Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

An Interview with Scott Janis — Previous Officer, University of Wisconsin Whitewater’s Secular Student Alliance

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family background in secularism and activism for it?

Scott Janis: There was not much background in secularism or secular activism in my family that I know of. Strictly speaking I was raised Christian, but religion was never a commanding influence on my life. My parents believed that I should be able to come to my own conclusions about religion, but I had read the Bible and even helped to teach Bible Study.

Jacobsen: What was your official position in the University of Wisconsin Whitewater’s Secular Student Alliance?

Janis: I was the president of UW Whitewater’s SSA chapter from the winter of 2014 to the summer of 2015.

Jacobsen: What tasks and responsibilities came with the position?

Janis: My official responsibilities were to lead meetings, reserve space for events, keep the officer team organized, maintain connections to possible speakers and activist groups, and to present justification for continued funding from SUFAC. It was also important however to make sure that everyone had a place and a voice in the group. That meant keeping up with members and their perspectives.

Jacobsen: What are your concerns for secularism on campuses now?

Janis: The big challenge for secular activism on college campuses is in my experience that active interest in groups SSA can be ephemeral on smaller campuses UW Whitewater. Even though there are plenty of people who believe in secularism, devoting an evening 2–4 times per month to focusing on secular activism is usually not enough to motivate students. For most active students, there are other groups with more visible missions that are also secular that compete for their time. The students that tend to be drawn to the SSA tend to be young people who have been brought up in families whose foundations are based in strict religious adherence. There seem to have been fewer students with that background on campus. I consider those to be points of evidence that college secularism is doing fine.

Jacobsen: What about in society at large (concerns for secularism)?

Janis: If you asked me this last year, I would say that I am not terribly concerned. Now I am becoming more concerned as I see more religious fundamentalism in positions of power and in no ambiguous terms focusing on instituting policy either to emulate or enable mandatory religious adherence on the grounds of some American spiritual identity. On the other side, I am concerned that secularism is becoming more of a peripheral issue to other causes. The example that comes to mind is Atheism+. However noble it may have been, it created division amongst secular activists that did not actually need to be there by packaging secularism with other causes and philosophies that a substantial portion of the movement either disagreed with or did not understand sufficiently to be confident in. This has created multiple in-group/out-group relationships between activists that previously worked together very effectively. When groups have tried to incorporate these initiatives at the same time, it excludes those who are unwilling to disagree as friends and dilutes the potency of any one event or group to the point that it becomes white noise to the people we are trying to reach. I do not see us making any impact until we drop the politics of activism and focus on coming together for whatever we can all agree on at the time.

Jacobsen: What were some, at the time of your tenure, activities run through the Secular Student Alliance at University of Wisconsin Whitewater?

Janis: During my time as the president of UWW SSA we had Robert Price as a speaker, participated in Ask an Atheist Day, and did an event for Easter where we handed out secular philosophy quotes in Easter Eggs. There was a debate with Dan Barker who appeared on behalf of the SSA, but that was run through the UWW Philosophy Club.

Jacobsen: What is the importance of building those mentor and mentee relationships for intergenerational ties among secular activists?

Janis: The reason that mentor and mentee relationships are so important is not the guidance through old challenges, but to provide a context for where we are today. Many of the people who have mentored me had developed under far more hostile conditions to atheism than I experience today. It has helped me to appreciate how far we have come as well as why it is so important to protect that progress. The most useful mentorship that I received though came from my predecessor. It is difficult to come into a new group of people and attempt to lead them. When affiliation renewal and SUFAC budget forms started showing up, having the former president to walk me through it all made a world of difference.

Jacobsen: What are some possible future initiatives for the SSA at University of Wisconsin Whitewater?

Janis: I have kept in touch with a few people and have left the channels open for anyone looking for advice in the future. I left the group in the hands of a very capable student who has already demonstrated her ability to plan events and maintain regular meeting times. I have not heard of any plans for future events since graduating however.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Janis: There are two points that I can think of.

In a United States that has seen a tremendous advancement of secularism and scientific acceptance, it is important that we do not give into prejudice against those whose perspectives seem irreconcilable to our own. Free thinkers thrive best where we are encouraged to consider any idea without fearing ridicule or shunning. While it may seem fun to pull a “got you moment” on someone, these are ideas that go to the core of who we are. To force someone to defend a belief to protect their own identity is cruel and counterintuitive.

Lastly, I have some advice to anyone who may be considering joining an SSA chapter: it is a team effort. Officers can do the research and correspondence necessary to plan events and crate opportunities to create real change to help people who may not have the privilege to spend an evening with fellow atheists, agnostics, and sceptics. To those trying to start or lead an SSA chapter: it is a challenge that takes a lot of work to rise to, but even when it doesn’t go perfectly it is still worth it. You are asking people that you do not know to have confidence in your leadership and your ability to enrich their lives. The needs and interests of your members should inform your priorities as a leader. It is your job to find a way to meet those needs and advance along those interests together. Remember that your job isn’t done because you weren’t re-elected, or you graduated. Make sure that your successor knows that you are a resource for guidance, and be mindful to step back and let them lead.

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen supports science and human rights.