When members of the GW Secular Society hung posters around campus with pictures of members captioned “This is what an Atheist looks like,” they hoped they would be making campus more comfortable for atheists who wanted to tell their families about their beliefs.
But most of the signs have been torn down.
“People thought we were trying to recruit or to preach, but we were trying to show people we’re just like everyone else and we’re not the devil,” junior Nare Gukasyan, a member of the GW Secular Society, said.
Gukasyan said she comes from a fairly liberal area of Massachusetts and identified as agnostic throughout high school. But when she came to GW, she began to identify as an atheist.
She said she often gets challenged on her views and is forced her to defend her beliefs.
“Well, at school when you tell someone you’re in a secular society the first word that comes out of their mouths is ‘Why?’ But when you tell someone you’re Jewish or Muslim, they don’t ask why like that,” Gukasyan said.
Gukasyan was surprised by the response to the posters, and said she had not expected such a hostile reaction on a campus that is often noted for being liberal.
“I think I expected the school to be much more open. I don’t know if ‘liberal’ is the word, but open to different understandings or different beliefs, and recognize that just because some people don’t believe in certain things doesn’t mean you’re weird. You’re just different,” Gukasyan said.
The group was started and later disbanded several years ago due to lack of student interest. Now, it boasts more than 100 members.
Sophomore Magdalena Stuehrmann, the group’s public relations and outreach director, said members became concerned after an online fight prompted by comments on the Overheard at GW Facebook page broke out. Stuehrmann said the weekly support group meetings for atheists and agnostics are designed to help students feel safe on campus and quell any negative feelings.
“We were shocked to see the lack of acceptance, especially on such a liberal campus,” Stuehrmann said.
Though the group tends to comprise mostly atheists or agnostics, Stuehrmann said there are also members who identify with other religions, including Christianity and Buddhism. She described the organization as “a group of people who share the belief in the separation of church and state.”
“We have several members who haven’t told their parents about their beliefs yet due to the fear of repercussions,” Stuehrmann said.
The Secular Society is currently planning to hold events this spring, including a Darwin Day Celebration, to discuss human evolution. They will also host an event featuring speaker Nate Phelps, an atheist and son of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church.