The Virginia Atheists and Agnostics has existed as a CIO (contracted independent organization) at the University of Virginia for about a decade. Our influence and numbers have varied over the years, but our presence has always been relatively small– most atheists and agnostics at UVA tend to avoid focusing on or publicly displaying their irreligion. Historically, in the United States, nonreligious individuals have usually kept their nonbelief mostly to themselves; many skeptics have even pretended (and continue to pretend) to be religious to escape the cultural repercussions of freethought and dissent. Even as our founding fathers established strong principles of secularism in government (UVA’s own founder, Thomas Jefferson, authored the first freedom of religion law in America, saying, “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”), the US has typically been a bastion of Christian fundamentalism in the world. Today, about half of Americans reject evolution in favor of creationism (according to a Gallup poll). The VAA and related organizations, like the Secular Student Alliance, exist to oppose such trends. In recent years, the American secular movement has gained traction (the success of the Reason Rally in March of 2012 is evidence of this), but there remains a great deal to accomplish, and, perhaps more importantly, our currently being at a significant turning point in the movement raises some fundamental questions about the nature and future of secularism in the US and elsewhere.
First, why have a secular movement to begin with? Or to rephrase: since atheism has no built-in or universally agreed-upon value system, in what sense is a secular movement useful for atheists? While it is not possible to say that atheism, science, skepticism, etc. necessarily and logically lead to a certain set of ideals, it is true that in reality one can use statistical inferences and a few reasonable assumptions to draw conclusions about the shared goals of individual nonbelievers. The secular movement exists to advance those goals, which include: greater acceptance of nonreligious individuals in our society; the creation of safe, friendly, welcoming communities of likeminded people; a reduction of religious influence in American politics; and the promotion of a critical, scientific worldview.
Next, even if we can agree on certain goals, how are these goals to be achieved? The secular movement is already making a lot of progress through greater organization and grassroots efforts. With educational and public awareness events like Ask an Atheist Day, secular groups all over the country are making change happen. Student groups in particular (like the VAA) are on the front lines of today’s ideological debates. Being better organized and more active in the university community will advance the VAA’s ability to pursue the above goals; as such, starting in the fall of 2012 we are making some structural and organizational changes. These changes include a restructuring of the executive board and a plan for more public events than we held in previous years– and we will be carrying out these initiatives without losing sight of our duty to maintain the VAA as a friendly and welcoming community for nonbelievers, many of whom still feel unwelcome elsewhere. With the dedication of our members, alliances with other secular organizations and likeminded individuals in the Charlottesville community and across the country, the VAA is moving forward into a bright, more secular future. Perhaps more importantly, we’re all looking forward to another semester of godless fun and conversation.