Onward Christian Soldiers?
â€œYouâ€™ve gotta hook â€™em while theyâ€™re young!â€? avowed Cardinal Glick in Kevin Smithâ€™s 1999 film Dogma, a comedic commentary on the state of Catholicism and religion in the United States today. Smithâ€™s astute observations of Catholic strategy to warp the minds of todayâ€™s youth are set against the backdrop of the late â€™90s hub-bub regarding the cigarette industryâ€™s use of addictive substances and ad campaigns geared towards youth. To typical moviegoers, this is perceived as a comedic farce and play on words.
However, the reality is not far from the Hollywood dramatization portrayed in this film. Many religious organizations aim recruitment at youth in order to fill their ranks and coffers and to secure a new generation of devout followers. Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) has 1,298 active campus groups and 3,200 staff members nationwide. Its website boasts that in 2004 18,000 students â€œaccepted Christ.â€? CCC is not alone in youth recruitment: The Navigators, Veritas Forums, and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship all have burgeoning campus fellowship programs.
For todayâ€™s youth the road to enlightenment is riddled with theistic landmines. From religiously conservative parents, friends, community members and teachers to politics and pop culture, Americaâ€™s youth are fighting an uphill battle for reason.
For many students, college is the first time they feel free to express their individuality and to develop ideas independent of the microcosm in which they were raised. Discussions of religion, or lack thereof, generally take center stage on college campuses. However, todayâ€™s students have fewer opportunities for such intellectual growth as religiously geared college groups pop up on American campuses. Fortunately, organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance are dedicated to providing an alternative for independently thinking students.
In 2000, a group of dedicated and enthusiastic young people â€“ determined to meet the increasing demands for an autonomous national student organization â€“ founded the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). Since then, the SSA has focused primarily on providing college and high school students with the tools necessary to establish and maintain secular campus organizations. An educational non-profit, SSA seeks to educate students about the broader movement, unite youth with likeminded peers, and link them with scholars and leaders in the movement. The SSA also offers unparalleled personal staff support to its 43 affiliate groups nationwide.
Youth involvement in organizations such as the SSA provides long-term benefits for both students and the movement as a whole. Many active individuals in the movement have kept a wary eye on what has been dubbed the â€œgrayingâ€? of the movement. Youth involvement provides a new generation of eager and dedicated activists in addition to a new demographic pool of subscribers, donors and talent. The SSAâ€™s aim is to secure a place at the table for high school and college-aged secularists â€“ while also building a foundation of secular-minded youth to populate existing organizations in the movement.
As an independent organization, the SSA is dedicated to working with many different groups within the movement. Currently, the SSA has strategic agreements with the American Humanist Association and the Atheist Alliance International, in addition to partnerships with many other organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) has also been fundamental to the formation and continuation of the SSA. IHS has made a profound investment in the future of the movement via four grants that they generously awarded to the SSA over the years. Without funding and support from the IHS, a secular student movement would be only a shadow of what it has become.
The SSA is organized around the Broad Base program. This plan seeks to establish 250 robust, sustained, and well-connected student groups on college and high school campuses throughout North America. It is not the numbers that the SSA is concerned with, but rather the projected outcomes of having so many active freethought groups. College groups not only encourage students to be openly atheist, agnostic or Humanist, but also allow them to advocate on behalf of the movement. College affiliates engage in informal recruitment for the movement while disproving negative stereotypes by educating their peers about the realities of Atheism, Agnosticism and Humanism. SSA affiliate groups are truly the voice of the movement on college campuses.
The most essential product of the Broad Based program is the SSAâ€™s development of what it dubs, the â€œCitizen Freethinker.â€? The hope is that as students graduate and become active members of society at-large, they take with them the values, skills and lessons that they learned as members of these freethought campus groups. A Citizen Freethinker is an SSA alumnus that is incorporated into the movement and civic life after graduation. These students not only become part of other freethought groups, but also contribute to them and become the next generation of leaders in the movement. They also take the lessons learned from their experiences as freethinkers with them to the polls and civic dialog at large..
One of the newest additions to the SSAâ€™s pantheon of programs, geared at encouraging youth involvement in the broader movement, is the Campus Area Network and Local Exchange (CANDLE) program. This multi-pronged project encourages SSA affiliates to collaborate with freethought community groups, become active members in likeminded organizations, engage other peer groups in intellectual discourse, and to become active community members as inquisitive constituents. The crux of this program is that freethought will spread outward from the local axis. Community freethought groups will participate in an informal recruitment program that will spread the seeds of rational thinking to a new generation.
One of the biggest challenges that the SSA encounters is the graduation of its leaders. Most SSA students disappear from the movement altogether after graduation. SSA staff believes that student participation in the CANDLE program will help acclimate college students to the freethought environment outside of academia. By serving as mentors, friends, and cohorts, community members can assist in retention by simply encouraging students to get involved in community action beyond the campus.
The SSA is also in the process of developing an alumni council in an effort to encourage student participation after graduation. This council will be made up of SSA alumni interested in providing unique opportunities for students who wish to maintain involvement during their adult lives. The SSA is also working on establishing regional alumni contacts that recent graduates can utilize to stay active in the movement. These regional volunteers will point recent graduates toward community groups in which they can participate. All of these programs were developed in an effort to support and sustain the broader movement.
Currently there is a battle waging on college campuses. However, this time the conflict is not between warring parties â€“ it is about ideas. As the religious right wages a war for souls, SSA leaders battle for equality, knowledge and the First Amendment. The SSA represents all students who feel marginalized and fear the societal repercussions of their disbelief. The organizationâ€™s staff wants these students to realize that they are not alone, and that there is never anything wrong with questioning social norms or challenging the beliefs of those around them.
Todayâ€™s youth are tomorrowâ€™s politicians, teachers, parents and active citizens. Organizations such as the SSA, Camp Quest and IHEYO provide the next generation of â€œnay-sayersâ€? with the skills and fundamental knowledge necessary to continue the fight for reason long after we are gone. Many activists focus on the realities of today but neglect to plant the seeds of enlightenment in the next generation. The students these organizations are working with right now are the atheists, agnostics and Humanists that will shape the world of tomorrow. Ask yourself this, â€œDo you want your grandchildren to live in the same world you lived in or a world where the ideals of scientific rationality, secularism, and human-based ethics flourish?â€? On the road to reason, where do you stand â€“ with your eyes on the horizon, or on the sidelines?
Want more information? Want to help out? Contact Lisa Swinehart at email@example.com.