I was pretty religious as a teenager, but once I learned more about science, philosophy, and religion I eventually became an atheist. I was very comfortable with my decision to no longer be religious, but I always felt somewhat out of place while attending my Christian affiliated college that banned the formation a secular student group. My only knowledge of other atheists was from the internet as I never met another atheist while I was an undergraduate.
After I finished my undergraduate degree, I went straight into a neuroscience PhD program at The University South Carolina. South Carolina is right in the buckle of the Bible Belt so I really wanted to meet other atheists to feel less isolated. I looked up secular groups in my area and found a thriving secular student group at my campus! I still remember feeling overwhelmed at the first meeting I attended because I went from never meeting another atheist to being in a room full of them!
I quickly developed friendships with my local SSA group and was amazed with the cool things we did as a group. We had some great discussions about religion, social justice, and completed some highly successful charity events. We also attended the Reason Rally, Rock Beyond Belief, and the SSA national conference all within my first year of being involved in the secular movement. I even was able to meet accomplished atheist writers and activists who produced work that I long admired. I met so many inspiring and like-minded people and it was great to finally feel accepted for my beliefs, not ostracized.
The social support was fantastic and definitely necessary for an atheist living in such a highly religious area. However, being involved in my SSA group provided other awesome benefits as well. Because of my background in psychology, I volunteered to give a presentation about the psychology of religious belief for my local SSA group. I became fascinated with the literature while preparing my presentation and now a few years later I am studying the social psychology of religiosity in my PhD program! So my involvement with my SSA group provided social support, helped me academically, and even provided yet another benefit: exposure to activism.
I was lucky that my local SSA group was so focused on social justice because it really exposed me to various types of activism and inspired me to become an activist myself. Specifically, the SSA and secular community inspired me to become more involved with secular and feminist activism. In order to help out with secular activism, I volunteered to serve as the Secular Coalition for South Carolina Co-Chair. The purpose of the Secular Coalition for South Carolina is to defend the rights of secular Americans and increase the visibility of non-theist viewpoints. I first learned about feminism through secular feminist authors and activists and I realized that one way I can really help out as a male is to speak out against gender inequality and talk about the prevention of sexual violence. After doing some secular and feminist activism, I had an opportunity to combine my activist areas when I provided scientific testimony against an anti-abortion bill trying to get passed in South Carolina.
South Carolina recently introduced a bill which aimed to ban abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy (they are currently legal until 24 weeks) on the premise that fetuses can feel pain. I have a background in neuroscience so I read up on the literature and found that the scientific consensus was that fetuses CANNOT feel pain. So I summarized some of the main articles that had strong evidence against this bill and testified in front of subcommittees for the House and Senate. My scientific testimony was mostly ignored by those with a strong conservative agenda, but it did provide useful information for those on the fence and for the few pro-choice legislators in the state. It was really cool to hear a few progressive politicians reference my testimony while debating the bill on the House floor. Fortunately, the bill was delayed long enough to not become a law this legislative session; however, it’s going resurface next session so we will all have to keep fighting it!
Providing scientific testimony was one of the coolest things I was able to do with my activism. Even though some more conservative politicians ignored what I had to say, several of the progressive politicians used my testimony and research I sent them in the debates in an effort to delay the bill from becoming a law. My interest in secular and feminist activism all stemmed from having a supportive SSA group and broader secular community. From discussing my experience, I hope to inspire future student activists as I was inspired from the student activists before me.