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An Interview with Shawn Polson — President, Secular Students and Skeptics Society at University of Colorado, Boulder — Part 1

2022-12-13

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/11/18

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Shawn Polson: Hey Scott, thanks for asking me to talk! I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma and most people I know live in Oklahoma. We all speak the language I’m using and since you’re asking, they are perfectly nice people! I haven’t studied southern culture formally, so I won’t try to make that impression, but my family is like a great many people in what’s colloquially known as the “buckle” of the Bible Belt. They like tradition, they’re warm hearted, and maybe a little old-fashioned, but I love them. They’re generally well-educated and plugged into their communities. I’ve got an uncle who’s a retired architect, one that works on computers, one is a priest, and I have an aunt who’s in medicine. My mom is a supervising accountant for one of the largest gas companies in the country, and even my grandma holds some high position in her neighborhood association.

Most of my family members have college degrees, but that wasn’t the case for most of the generations above my grandparents. My dad was like his dad and never needed to finish college. He just got a job and stuck to it. It worked for them. I am hoping college education stays trendier though, you know. I’ll try to keep that up.

My family is widely Christian, which is not super shocking in Oklahoma. We prayed before meals, went to church, did the whole thing you do. They found a lot of community in their churches, and — if I can digress for a second — I remember those churches having top of the line Sunday schools to boot. We went to one mega-church that had, I kid you not, rock climbing walls, billiards tables, all the video games, extravagant events, so much. I truthfully liked it as a kid.

So, they wear it on their sleeves a little, but that’s largely life there. About irreligion, my folks wish I was a believer with them, understandable given their backgrounds, but they tolerate and/or ignore my disbelief well enough. Because you ask, asking skeptical questions like why dinosaur bones were supposed to be 6,000 years old did distance me from my family some. People treat religion differently in Boulder.

Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?

Polson: Well, I was raised a solid believer, but that stopped around seventh grade for me (shout out to my irreligious stepbrother from Australia). Actually, I can almost say I started my first secular club in high school. I remember Jenks High having a club, “Trojans for Christ,” and they were integral to the school in many ways. I had more angst back then, and I let my friends talk me into going through the process of starting a club named “Trojans for Reason.” We never held a meeting or anything, but we did have a faculty advisor on file. It made a statement, and that’s all it really was. We were uncomfortable with classes being shortened for worship and funds going to breakfast prayer banquets when teachers were buying tissue boxes and writing supplies with money raised by students’ parents. Back then we just felt validated seeing posters reading “Trojans for Reason” hanging next to “Trojans for Christ.” I happened to be in a band at the time, so it turns out that we had a pretty good poster guy for that.

I really got involved with secularism in college though, in Oklahoma State University’s secular club. I met the “Oklahoma State Secular Organization” (OSSO for short) during my first week on campus at one of their tables, and they were tiny back then. I ended up handing out flyers with them that first day because they needed help, and over two years that grew into me being their vice president. I worked with the most intelligent and hard-working group of five people running OSSO, and all their work brought them from a floundering club of maybe four members to a thriving organization of hundreds. To this day, they host creative secular demonstrations on campus, debates, hold biweekly social outings, and all sorts of awesome stuff.

OSSO was really very different from what I do now. Religion is so deeply ingrained in that campus that OSSO almost existed just as a counterbalance to the lunacy that occurred unfortunately often. I’m so used to living in Boulder now that it’s strange to recall, but there would be older men waving giant banners on OSU’s campus literally yelling at students to drop out of college and pursue lives with Jesus, there were monthly anti-evolution demonstrations, orthodox men displaying signs like “Good women are submissive,” just loads of ugliness. OSSO did its part to promote real scientific education, equality, etc., but they’re still so far out-resourced that it’s hard not to be drowned out.

It was incredible to hear the stories of students, especially transfer students from the Middle East, who escaped real persecution for their beliefs, and you could see in their eyes how important it was to have the culture of like-minded people that OSSO offered. I met 18-year-olds who had narrowly escaped death sentences in their home countries by transferring to an American school, and it was life-affirming for me to be able to offer them such social support when their “cowboy” peers wouldn’t.

License

In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at www.in-sightpublishing.com.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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