In this post I interview Lyz Liddell, Director of Campus Organizing at the Secular Student Alliance. I first got in contact with Lyz about the idea of building a Humanist Center at my school, Claremont Lincoln University. She was very helpful and inspiring. I then had the pleasure of meeting her face-to-face when I gave a presentation on “Atheism and Interfaith” at the Secular Student Alliance’s Annual Conference in Las Vegas. So once again, I give you an interview with a strong female non-believer:
Lyz Liddell of the SSA
Can you give us a little background to how you became interested in secular activism and how you became the Director of Campus Organizing for the Secular Student Alliance?
I first became interested in secular activism via our Executive Director August Brunsman, close to ten years ago. The editor of our newsletter had recently acquired some fame (that was Hemant Mehta, with the fame from his experience of selling his soul on eBay) and was no longer able to commit to the regular editorial schedule; I was asked to step up, and since I had some editing experience, I took it on. Up until that point, I had been a “layman,” if you will – secular for sure, but not really an activist. Through several years of editing that newsletter, I learned what secular student groups were doing, and what was happening in the secular movement at large. The more I encountered, the more enthusiastic about it I was. I started going to conferences to get more information and news for the newsletter, and got more involved with the organization’s staff and volunteers and affiliates. When the campus organizer position opened up in late 2008, I stepped up into that position, and we’ve grown it from there (2 full time staff and some volunteers, a board of mostly college students) to the professional organization we are today (9 full time staff, 4 part-timers, a professionalized board and dozens of dedicated volunteers; we’ve grown from ~100 affiliates in 2008 to over 400 today).
What are some of your favorite moments working with secularists, atheists, skeptics, etc.?
I’m a little bit like a momma bird with my affiliates and leaders. I nurture them and help them learn what they need to go out in the world as effective activists. But my favorite moments are watching them “leave the nest,” if you will – when they have the experience and skills to go off and do amazing projects without my help, to gather other student leaders and share ideas and make them reality. I see a lot of this at our annual conference, and it makes me incredibly proud and happy. I love seeing things like the first Ask-an-Atheist Day, a student-driven program where the group came to us with the complete program and asked if we could share it with other affiliates; or our regional program, which arose out of several leaders working on their own to facilitate improved cooperation between groups in specific geographic areas.
What do you think are some of the most important issues facing non-believers today?
We’re on a bit of a tipping point, and I think that gives us a lot of opportunities and also some things to be wary of. Our numbers are growing – fast – and society is starting to get used to the idea that there are atheists walking around and maybe we aren’t all satan-worshippers or baby-eaters. But as our movement grows, we need to be careful to ensure that we are willing to let it grow – that we’re welcoming to secular individuals who may not be the same kind of secular individual we’ve had for the first 13 years of the SSA (or several decades of the movement as a whole) – that we’re accepting of secular americans who aren’t college educated, or aren’t interested in philosophy, or are from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, or have priorities that go beyond the separation of church and state to include social justice, gender equality, LGBTQ support, etc. We’re seeing the potential for a lot of the same problems that faced the LGBTQ community a few decades ago, and I’d love to see us recognize those pitfalls rather than falling into them. I think we’re on the right track, but as evidenced by the amount of blogosphere drama around certain issues, we’re certainly not all on board with these changes. (I am reminded of the term “growing pains.”)
I think we also need to be wary of knee-jerk reactions among society at large. As secular individuals become more common, we’re seeing reactions like religious exemptions to anti-bullying laws, to say nothing of generalized vigor among the religious right and other conservative sectors, which may manifest in a whole swath of areas from gay marriage rights to women’s reproductive choice to immigration and even education. So we need to remain vigilant and not rest on our laurels.
Can you tell us a little about the new Secular Safe Zone project and why you think it is valuable?
Can I ever! The Secular Safe Zone project is the realization of a vision we had about two and a half years ago, of something like the LGBTQ safe zone program but aimed at secular students. I think what we developed is a fantastic realization of that vision – creating visible, safe spaces for secular (and questioning!) students who might otherwise not know who they can talk to about their doubts/questions, bullying, peer pressure, and so on. It provides tremendous value both to Allies in the program, who are helping to make secular worldviews more visible and normalized in our society, but also to the students who are now able to find mentors and support as they go through the kind of identity development that’s crucial in adolescence, but often quashed by our rather religious society. Since there are no visible signs of being a nontheist (or of whether you’re supportive of nontheists or not), we’ve decided to make such a sign available. It’s a brand new program, but the response we’ve received has been tremendously supportive – not only for the program itself, but because of the recognition that bullying and social stress among secular students is a real problem that we should be working to address.
Logo for the Secular Safe Zone Project
In what ways do you think non-believers and religious persons can work together?
Anywhere we have common goals. I just came from a two-day gathering for the Department of Education’s President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, where representatives from the U.S. Government and hundreds of college campuses came together to explore opportunities for interfaith community service. These programs are addressing education, health issues, veterans, domestic poverty, disaster preparedness, energy and the environment and even human trafficking – all issues that all but the most extreme religious can agree are things we should be working to improve.
There’s also a huge opportunity for religious and nonreligious cooperation in areas that protect the rights of both groups. The separation of church and state doesn’t just protect the nonreligious, but protects the religious – especially those of minority religions. And so organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and state are great opportunities to defend the rights that protect all people, regardless of worldview. Likewise, protecting the freedom of expression (including the freedom to criticize religious ideas) and other civil liberties is critical for both the religious and nonreligious.
Sure, there’s a lot that we don’t agree on. And I’m not suggesting that we pretend we don’t have differences, because sometimes those differences cause harm. But I’ve rarely seen that as a reason to avoid working together on the things we have in common – and I don’t think I’ve yet found a group of people where we don’t have anything in common.
What would you say to religious feminists who critique the “New Atheists” and “Militant Atheism”?
Focus on behaviors, not labels. If there are things going a way you don’t like, identify the behavior(s) you find unacceptable, and focus on that behavior and why it’s a problem – and be willing to listen (really listen) to the reasons from the other side. Stuffing your fingers in your ears and shouting isn’t going to change anything, and obscuring actual issues beneath labels and pigeonholes is only going to lead to polarization.
Kile Jones holds a Bachelors of Theology (B.Th.) from Faith Seminary, a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Boston University, and is a current Ph.D. in Religion student at Claremont Lincoln University. He also holds a Certificate in Science and Religion from the Boston Theological Institute. He is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Claremont Journal of Religion (www.claremontjournal.com). His interests include religion and science, atheism, secularism, and philosophy of religion. He also reviews books for Reviews in Religion and Theology (RRT) and is a Contributing Scholar for State of Formation (http://www.stateofformation.org/author/kile-jones), an academic blog for emerging religious and ethical leaders.
Categories: Academy, Activism, Belief, civil rights, Ethics, Feminism, Interreligious dialogue, LGBTQ, Non-Theism, Peacemaking, Women and Community, Women and Scholarship, Women Religious, Women's Rights