fear of conflict or judgment. Speaking out in a reasonable and confident way causes others who are keeping quiet to realize they’re not alone, potentially giving them the courage to speak up as well. Conformity is a powerful social influence, and the less religion appears to be unanimous, the more people will be able to break the mold.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Nick: More people (especially critics of religion) need to learn how to have conversations with those they disagree with, without it becoming a competition. In order to persuade and have other people see our point of view, we have to avoid framing ourselves as enemies. Being combative or condescending, especially when discussing politically charged topics, instantly causes the other party to see you as a competitor rather than a collaborator, and no progress can be made that way.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Nick.