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Nontheistic Students on Campus: Understanding and Accommodating Them

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The number of students who do not believe in a higher power is rising, but these students often find themselves marginalized and struggle to gain acceptance on campus. Using data from the Secular Student Alliance, this article explores the interests of nonreligious nontheistic students, identifies issues these students face on campus and offers strategies for accommodating nonreligious nontheists as part of a diverse student body.

In 2007, University of Northern Iowa student Cody Hashman identified a problem on his campus and decided to do something about it. "Cody noticed that when religious students come to college, they have all these groups to choose from," said Cory Derringer, current president of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI). "That option really wasn't there for nonreligious students, so he wanted to fix that" (C. Derringer, personal communication, June 8, 2011).

The group started small -- averaging five to 10 people at their weekly meetings for a few years -- but in the last two years participation has surged, and they now see 30 to 60 attendees at their weekly Sunday brunch and hundreds at their larger events, with over 1,400 people attending their Darwin Week event series (Wilkins, 2011).

In this sense, UNIFI is not particularly unique. While one of the better-attended groups, UNIFI is just one of many nonreligious college student groups to experience significant growth in the last five years (Niose, 2011). This phenomenon -- increasing participation in nonreligious student groups on American college campuses -- demonstrates that nonreligious nontheistic students are part of a diverse college campus. This article intends to help college administrations successfully navigate this new territory.

History and Demographics

In order to discuss nonreligious nontheists on campus coherently, one must first define the terms. Some 15 percent of Americans report having no religion (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009), while further analysis of available data shows that 22 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 fall into this category (Kosmin, Keysar, Cragun, & Navarro-Rivera, 2009). This group includes individuals who reported their religious views as Humanistic, Ethical Culture, agnostics, atheists, secular, "no religion" or "none." We refer to these students as "nonreligious," while noting that many nonreligious individuals may still believe in a supernatural force or deity, and that some nontheists may still identify as religious.

Only about 2 percent of Americans use labels such as atheist, agnostic, Humanist and less widely recognized identifiers like "freethinker," "bright" or "Pastafarian" (Kosmin et al., 2009). These are the individuals we describe with the term "nonreligious nontheist." While we recognize that there are some nontheistic religions, this article specifically addresses the unique needs and challenges of the nonreligious nontheistic student.

Records show a small number of visible nontheistic student groups existing as far back as the 1960s: Harvard University saw a group in 1960 ("Watson Endorses," 1961) and the Humanist Community of Central Ohio records its Ohio State roots in the 1970s (Reyka, 1997). But as the number of college-aged Americans with no religion doubled from 1990 to 2008 (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009), the number of student groups also increased dramatically. The Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a non-profit organization supporting nonreligious nontheistic students, keeps records on nonreligious student groups in the United States through its affiliate program. Data from the SSA, gathered through annual surveys of its affiliated groups and other internal records, provide the majority of the statistics found in this article.

The SSA shows rapid growth of nonreligious nontheistic groups, particularly over the last five years: The number of affiliated groups grew from 50 in 2006 to over 260 in 2011. Historically, a campus would have had only one such group for all students, but the recent growth has allowed some campuses to support multiple nonreligious groups to meet different interests or needs. One example of this is Harvard University, where undergraduates attend the Harvard Secular Society, and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community exists for nontheists at all Harvard graduate schools.

Nonreligious Nontheistic Student Interests and Activities

Nonreligious nontheistic students are, for the most part, not unlike most college students. The SSA works with students in all fields and degree programs -- even unlikely places such as divinity schools -- and at schools from small community colleges to the largest state schools, elite private institutions and even parochial colleges. Their interests as individuals are as diverse as one would expect to find in any group of young people. Despite this diversity of interests, one can still identify some common trends. The SSA tends to classify nonreligious student group activities into the following areas: community, education, activism, service and cooperation.

Community

Creating a sense of community is one of the singularly most important aspects of a nonreligious group. A campus group provides nonreligious nontheists with a "safe haven" where they can interact with others of a similar worldview. SSA records show that many groups hold activities specifically geared toward building community and relationships among their membership: Groups hold weekly brunches or other gatherings around meals, movie nights, board game and video game gatherings, group study sessions, and more. The Alliance of Happy Atheists at the University of Oregon even puts on an annual formal dance for its members (Gubbins, 2010).

