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An Interview with Shawn Polson — President, Secular Students and Skeptics Society at University of Colorado, Boulder — Part 2

2022-12-13

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/11/19

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are the president of the Secular Students and Skeptics Society at University of Colorado, Boulder. What tasks and responsibilities come with the position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?

Shawn Polson: As I said earlier, SSaSS (our abbreviation) is very different than OSSO. You don’t see the same amount of ostracizing here at CU Boulder. In fact, there is almost none; I can barely recall a time when anyone at CU had an issue with a group of atheists doing anything. This means that we really get to focus on science-based issues without having to “combat” anything, which is a welcome change of pace for me.

My tasks and responsibilities are to essentially just do everything. It’s a strange situation where I’m actually offered way more university resources, money especially, by CU than I ever got with OSSO, but regardless, SSaSS is notably smaller. It may or may not be surprising that I don’t have a bona fide officer team. It’s only me, my wonderful girlfriend Dana (who already graduated with a linguistics degree), and our good friend Scott (who happens to teach for Science Discovery at CU). I’m the only student.

Our members are brilliant though, and many of them study great geeky subjects or have simply picked up wonderful info throughout their lives. We leverage that at SSaSS by encouraging student members to give the talks that our biweekly meetings typically center around. We’re all friends, and it’s a neat atmosphere where everyone can get together and learn from each other’s ideas. My job is largely to facilitate them having the best time possible; we are registered as a social club, after all.

To avoid being a stuffy group of academics (in case that’s not your thing), I keep things fun by hosting off-campus events like trivia at a bar or dinner at a Mexican joint, you know, stuff to keep things exciting. I also organize at least one large event each semester using the resources CU provides me. A year ago, we brought head of the Satanic Temple Lucien Greaves to speak at CU, and SSaSS got to go out to Dark Horse bar with him afterwards — which was indeed as cool as it sounds. The semester after that I hosted a panel that discussed the arguments for and against humans having free will.

I do it because A) I think it’s an important cause and it’s fun for me, but more importantly B) it’s rewarding to spread scientific understanding and critical thinking, and to be the person behind the scenes organizing the events that people enjoy attending.

Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

Polson: That’s really the personal fulfilment right there: spreading science and giving people fun and thought-provoking events to attend. And getting to know everybody.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?

Polson: It’s difficult to say how best to activize because it depends on the social climate of the campus, of course, but the approach I use is to focus on the positives of science rather than droning about the negatives of religion. It’s not my goal to end religion or to evangelize atheism. I want to see critical thinking skills advanced in the classroom, and I want to instill respect for the scientific process in everyone. I’d like to see a day where scientific consensus carries the weight it ought to so that, when discussing topics like climate change, evolution, homeopathy, human origins, you name it, we can all look to the science instead of our beliefs. In general, I think it’s most important to lead people to information and to allow them to take ownership of it (stealing Neil deGrasse Tysons’s phrasing), so that no one has to appeal to an authority for their information.

Besides that broad approach, it never hurts to remember some basic psychology when talking to people. The backfire effect is one I always keep in mind. That’s the idea that arguing with people often tends to “backfire”: challenging someone’s position often leads to them doubling down on that position (it’s not always fun to admit you’re wrong, after all), so it’s easy to start an argument, and then have the two participants walk away from it more polarized than when they started. It’s also helpful to remember that we’re all susceptible to cognitive bias — tending to accept ideas that fit our beliefs while ignoring those that challenge them — and we could all benefit from being proven wrong more often.

Tabling frequently helps too!

Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?

Polson: I have to think about that one because, at CU, nothing really comes to mind. But I guess I’ve got one reasonably successful thing I can mention!

CU has a popular “free speech zone” by a fountain outside the big student center, which is the go-to place for any kind of demonstration. Occasionally you’ll get religious people that are so far out there that even other religious campus groups can’t stand them. On some of those days, SSaSS likes to play “preacher bingo!” That’s our cheeky, perhaps a little immature, version of bingo where the numbers are replaced by offensive things those people consistently say.

The result is that you have a crowd of people holding cards listening to this person rant, and they’re going on about “homosexuals are sinners,” “you’re going to hell,” “(scientific concept) is only a ‘theory’.” But then suddenly, “you can’t prove god doesn’t exist…”

“Bingo!”

Someone gets five in a row and SSaSS has a drop-off location where people can trade in their winning cards for candy. We want to protect free speech and peoples’ rights to say whatever, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ridicule their ideas a little — no idea should be above ridicule.

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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