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Atheist-agnostic groups rapidly multiplying on American college campuses

HERE‘s a trend that’s likely to have political ramifications before very long:

This month at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a select group of students will show their humanitarian spirit by participating in the Bleedin’ Heathens Blood Drive. On February 12, they will eat cake to celebrate Darwin Day, and earlier this year, they performed “de-baptism” ceremonies to celebrate Blasphemy Day, attended a War on Christmas Party, and set up Hug An Atheist and Ask An Atheist booths in the campus quad.

These activities and more are organized by the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA), one of 394 student groups that are affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance (SSA). “We brand ourselves as a safe place and community for students who are not religious,” says Derek Miller, a junior at Illini and president of the ISSA.

Secular groups on college campuses are proliferating. The Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance, which a USA Today writer once called a “Godless Campus Crusade for Christ,” incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001. By 2007, 80 campus groups had affiliated with them, 100 by 2008, 174 by 2009, and today there are 394 SSA student groups on campuses across the country. “We have been seeing rapid growth in the past couple of years, and it shows no sign of slowing down,” says Jesse Galef, communications director at SSA. “It used to be that we would go to campuses and encourage students to pass out flyers. Now, the students are coming to us almost faster than we can keep up with.”

The Secular Student Alliance provides its affiliate groups with support and materials, including banners, pins, and informational materials with titles like What Is An Atheist?, a brochure with cheerful graphics and information about the identities of secularists, including “non-theist,” “freethinker,” and “humanist.”

Oddly enough, in the geography of on-campus student groups, atheist organizations fit within the category of faith-based groups like the Campus Crusade For Christ, which recently (and controversially) changed its name to Cru. At Stanford University, the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) register with the Office For Religious Life, just like Cru, and are a member of Stanford Associated Religions.

UPDATE: Speaking of religion, the map below is based on a Gallup poll measuring the religious fervor in the various states.

Vermont has the least religious populace, while Mississippi has the most religious, followed closely by Utah.

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32 Comments

  1. If that meteorite landed near a college campus there would be some churching up.

  2. It is interesting that it took this long for student groups to form in large numbers considering this has been the trend on college campuses for decades now.

  3. Tthetrout

    Thank god, it’s about time!!!!!!!!

  4. Tthetrout: I think I know who you are. Am I right about that? Did you once have a bird named Pete?

  5. Atheist groups organizing and having events has always seemed odd to me.

    They are organizing to do what exactly? Espouse their belief in nothing? To make fun of people that they view as inferior because they do believe in a higher power?

  6. dogrescuer

    Rejecting religion doesn’t always mean disbelief in a higher power. For instance, Deism (deism.com) recognizes an intelligent creator (God) without requiring the trappings of man-made religion.

  7. doc: Your argument that atheism is the “belief in nothing” is beyond ridiculous. To disbelieve theories that there’s an all-knowing supreme being is not akin to believing in nothing. Rather, it’s believing that theists are wrong.

    Indeed, your average atheist believes in lots of things that many theists do not believe — evolution, for example. Secular humanism for another.

    As for atheists viewing theists as “inferior,” that’s unavoidable in a certain sense. Naturally, an atheist is going to consider theism an intellectually inferior belief system, just as theists consider atheists inferior in one or more ways — intellectually and perhaps morally as well. I can’t help thinking of the theists I know who don’t understand how any atheist would have a sense of right-versus-wrong. It’s as if fear of God’s punishment is the only thing that keeps them from leading grossly immoral lives. They just can’t understand doing good for its own sake rather than to win brownie points from the Man Upstairs.

    And as for atheists making fun of theists — well, gee whiz, isn’t that a rotten shame? The nerve of those heathens! I suppose there’s never been a case of theists making fun of atheists, has there? Hell, some theists even make fun of one another. I know of devotees of certain denominations whose sense of humor sometimes extends to mocking those of other denominations, never mind those who have no denomination.

    The idea of atheists and agnostics “organizing and having events” may seem “odd” to you, doc. But the religious rituals and gatherings in which you engage no doubt seem odd to them.

    Religious folks pretty much run everything in this society, but some of them just can’t stand it that there are people who aren’t afraid to say that the true believers are all sadly mistaken. And for these skeptics to actually organize is just going too far, isn’t it, doc?

