Defending the right to not believe

Matt Chaney, Contributing Writer

Supriya Manandhar bristles as she recalls a quote she heard while attending an organized religious event on Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus. The speaker said that “the less religious you become, the more likely you are to join ISIS.”

The statement shocked and befuddled Manandhar, an atheist, and the president of the Secular Student Alliance at VCU.

“When you have accusations like that being thrown around, you feel compelled to take a stance,” Manandhar said, motioning with her hands, still in disbelief over what was said.

The Secular Student Alliance at VCU formed in October of 2014. The club exists to promote tolerance of student nonbelievers. Although a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that there has been a steady rise in disbelief in America, according to SSA members, there remains a stigma against secularism at VCU.

“Just because we have this mentality, doesn’t make us bad people,” said SSA secretary Mickey Weitzel. “We’re trying to show that in order to be moral, you don’t have to be religious.”

While part of the issue at VCU may have to do with Virginia’s history of religious conservatism, the club finds ignorance to be its chief antagonist.

Manandhar cited a recent informal poll conducted by the club at the Student Organization and Volunteer Opportunities fair. She found that 80 percent of people polled couldn’t define “secularism.”

Vice president Joshua Myers quoted a study conducted at the University of Minnesota that found that “atheists are considered the most distrusted minority in America.”

According to Weitzel, the “reason for the negative connotations is that [atheists are] considered something ‘other.’ Most people don’t know people of that ideology, and so it’s easier to stigmatize.”

In an attempt to combat such ignorance, Manandhar said the club is working to gain student strength.

“We have noticed larger attendance at the beginning of this semester than we had in the spring,” Manandhar said.

While the weekly meetings provide exposure by creating what Weitzel describes as “a physical presence” on campus, they also allow group members an opportunity to foster a sense of community. This is important, as many members feel socially isolated because of their beliefs.

“We have members who are unable to disclose to their parents that they are atheists,” Manandhar said.

To further their outreach, Manandhar seeks to continue the tradition of meeting to review and discuss scholarly articles about non-religious people. She also said that the group hopes to begin doing community service in an effort to gain more positive exposure for their organization.

At a recent SSA meeting, a person attended who professed to being different—a person of faith.

“We were the first atheists she had met in real life,” Manandhar said.

Instead of belittling the new attendee’s perspective, the club welcomed her opinions.

Manandhar said, “Even if she goes back home and becomes even more religious, the fact that she met and saw us as people…discussing and debating peacefully in an open platform…that’s really important.”

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