Even back in eighth grade, Kate Hurley knew she was different. She came out to her Catholic parents as both gay and atheist. Their response: “No, you’re not.”
Hurley’s parents told her that if she ever mentioned her beliefs again and went against her religious upbringing, there would be consequences. Hurley is taking a risk starting the Secular Student Alliance at JMU — if her parents find out, they will cut her off financially. SSA is an educational organization to informing students about the values of scientific reason and secularism.
“I figured I only have one more year here,” Hurley said. “If they really do that, I think I can carry myself through the rest.”
Hurley attended Catholic school, but found the Atheist Experience, a YouTube channel by Matt Dillahunty, that helped solidify her identity as an agnostic atheist —someone who doesn’t believe in God, but acknowledges they don’t have the total knowledge to definitively say that there is no God. She felt that being gay ostracized her from the religious community, which pushed her to look for other forms of acceptance. She didn’t see a reason to pick a religion and felt more comfortable without one.
Hurley got the idea of bringing the SSA to JMU while on the phone with her girlfriend in a church parking lot. Hurley, a junior double major in philosophy and psychology and a minor in Religious Studies, wanted a place on campus for freethinkers to share their beliefs in a school that has many religious organizations since other schools have similar clubs. Virginia Tech has a Freethinkers club, while UVA has Virginia Atheists and Agnostic.
“If you’re living a double-life, it really helps to have support,” Hurley said. “Coming here and being gay, that was hard at first until I found people. I think finding other atheists could do the same thing for someone else.”
While some may find it ironic that Hurley has a minor in religious studies, she doesn’t think so. She didn’t like her religion classes in high school because she felt forced to take them, but as her atheistic ideas started to come out, she wanted to understand the religious perspective.
Hurley met junior psychology major Alyssa Kniffin through their membership in Madison Equality, JMU’s student-led LGBT organization that works toward fostering a supportive and social environment. Kniffin is the treasurer of SSA, while Hurley is the president. They both believe that a club like SSA is necessary for JMU so that people with differing beliefs feel that they have a home.
“A couple of people in club have already spoken to the fact that they don’t feel really feel comfortable talking about their beliefs with just the general public or their friends, because who knows who agrees or will get angry about it,” Kniffin said. “So just being that safe space, being that place for people who aren’t sure or want to consider some other options.”
According to Hurley and her experience in Catholic school, she felt bothered by the fact that it taught the Earth was put here for human purpose and that we don’t need to take care of it. She wants SSA to step up and support an environmental charity. Both Hurley and Kniffin see this as an opportunity to partner with religious organizations through a common goal.
“The first thing that comes up to your mind with charity work is going through a religious community,” Hurley said. “If we could find ways to find people who had that same mindset and show them they can help do charity work without going through a religious group and do it through us, that is what we would like to do.”
Junior physics major Ryan Ferrell hopes to learn where he fits in on the atheism spectrum by joining SSA. He attended a discussion April 4 hosted by SSA titled “Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice,” a debate on abortion.
“Everyone was really respecting each other’s opinion,” Ferrell said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t a lopsided conversation either. We were actually almost split evenly 50-50 down the middle on sides of pro-life and pro-choice.”
SSA wants to rid the negative stereotypes of atheists and show that an individual can still have morals and identify as an atheist. It also wants to find speakers who could come to their meetings and share their viewpoints. Hurley hopes to find a speaker to talk about grief without belief so that students can share their experiences dealing with loss.
Hurley would “hate for the club to die out as soon as I graduate,” since most of the executive board members will be leaving JMU soon. SSA had around 10 members show up to its first meeting, with others emailing Hurley and expressing interest.
Members of SSA will be outside D-Hall on April 17 with posters that say, “Ask an Atheist Anything.” They will also be handing out pamphlets and hope to discuss their ideas with the JMU community, adding that all denominations are welcome to their meetings.
“I think a lot of people are confused on what an atheist is and whether they are bad people or hate religious people,” Hurley said. “We’re offering this platform because it doesn’t exist anywhere else on campus.”
Contact Mitchell Sasser at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.