  8. dogrescuer: During the Age of Enlightenment, many deists believed in a god who created the universe and then pretty much let it go its own way according to the laws of nature without getting involved in human affairs.

    Benjamin Franklin flatly called himself a deist, although he wavered a bit in his later years. Thomas Jefferson strongly hinted at it but never flatly declared it.

    The revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine helped popularize deism with his “The Age of Reason.”

  9. dogrescuer

    Pat: Also, didn’t Abe Lincoln, a believer, criticize religion more than once?
    The Catholic Church had Giordano Bruno, a Deist, arrested for heresy, and burned him alive on February 17, 1600. Oh, those fun-loving Christians!

  10. Tthetrout

    Pat Cunningham, once again your Laser sharp mind is correct.

  11. Elementary, my dear Watson.

  12. So I wonder what happens at a Blasphemy Day celebration?

  13. Doc maybe they want to hang out with people who share their beliefs. Why is that odd. Because their views are different then yours? Let go of the hate. Life is to short to hate. If anything you should have respect for these folks. They are going against main stream thoughts and trusting what they know in their heart. Not an easy thing to do.

    I’m an agnostic and I don’t view myself as superior to anyone. If anything the god folks I’m exposed to try to present themselves as superior to me. I’m just trying to live a a good life doing what my heart tells me is right.

    “It’s as if fear of God’s punishment is the only thing that keeps them from leading grossly immoral lives. They just can’t understand doing good for its own sake rather than to win brownie points from the Man Upstairs.”

    Had this same convo with my father. He asked about what keeps me from doing wrong. I don’t understand why someone would even ask that. How about I don’t do wrong because it’s wrong? I hope the only thing keeping christians from doing wrong isn’t their fear of god. How weak of a person are you if that is the case?

    Here is a great song on this topic by todd snider. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeZEWW92g6I

  14. doc: If you had the presence of mind to look up the word “blasphemy” in the dictionary, you wouldn’t have to ask “what happens at a Blasphemy Day celebration.”

    As the kids might say: Duh!

  15. By the way, doc, to a person who doesn’t believe in a supreme being, the concept of blasphemy as some kind of moral offense is meaningless.

  16. Expdoc,

    Here is a clinical trial for you. =)

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567

  17. Joe,

    Funny that you detected hate in my posts when there was none.

    Pat, that is why I think atheists getting together to celebrate their disbelief in God seems like a big huge waste of time or an incredible display of insecurity.

  18. Expdoc,

    Oh, the athiests are the ones wasting their time? They are the ones who spend several hours WEEKLY devoting their time to something for which there is NO evidence?

    >50% of Americans who agree with you that there is a God believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. I think you should feel a little insecure.

    As someone whose skills “are at the top of my profession” as you have stated before, how much time do devote to medical procedures, treatments, etc. for which there is no evidence? Would you say that telling a fellow physician that their current treatment plan has no basis in science-based medicine is a waste of time? Of course you wouldn’t if you care for the best treatment of patients.

    The athiests are just doing the same thing, but instead of medical practice it is just in the realm of religious dogma. The topic is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is that something is either true/correct or it isn’t. As of now, there is nothing to suggest that there is a God. So I ask you again who is wasting their time?

  19. Doc I see plenty of hate. Maybe you don’t mean it, but it is there.

  20. Joe,

    You are wrong.

    CJR1,

    You should read about faith. If you have faith, then the time spent in worship, prayer and helping others isn’t a waste of time, it is what you are called to do.

    If I had no faith then it would be a complete and total waste of time. So tell me how that explains what an atheist is doing with their time on Blasphemy Day?

  21. doc: You’re never going to understand, are you?

    Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of atheists and agnostics have never participated in Blasphemy Day activities. But you seem obsessed with such mischievous stuff among a relative handful of college kids. You want that kind of thing to represent atheism and agnosticism in general.

    But you would take offense at any notion that all Catholics are sympathetic with the rallies that have been held by some Catholics in support of men who have murdered abortion doctors. No you don’t want to be painted with that brush, do you? Not all Catholics are the same, at least not on that score, are they?

    Atheism and agnosticism apparently offend you, because those people seem to think that your piety is a foolish waste of time. You think they don’t understand you. But you ignore the fact that many of them were once pious believers themselves. I know numerous agnostics and atheists who had at least 12 years of Catholic education. I even know a few who considered entering the seminary or the convent.

