An Interview with Professor Michael J. Berntsen — Faculty Advisor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke SSA — Part 1

Image: Marie Hendry.

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

Professor Michael J. Berntsen: I grew up in a Catholic family in New Jersey. While my mother and father were religious, my father volunteered as a lectern and my mother was a member of a Bible study group, they were aware of how dangerous religion could be. My mother’s parents experienced much sorrow since my grandfather was Irish Catholic, while my grandmother was Irish Protestant. Many family members, mostly on my grandfather’s side disowned them. This rejection echoed Christian hypocrisy and demonstrated to me how false religious sentiment could be.

My parents also opposed the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion, anti-birth control, and anti-homosexual stances, so their practice of their religion had more thought and self-awareness. They had faith in their God, yet they saw the human flaws inherent in the worship and practice of any religion.

My current affiliation is humanism. On good days, I’m more agnostic. On bad days, I’m more atheist. While I gravitate on the spectrum, I usually label myself a secularist or humanist. For thousands of years, religions have dominated human existence, yet here we are in the 21st century, and human trafficking and slavery are great threats, starvation thrives in numerous nations, and wars rage across the planet. I have yet to witness religions solve any world issues.

I currently live in Laurinburg, North Carolina. My Ph.D. is in literary studies and creative writing.

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

Berntsen: While I spent my early teenage years as an active youth leader for St. Cecilia Church in Rockaway, NJ, I started questioning religion once a friend came out as a lesbian. She was even more involved with the church than I, but the priest treated her crisis of identity and faith with flippant answers. Here was a person devoted to the Catholic faith, yet the priest reduced her to a cliché. No matter what she would say to the priest, he repeated the same response, “It’s okay to be gay, you just can’t act on it.” She would bring up scripture, talk about footnotes, discuss how there’s no real mention of female homosexuality, but it was a monologue rather than a dialogue. She needed someone to talk to and with, but, since he was driven by strict dogma, his version of helping came off as insincere and unintellectual. My initial frustrations with religion begin with her experience.

I also have a few gay cousins who are kind, smart, and hilarious. My version of God would not send them to hell for a seemingly arbitrary reason. The God I wanted to believe in could not be found entirely in any sacred text. At this point, I started piecing together a god much like Frankenstein and his creature. As I read Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim books, I could see ideas that had potential, but the ghost of judgmental dogma always eclipsed the calls for enlightenment and peace. Some group or some simple act would inevitably lead someone to the underworld, which always seemed silly.

The idea of Satan, too, made no sense to me. If Satan punishes those who have turned away from God, he must be working for God. Why would Satan punish people who are on his side unless he is a demonic secret agent? I did not need to believe in a devil to know pure evil. Corrupt politicians, gangs, drug lords, human traffickers, and other such base people were doing much more real damage to my state and to the world than any red hot fallen angel with hipster facial hair.

The more I investigated reason and science, the more I realized that a just society could build its structure on rational laws, promoting logical discourse and decision making. The notion that people do good out of fear of being punished or out of some promise to live forever in a paradise seems rooted in selfishness or self-centered desire. More meaningful actions come from critical thinking.

Jacobsen: You are the faculty advisor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke SSA. What tasks and responsibilities come with the position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?

Berntsen: The most important responsibility is acting as a mentor. The first year I became the advisor, we had students whose parents kicked them out when they came out as atheists and students who lost friends when they revealed their atheist views. The students provide the friendships they need, so my job requires me to cultivate their philosophies, to ensure they respect all beliefs, and to guide them to mature decisions and directions concerning their campus presence.

The other tasks include the bureaucratic elements of the club, making sure they follow a budget, adhere to university policies, obey national SSA guidelines, respect each other since each student varied within the agnostic and atheistic spectrum, and plan events that entertain and educate.

The background responsibility, of course, is making sure students have someone on campus who will defend their beliefs and protect them if people start to harass them for speaking out. Luckily, the UNCP campus has a culture of civility, so blatant harassment was never a problem. We have an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which has succeeded in providing a campus community that promotes open dialogues.

I pursued this opportunity when students ask me to be the advisor because my job as a teacher is to support all intellectual pursuits and encourage personal development. Since atheists and non-theists are marginalized and encounter varieties and overt and passive discrimination, I believe it is my job as an American to protect this group and make sure they have equal opportunities to promote and present their voices.