'Good without God': Secular Student Alliance president

Inside a Student Union conference room, sophomore mathematics major Noah Topper conducts a Secular Student Alliance meeting on April 1. Topper discussed the intricacies of morality during the meeting. “Right and wrong [shouldn’t] be based on religion, ultimately," Topper said. "It should just be based on how you’re affecting the people around you."

UCF student Noah Topper’s atheism was inspired by a pair of magicians.

At the age of 11, a love of magic would lead him to stumble across the work of Penn & Teller, an American duo of magicians known for their unique style of comedy.

However, it was Penn & Teller’s Showtime television series that would prove to have a formative influence on Topper’s worldview.

“I liked magic as a kid, but they also had a show called '[Penn & Teller:] Bullshit!,' which was based on things like superstitions and pseudoscience,” Topper said. “I think that was one of the things that got me turned on to critical thinking.”

The show featured the magicians deconstructing various topics and dispelling the misconceptions surrounding them, according to the show's IMDb page.

Nine years later, the 20-year-old sophomore and mathematics major now serves as president of the Secular Student Alliance, an organization that advocates for students of non-faith identities.

Topper said he attended Catholic school during his early education in Oregon. However, he said the experience was not impactful in shaping his personal beliefs.

“I don’t feel like they indoctrinated [me],” Topper said. “[Religious beliefs] weren’t strongly put on me.”

Topper’s disconnection with Catholicism reflects a current trend recorded by the Pew Research Center concerning younger generations and their relationship with traditional religion. According to the 2018 study, "young adults are far less likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God as described in the Bible."

Topper moved to Florida at the age of 14. Upon entering UCF a few years later as a freshman, Topper was in search of a sense of community.

After scrolling through the UCF website, he said he came across SSA. Topper said he was inspired to join the organization because he thinks it’s important for nonreligious people to have their own social network.

“Some atheists see [community and group identity] as something dangerous," Topper said. "But I don’t think you should throw [out] the entire idea of having a community."

Topper said this hesitation toward organized community may stem from negative associations some nonreligious individuals have with faith-based communities. Topper said he’s personally experienced hostility from some of the religious partisans that often frequent campus.

"I’ve had [the preachers on campus] come up to me while we were tabling and tell me that I couldn’t possibly have a basis for right or wrong," Topper said. "[They’ve said] … I can’t have any basis for truth or knowledge because I’m an atheist and that I shouldn’t even be at a university."

Topper said this reaction is also indicative of a broader misunderstanding that people of non-faith identities cannot hold morals.

Despite his encounter with some of the evangelists at UCF, Topper said he’s still open to interaction with other religious students as a member of SSA.

"Last year, we had the Mormon group on campus come and explain things about their beliefs, [and we got to] ask them questions," Topper said.

While SSA provides a forum for students of non-faith identities to express their point of view, the organization also extends its membership to religious students. Topper said differences in outlook should not prevent a sense of mutual inclusion.

"While I might think at core that our beliefs are incompatible with theirs, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it or include each other," Topper said. "Just because I might be opposed to religious values doesn’t mean I oppose inclusivity."

Despite SSA's nonreligious majority, Topper said that he makes an effort to include religious members by making sure the dialogue of the group is representative of all students.

"Most people tend to be nonreligious," Topper said. "I don’t want to tell anyone what to believe or what they should have to believe to be here. It’s important to me that everyone has a chance to have their voice heard."

Jakob Barber, sophomore civil engineering major, serves as vice president of SSA. Barber, 20, said it is this openness and inclusivity that has allowed Topper to effectively engage with students in comparison with previous members.

"He’s done a much better job at connecting with people at various events [such as] tabling and meetings," Barber said.

Eric Fish, a fifth-year integrated business major and secretary of SSA, said Topper’s extensive involvement in the club contributed to him becoming president within a short period of time.

"He came into the club last year as a freshman, and he was very involved, so he quickly became president," Fish, 23, said.

Topper said this drive came from an observation of the lack of leadership within the club, as well a desire to see the organization flourish.

"Part of it was simply that nobody else was prepared to do it, so I felt that I was just doing what I had to in order to keep the club alive and well," Topper said. "I was excited by the idea of taking part in more discussions and helping the club grow."

Topper sat at a long, red oak-colored conference table in the Student Union during an SSA meeting on April 1 and led a discussion on the meaning of morality for nonreligious individuals. 

The theme of the meeting was appropriate given that the organization's tagline, "Good without God," challenges the perceptions people hold regarding morality and religion.

"You shouldn’t assume that just because someone doesn’t have a god or religion for themselves that they can’t be a good person," Topper said. "Right and wrong [shouldn’t] be based on religion, ultimately. It should just be based on how you’re affecting the people around you."

Barber said that Topper’s impassioned sense of conviction is a source of affirmation for his own beliefs as a nonreligious person.

"He’s very staunch and confident in his beliefs," Barber said. "That gives me confidence, too."

Topper said that one of the most prominent issues faced by nonreligious people is a lack of social acceptance from their families, which can "pull apart relationships." He said he has experienced some of this tension firsthand.

Once, prior to going away on a family trip, Topper said his father discouraged him from speaking about his non-faith identity.

"Before I went to visit my great-grandmother, he told me, 'While you're there, don't mention anything about being an atheist,'" Topper said. "And I wondered if he would have said something like that had I converted to a different religion."

In order to combat this lack of acceptance, Topper said religious people should reach out to nonreligious individuals and make an effort to see things from their viewpoint.

"If you do run into an atheist, encourage them to express their beliefs and legitimately try to understand their perspective," Topper said.

Topper said his greatest hope for SSA is that the organization aids in educating people on the nonreligious experience.

"I hope we spread and grow enough to normalize atheism and people stop saying, 'Man, what would a group of atheists even do? Just sit around talking about how much they don't believe in God?' which is something someone would only say if they have little to no ability to imagine atheists as people with beliefs and values distinct from their own," he said.

Topper said he hopes to show people that not believing in a god is not as foreign as some may think since the existence of multiple religions means most people have engaged in some form of nonbelief.

"Everyone has the experience of not believing in [a god], so I think if everyone tried, they could understand what it’s like to be an atheist," Topper said. "It’s something they’re already doing, just for a different god."

SSA holds meetings every other Monday at 7 p.m. in room 222 of the Student Union. For more information, visit the organization's official website.

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