    It all goes to the issue of doubt, doc. Atheists and agnostics have come to their points of view because of doubt about religion. But then, many, if not most, theists also have had their doubts from time to time. St. Augustine, among many others, had his doubts. Some biblical scholars (although not all) argue that even Jesus had his doubts.

    Indeed, the whole of religious history in this world is a record of doubt, as Jennifer Michael Hecht notes in her scholarly work “Doubt.”

    You’re free, doc, to dismiss atheists and agnostics as mistaken. But you seem strangely resentful that they are no less free to consider you and your fellow believers as mistaken. You seem to think that you, but not them, have really thought this thing through — that your approach has been intellectually rigorous, while theirs has been intellectually lazy. On that point, if not others, you couldn’t be more wrong.

  22. I haven’t dismissed them at all Pat. I merely wondered about the motivation for such events.

    Liberals are so touchy.

    As you know I am not a “cradle Catholic” but converted just over ten years ago and I am hardly “evangelical” in my faith.

    I have doubts like many if not most others do. Even Mother Teresa (a near lock to become a Saint) had doubts and I absolutely do not hate anyone for their beliefs about a higher power.

    I happen to believe that religious faith is a beautiful thing that has created immeasurable good in this world and in my life.

    Non-believers love to point to various religious crackpots and the very real and horrific scandals that have occurred under the guise of religion. But to me, that is humans being human and evil being present in our world.

    That does not invalidate the religion or the faith in the religion.That doesn’t make Christianity or Catholicism evil as a whole. I feel the same way about Islam and Islamic terrorists, don’t you?

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1655720,00.html

  23. Luke Fredrickson

    expdoc says:
    February 17, 2013 at 9:50 am
    So I wonder what happens at a Blasphemy Day celebration?

    ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

    My guess about the motivation of the celebrants: Perhaps they are hoping to remind overzealous evangelicals that Americans are both free to practice a religion of their choosing, and free to live without the imposition of religion dogma upon them. This latter freedom gets trampled all too often these days, despite being a core principle of our nation’s founders.

    http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/01/16/creationism-spreading-in-schools-thanks-to-vouchers/

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/03/21/448803/tennessee-passes-monkey-bill-to-teach-the-controversy-on-evolution-and-climate-science/

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal/2011_08/perry_tackles_science_in_nh031635.php

  24. Doc,

    I have read about faith. I went to Sunday school and church every Sunday as a child until the age of 15. At that point I made the decision that my time was better spent reading for school or playing sports or hitting on my sisters friends than praying to a being I no longer believed was there.

    I am glad you find faith empowering, I know that is the case for many if not the majority of Americans. But why can’t you see that I find trusting in myself and my family and friends over everything else in the universe empowering too? It inspires me to say “I renounce the idea of Jesus and the holy spirit”. It is all on me. No destiny, no strings on my to a divine puppet master, just me and my beliefs in what is right or wrong or worthwhile or not.

    I have a question for you. As a physician, how do you reconcile the idea of a virgin birth with your knowledge of anatomy and physiology? I myself could never take that story on faith. I know ministers that can’t do it.

  25. TexasFreeThinker

    Expdoc, don’t assume all atheist are liberals. I’m a staunch conservative, except when they get in bed with the religious. I try to meet up with as many freethought, humanists, and atheist groups as I can. Why wouldn’t I? It is human nature to want to be with like kind and explore ideas.

  26. “I have a question for you. As a physician, how do you reconcile the idea of a virgin birth with your knowledge of anatomy and physiology?”

    There is no need to reconcile anything if you have faith.

    TFT,

    I was actually referring to the liberals on this site, particularly Pat. Be careful about spending too much time with “like kind”. If I was of that mindset I would have never visited this blog for the first time and then just look at all the fun I would have missed.

    You should all read this. It is interesting.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/max-tegmark/religion-and-science-distance-between-not-as-far-as-you-think_b_2664657.html

    So is there a conflict between science and religion? The religious organizations representing most Americans clearly don’t think so. Interestingly, the science organizations representing most American scientists don’t think so either: For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that science and religion “live together quite comfortably, including in the minds of many scientists.” This shows that the main divide in the U.S. origins debate isn’t between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science.

  27. Milton Waddams

    Well, that “small fundamentalist minority” needs to STFU with regards to trying to introduce creastionism into science classrooms. Mainstream religious communities are guilty by their silence and tacit approval of this BS.

