The Day Atheism Became a Religion

College campuses

When the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) student group became one of Stanford University’s Associated Religions (SAR), they were met with no resistance. The religion, or at least the organized gathering, of nonbelievers has a long history on college campuses. In fact, secular humanism dates back 120 years at Harvard.  Some schools however, have not been as accepting of student efforts to organize around secularism.

Most recently, Concordia College in Minnesota rejected the formation of one such student group, claiming its mission was directly in opposition to the school’s identity. But does the institution’s affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) disable it from acknowledging the differing belief practices of its students? Atheists in California overcame their discomfort with the SAR pledge that states organizations shall “promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community.” AHA! recognized the many resources that come with the infrastructure religious communities already have in place, as well as the opportunity to help build a diverse community with interfaith allies. If atheists can acknowledge and respect the spiritual needs of their cohorts, should Christian and other religious schools accommodate these nonbelievers?

When AHA! joined the ranks of associated religions at Stanford, and when Concordia College blocked the creation of a secular group, both events drew little attention from religious organizations, as well as the media. At a time when the debate on the meaning of religious freedom is dominating US news, why is it that atheists, humanists and agnostics are being left out of the discussion? The freedom of belief also asserts the freedom of non-belief. But no one rushed to support these students’ right to freely celebrate their secular ideology.

When 1 in 5 Americans aged 18 to 25 identify with no religion, colleges would be remiss to ignore the needs of this growing constituency.  It has long been assumed that the more educated one becomes the less religious they will be. In theory, this would make school campuses a natural and welcoming space for nonreligious. However, a recent article in the Sociology of Religion debunks this stereotype.  Sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons found that while “atheism and agnosticism are much more common among professors than within the U.S. population as a whole, religious skepticism represents a minority position, even among professors teaching at elite research universities.”

In related research findings, the Pew Forum recently indicated that atheists and agnostics score higher on their religious knowledge survey, outperforming Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps it is time atheists, humanists, and agnostics were fully included in interfaith dialogue and the wider international discussion and practice of religious freedom.

                                                                Vanessa Gomez Brake

Vanessa is a conflict analyst, interfaith-er and nonprofit professional.