Education

Secular Student Alliance annual survey data show that nonreligious nontheistic students participate in a wide spectrum of activities and events centered around education and learning, focusing on topics including the natural world, religious and philosophical worldviews, politics and current issues and a wide range of other focuses. Discussion meetings, in which members convene to share views and opinions on a given topic, are one of the most common activities of SSA-affiliated student groups. These groups also bring speakers to address their groups on a variety of academic subjects, current events, controversial issues and other topics. These events can take the form of lecture-style presentations, panel discussions or debates. In order to learn about other religions and worldviews, many groups reach out to religious groups on campus to hold joint discussion meetings or dialogues, or even attend various religious services.

As a demographic subject to pervasive negative stereotypes (Goodman & Mueller, 2009), nonreligious nontheistic students endeavor to educate their campus and community about nonreligious worldviews. Tabling, an activity in which students advertise their organization with literature and representatives in a high-traffic area on campus, is one of the most common means of accomplishing this goal for SSA affiliates, defeating stereotypes and misinformation through direct, one-on-one interactions. April 2011 saw the first national Ask-an-Atheist Day, an event created by students at the Illini Secular Student Alliance, in which dozens of other campus groups participated (Tippens, 2011). SSA records show Ask-an-Atheist events included tabling, students advertising their atheist identities and encouraging questions, panels of nontheists answering audience questions and discussion events.

Activism

Nonreligious student groups have been involved in social change from their earliest days in the 1970s (Reyka, 1997) through the present day. The SSA shows individual students and groups taking action around issues of church-state separation, freedom of speech and expression, progressive social values and civil rights for women, minorities and LGBT individuals; campaigns take place on campus and at the local, state and federal levels.

The SSA also shows groups standing up for the freedom of expression, often in protest of
those that would censor others, or set certain ideas -- usually religion -- out of the reach of criticism. Nontheistic students have also defended these rights for religious individuals, as happened in 2010 at the University of Illinois: A professor was fired for expressing his personal views on homosexuality and the SSA affiliate on campus was among those who spoke up in his defense (Mehta, 2010b).

Service

Service projects among nonreligious student groups have become increasingly popular in the last few years. In 2008, less than a quarter of SSA affiliates reported participating in service projects, but over half of the Alliance's groups participated in service projects during the 2010- 2011 academic year. There are two reasons for this growth. First, as the numbers of nonreligious nontheists rise, there are enough students to come together and engage in service projects as a specifically nonreligious group, rather than acting as individuals through other organizations. Second, students are acting on the knowledge that participation in service projects -- especially when done in cooperation with religious groups -- helps counter the stereotype that one cannot be good without a religious identity.

Groups engage in service in many ways. Several SSA affiliates are participating in the
Foundation Beyond Belief's partners program, working to encourage regular charitable giving among their members and holding charity fundraiser events. Other groups take part in organized volunteer programs to engage in regular service projects. Some groups, like Students for Freethought at the Ohio State University, annually embark on week-long alternative spring break service projects, usually in cooperation with a religious student group on their campus (Paramore, 2010).

Cooperation

While nonreligious student groups have a history of reaching out to religious groups for discussions and debates, the amount of cooperation in the last few years has increased drastically (up to 81 percent of Alliance groups cooperating from 58 percent just a year ago) and broadened in scope. Nonreligious nontheists are reaching out to a variety of organizations for joint events and projects, including religious groups, science or philosophy organizations, and women's rights and LGBT groups.

Nonreligious groups and individuals are also becoming more involved in interfaith programming. As interfaith and multicultural programs become more prevalent on campus, many are recognizing, inviting, and welcoming nonreligious participants. This has been demonstrated through the inclusion of "those of no faith" in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership's "President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge" (Obama, 2011). At schools like Juniata College in Pennsylvania, interfaith programs help provide a safe space for nonreligious nontheists where there is not a dedicated student group, and some are even assisting in the formation of such a group (L. Seganos, personal communication, June 10, 2011).

Continue reading at the Journal of College and Character.

Please note: This post was co-authored by Lyz Liddell, Director of Campus Organizing of the Secular Student Alliance She coordinates the campus organizing team to deliver the SSA's services and resources to affiliate groups and individual students. She leads development of new resources and helps build relationships with other organizations to promote acceptance of secular students.

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