Our Humanity, Naturally

A club for humanists

What's different about today's student atheists?

Identity politics on campus

Atheism on college campuses is certainly nothing new, but there's something different about today's secular students. Unlike their parents' generation, atheist, agnostic, and humanist college students today more often consider their secularism to be an important, primary aspect of self-identity.

Nothing demonstrates this point more clearly than the rapid growth of the Secular Student Alliance, the umbrella group for organized atheism and humanism on college campuses (and now high schools as well). SSA chapters have grown from less than 50 in 2007 to over 250 today, and there is no sign of slowing down.

"We're witnessing a major shift in our society," said Jesse Galef, an SSA spokesperson. "More students are proudly calling themselves atheists, which inspires others to do the same. We used to go out and find them. Now, they're springing up everywhere and finding us, asking to join the movement." 

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In years past, religious skepticism was not hard to find on most university campuses, but few atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists considered organizing and socializing around their non-theistic worldview. For most atheist/agnostic college students, secular identity was incidental and secondary, whereas primary self-identity might have centered around other personal characteristics or lifestance positions, such as being feminist, a racial minority, gay/lesbian, anti-war, environmentalist, socialist, libertarian, or even just politically "liberal" or "conservative."

In recent years, however, that has changed, as nonreligious identity has become increasingly important to many.

"After the September 11 attacks, I began thinking that perhaps I should speak out against what I felt was a mindset that is not only wrong but dangerous," says Ian, who was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 2001 when the religiously motivated 9-11 terrorists took the lives of 3000 innocent victims.

Ian expresses the sentiments of many young adults who increasingly have come to see traditional religion as having little value in the modern world. A secular lifestance, to many of these students, is not secondary or incidental, but a primary aspect of their self-identity.

Supporting this concept of identity politics, and experiencing explosive growth from its popularity, is the SSA, which is now expanding into high schools and finding many enthusiastic secular students eager to counter the evangelism of religious groups.

Operated on a shoestring when it was founded in 2000, the SSA is now attracting significant financial support. The group received a big financial boost recently when Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins, creator of the PalmPilot, pledged major financial support.

One of the strongest organized non-theistic student communities in America can be found at Harvard University, where the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy has existed for almost 40 years and its current chaplain, Greg Epstein, promotes a vibrant environment of campus humanist activism. Along with the student-led Harvard Secular Society, the chaplaincy has made humanist self-identification prominent at America's oldest university. Author of a bestselling book "Good Without God," Epstein reminds students that the best humanist activism emphasizes the "Good" (as in doing good deeds and community service) as much as the "Without God."

Though Harvard is a great model, some of the most active student secular groups can be found in the Bible-belt, where atheist students are frequently confronted with religiosity and are therefore often hungry for secular camaraderie. Marie, a student from the Secular Student Alliance of Clemson University in South Carolina who was raised in a conservative Presbyterian home, explains the attraction of campus secular community: "Almost everyone I meet through sports, other clubs, or anyplace on campus is almost always a religious person and actively affiliated with a group. I wanted a place where I could challenge those beliefs in an open group with other people who may have thought more about it and had different ideas from those I was raised with."

The Clemson group, like most student groups, has informal meetings and social events, sponsors guest speakers, watches documentaries, participates in panels with religious groups, and generally provides a place where non-theistic students can find community.

With religious skepticism on the rise among young people and online social media making visibility and organization easier than in the past, the secular student phenomenon is unlikely to fade. Students see it as an effective and necessary response to the Religious Right, a sensible means of combating religiously motivated activism. Moreover, from a practical standpoint, it is a great way of meeting like-minded friends, people who perhaps have also read and enjoyed bestselling books by "New Atheist" authors Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

Thus, today's campus atheism is a far cry from that of the past. It is organized, well-funded, identity-oriented, and populated by young people who will not back down in the culture wars, who see their non-theistic lifestance as something that can contribute to a better world.

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Text Copyright 2011 Dave Niose

Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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