    You can believe whatever you want, but when you try to teach my child something that is DEMONSTRABLY false, I have a problem with it. The Earth is NOT less than 10,000 years old PERIOD.

  28. I will tell them to STFU.

  29. ““I have a question for you. As a physician, how do you reconcile the idea of a virgin birth with your knowledge of anatomy and physiology?”

    There is no need to reconcile anything if you have faith.”

    And that is why I’m an agnostic.

    Doc I have a kid with some breathing issues. We had no idea until one morning she woke up and couldn’t breathe. We ended up having to rush her to the er where she was in extensive care for 2 days. No worries now, turns out she is allergic to dogs. While we were there she did a bunch of breathing treatments till her oxygen levels returned to normal. I’m not a doctor and it has been a few years, but i believe that was the case.

    Now say you were the one caring for my daughter. We bring her in and her oxygen levels are in the 50′s. You want to start treatments right away but I say no. Instead of treatments I would rather pray and let my faith do its thing. Would you have a problem with that? Where do you draw the line between faith and science as a doctor?

  30. I would have a problem with that.

    First I would get you to understand the potential medical ramifications of your initial wishes in an effort to change them. I would argue that it was God that gave me the talent at tools to help your child and that was what was best for your daughter.

    If you still refused I would convey an emergency meeting of our hospital ethics committee and if required the hospital would then contact the appropriate child protective authorities, ultimately to try and get a court order to treat your daughter.

    This is a description similar to what might happen:

    http://virtualmentor.ama-assn.org/2003/08/ccas1-0308.html

    Parents are the natural guardians and stewards of their children. That stewardship entails a responsibility to seek the best interests of those children. Society allows parents rather wide latitude in raising and caring for their children, including societal nonintervention in situations which are potentially detrimental to those children (eg, matters of diet, lifestyle, activities, discipline). Our society is willing to step in and override parental authority, via child protective agencies, only when parental decisions involve abuse or neglect, including medical neglect.

    Health care professionals shoulder a large part of the societal obligation to protect vulnerable children from medical neglect. When professionals identify a child who faces danger of death or disability because of parents’ decisions, actions, or inactions, they are obligated by professional standards and mandated by state law to report the situation to the proper authorities. Those authorities will investigate and will often petition a court to determine whether the situation warrants removal of parental custody. In rare situations of imminent danger to the child, it is ethically justified for health care professionals to proceed with life-saving procedures over parental objections as the report is being made.

    While making such reports is never pleasant, professionals are almost always willing to do so when a child is endangered because his or her parents demonstrate lack of understanding or lack of caring. It is distinctly more uncomfortable for them to report parents who clearly care for their children but hold personal, cultural or religious values that are at odds with those of the medical community [1,2]. There is a wide consensus in the medical profession and in the courts that even caring parents should not be allowed to refuse life- or limb-saving medications, transfusions, or procedures. Major difficulty often arises, however, in determining when the prognosis is sufficiently grave to warrant judicial intervention.

    When parents hold a religious belief that leads them to refuse treatment for a child, at least 2 levels of understanding are needed in an effort to reach agreement. The parents need to understand the clinical situation as clearly as possible. This may sometimes be facilitated or augmented by obtaining a second (or third) opinion. It is ethically permissible to try to persuade the parents using honest facts and clear opinions, though it could be perceived as harassment if attempts at persuasion are frequent or authoritarian.

    In addition, the health care professionals need to understand the religious belief as clearly as possible. These beliefs may sometimes be well understood and clearly articulated by the parents. It is often helpful, however, to involve a “religious translator” in the conversation, ie, a chaplain or perhaps another person from the parents’ own faith tradition, and preferably a person with some depth of education and position of authority. One reason for utilizing such a resource person is that parents (or anyone) may sometimes focus on one religious tenet while ignoring a balancing tenet; eg, waiting for a miracle versus an obligation to preserve life and relieve suffering. A more objective look at the entire faith tradition may sometimes allow parents the freedom to consent to procedures without feeling they have abandoned the teachings of their faith.

  31. Joe,

    By the way, patient’s refuse testing and treatment for all kinds of reasons, religion being one of the least frequent causes.

    Often it is due to misinformation or poor communication, but sometimes people have crazy ideas from which they cannot be disuaded. When it is a competent adult making such decisions for themselves we let them make their choice as long as they are fully informed of the potential consequences.

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