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The Unstoppable Secular Students

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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be one of the speakers at the Freethought Festival 2012 hosted by the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I got the opportunity to speak about something I love - my work at the Secular Student Alliance - and it turns out that people are pretty impressed by what we do. This post originally appeared on Skeptic Money as an adaptation of that talk.

I'm Lyz Liddell, the Director of Campus Organizing here at the Secular Student Alliance (which for the rest of this post I'll call SSA). We are, of course, the only national organization in the freethought movement specifically and solely dedicated to the empowerment of secular students - which makes us pretty awesome.  We've been around for over ten years now and have become known as great partners and as a fantastic resource on grassroots organizing and the secular student demographic. Within the SSA, I'm kind of the "Director of Campus Organizing behind the curtain."  I don't get much public face time (unlike, say JT or Jesse), but I quietly manage our powerhouse of a campus organizing team that gets more stuff done than I can usually believe.

A World Without Secularism
We all know what a world without secularism would look like: lunatic fundamentalist presidential candidates; religiously-based law promoting torture and executions; pain and suffering tolerated because "it's God's will." It's a sucky place, no doubt. And politicians and citizens in the U.S. are hell-bent on taking us there. But how can we change it? We need to build a new culture from the ground up, educate our communities, provide a secular voice in local and national government. That's a tall order - where do we even start?

With students.

Why students?
Well, first of all, the student-age generation is less likely to believe in a deity or identify with a religion than the rest of society. While 15% of the American population as a whole is nonreligious, a statistically larger 22% of 18-29 year-olds have rejected religion:


Data from the 2008 ARIS survey.

And if you break it down by generation, you see the same thing:


Data from http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Demographics/Age/millennials-report.pdf

The millenials - those in school right now - are less religious than any previous generation. But the even more interesting piece of this puzzle is that religiosity doesn't appear to change much within a generation. The worldview an individual holds as a young adult is likely the worldview they'll hold the rest of their life. Religious groups know that: that's why they go after children, and throw millions of dollars into campus outreach programs!

But there are other important reasons to work with students. Students aren't going to be in school forever (except perhaps those of you pursuing PhDs, sorry). Students graduate, and they go on to become doctors, politicians, university presidents, corporate CEOs, teachers, and more. The secular values they hold in college will remain with them through the rest of their lives, providing tremendous influence throughout society.

Obstacles
Organizing students comes with some challenges to overcome. Some are specific to students and some are a bit larger in scope. One of the biggest - and I'm sure you're all familiar with this - is the stigma attached to non-theists. Public opinion of atheists can make it hard for students (or their faculty advisors, parents, or supporters) to come out. It creates social pushback and even illegal administrative resistance in more conservative areas. Sometimes nontheists and nontheist student groups face funding denials and other discrimination based on their worldview. Some students have to hide their worldview from their parents, especially at the high school level, making it hard to be visible and organize.

Students also face challenges related to their student status. Most students don't have deep pockets, and many don't have reliable transportation. The very nature of college leads to high turnover among leadership. We like to describe this as "organizing at a bus stop," with new leaders coming in and old leaders leaving at a terrifying rate. Some schools (and therefore their secular campus groups) are geographically isolated: a secular campus group might be the only secular group for a hundred miles. And student groups face high attrition. Usually around one in ten groups dies out each semester at the college level; at high schools the figure is closer to one in five.

But! The students aren't letting this get in their way. Secular students are a rising force, and they're beginning to be recognized for it.

Unstoppable Growth
The Secular Student Alliance has seen incredible growth, particularly over the last five years:

We're seeing increased growth in high schools, with our number of high school affiliates tripling in the past year. Our groups are getting larger and reaching a wider audience, in every measure from formal membership to attendance at events to Facebook groups and email lists. SSA's staff has grown massively to keep up with the demand, and as a result, we've been able to pull attrition down from 20% only eight years ago to under 8% in the spring of 2012! And these groups are doing more, gauging from the fact that demand for our services is way up, from speaker events to tabling supplies to group starting packets.

