An Interview with Steven Shapiro — Previous Secretary, University of West Florida Secular Student Alliance — Part 1
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?
Steven Shapiro: Concerning my family background, I am half Italian on my mother’s side, and Polish on my father’s. Also, my father’s family background is rich in Jewish culture (Shapiro as well being a traditionally Jewish last name). So I consider myself Jewish, apart from the actual religion. If that makes sense. My family was never religious per-se, instead my parents advocated for my two sisters and I to believe whatever we wanted to believe. Both of my sisters believe in a higher power, but are not a part of an organized religion, whereas I am atheist altogether. I have lived in Florida my entire life, spending a majority of it (outside of my college years) in the greater Orlando area. Specifically, Kissimmee. I attended Osceola High School, as did both my sisters. I graduated with honors, finishing 14th in my overall class.
Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?
Shapiro: To be honest with you, I never have had any personal connection to religion in general. Nobody in my immediate family practices any organized religion, and I’ve never had close friends that did either. For me, growing up I was always lead to believe that anything is possible, and that I would be accepted no matter what I believed in. As a result, I grew up to be a very realistic, and non-spiritual person. I believe that my actions are mine and mine alone, rather than the work of some creator. I suppose I started realizing this in middle school. I remember thinking critically about the world, and my relation to it. Never once do I remember considering “God” could be behind all of this. It just never made sense to me. I don’t specifically remember any event that occurred that made me lean one way or the other, rather it was just a collection of things I saw and heard that made me feel the way I am today. I’ve always been one to question things, and play “devil’s advocate” when I felt others blindly followed. I suppose it makes sense that I am a Journalism major.
Jacobsen: You were the secretary of University of West Florida Secular Student Alliance. What tasks and responsibilities came with the position? Why did you pursue this line of volunteering?
Shapiro: As the secretary for the Secular Student Alliance, I attended most if not all meetings that the organization held, as well as take “minutes” at each such meeting. Every E-Board meeting we had, as well as regular meetings, I would take notes and document what was being discussed. I would make note of any decisions we made, and later I would email those notes to each member. I also helped organize the second annual S3RC at the University of West Florida. That event took place in late April, and featured many members of the secular community speaking on topics of their choosing. Such speakers included David Suhor, as well as Lucien Greaves. As for why I pursued this position, honestly I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. For so long, I had been an active member of several sports teams, and organizations. However, I never had held a leading positon for one before. So for me, this meant taking on tasks that would be harder and more challenging. Plus, I would serve as a model of authority of some sort to others. I felt like it would test me professionally, as well personally.
Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?
Shapiro: Just knowing that I am doing my part for an organization that I love is fulfillment enough. Ever since my sophomore year, I have been a member of this organization, and hopefully I will continue to contribute long after I am graduated. When I joined SSA, I didn’t have many friends, so attending weekly meetings was very important to me. It meant a lot that they accepted me and encouraged me to take part in their organization. Even though, I will not be reprising my position, I still intend to make it to meetings and take an active role in volunteering for them.
Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?
Shapiro: The best advice I could give to anyone is to just get involved. Nothing is going to change on our campus, unless people stand up and fight for what they believe in. I would encourage anyone that is interested in secularism to go and join SSA. The meetings would provide a “safe space” so to speak, and also make you more of aware of issues on our campus involving secularism.
Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?
Shapiro: I don’t know of any “historic” violations, but certainly there are constant issues happening weekly. Every week, some people from different churches come to our campus to advertise. Specifically I recall a group of Mormons that tabled outside of the Commons area. In my opinion, I don’t believe people of the Christian faith should be allowed to advertise, unless all faiths are welcome to join. For instance, I have never seen any Muslim, Jewish, Satanic, Humanistic, or other faiths represented on our campus. There is also a gentleman that frequently shows up to campus and proceeds to yell belligerent and hateful things at students “in the name of God”. In terms of “historic violations”, that is the biggest one that I can recall. Several times I witness students protest and hold signs to show that they do not tolerate hate on our campus. That is probably the best way to combat those violations.