I get asked all the time why we're seeing this level of growth, and what's caused the big spike over the last five years. So I've taken a look and come up with some likely influential factors. For starters, 2006 saw the release of an interesting little book by a British biology professor, both of which you've probably heard of. Around the same time, we saw Letter to a Christian Nation, Breaking the Spell, and God is Not Great all hit bookshelves. In 2008, the Secular Student Alliance hired a new campus organizer, and I'd like to think that I've played at least a little part in building up the SSA's incredible Campus Organizing Team. Starting around 2009, the Secular Student Alliance started showing up in the media, including articles in The New York Times, USA Today, Teaching Tolerance, and many more places, helping to spread the word that there is support for secular students out there, and that nontheistic students are not alone.

What are Students Doing That's So Great?
There's a phrase that we hear a lot at SSA: "students are the future." Well, that's definitely true, but students are also the present! They're out there doing really incredible things, right now!

I originally gave this talk at the Freethought Festival 2012, an event organized and hosted primarily by students (with a ton of help from the off-campus community as well, including the Madison Area Coalition of Reason). Student groups are also responsible for Skepticon, the University of Northern Iowa's Darwin Week, ReasonFest and Skeptics of Oz in Kansas, and many other awesome events. Students are also blazing a trail in interfaith programs, holding amazing service projects, creating national programs (like Ask-an-Atheist Day) and defending the separation of church and state (see: Jessica Ahlquist, Damon Fowler, Zack Kopplin).

Where do we go from here?
The secular student movement is expanding in all kinds of directions. We're seeing more groups in high schools (due in part to the SSA's high school outreach) and at graduate and professional schools. Groups are forming into regional networks, providing communication and opportunities for collaboration to students in a specific area. SSA is starting to reach out to support advisors more directly, as well as working with student affairs professionals within university administrations.

If the SSA were to continue our current growth rates, we'd have over a thousand affiliate groups in five years.

That sounds crazy at first, but as we break down the numbers, it actually starts to look more and more like it might be on the low side. There are about 6,000 colleges in the U.S., and over 24,000 public high schools - that's a lot of opportunity for expansion! And looking at a similar organization, we see that the Gay-Straight Alliance has about 4,500 registered groups. Our 1,000 groups in five years is starting to look very conservative indeed!

The Big Comparison: Cru v. SSA
Let's talk about culture wars. In a lot of ways, Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) is the cultural competition for the SSA. We have similar organizational models and we're both based around a worldview. So let's take a look at how we're doing:

Annual Budget:

$500,000,000$998,000

It's clear that Cru has the lead on funding. And that helps them in a lot of other ways, including this one:

While Cru has the cash to fund three staff members per campus group, the SSA is running at about 33 groups per staffer. Both take into account the supporting staff at the national level. A rough guess of campus organizers to groups is that Cru has about 1:1, while the SSA is running at about 78 groups per campus organizer. Oof!

But here's the bottom line.  Between the 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 school years, Cru grew...but so did the SSA:

Cru v. SSA

We are growing so much faster than Cru that we get an extra digit in our growth percentage!  And we're maintaining that growth: today we have 353 campus affiliates, while Cru, with all their staff, can't be bothered to post numbers more recent than the 2010-2011 school year.  Cru has a massively larger budget, the majority of the U.S. population to draw from (76% Christian), an organized political voting bloc to give them politicians and laws and supreme court justices in their favor. But they are losing in the cultural war.

The secular students are winning, and they are unstoppable!

How is This All Possible?
The Secular Student Alliance's work empowering secular students is only possible through the generous support of our supporters and donors. Supporters Jeff Hawkins and Janet Strauss Strauss know how important it is to support students, and so they have generously made an incredible $250,000 matching offer – every donation the SSA receives now through the end of the year will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to that $250,000 mark. Help us meet that challenge: become a supporter today at www.secularstudents.org/support!

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