The shift from traditional religions to atheism on college campuses
Ithaca College juniors Chad Conners and Jared Amory are not only roommates, but fellow atheists. Growing up in Catholic households, Conners and Amory made the decision to stray from their family’s religion and pursue atheism. Both cited either books from philosophers or independent research on the Internet as their reasoning for their change of beliefs.
“People are starting to think for themselves,” said Conners. “With access to the Internet and billions of articles to read, people are starting to believe what they chose to believe rather than having it told to them.”
A recent study done by Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that there might be a direct correlation between atheism and education. In their study they found that participants with no more than a high school education were more willing to view the Bible as a literal and definitive word of the Lord. This statistic fell to 14 percent when it came to participants with a postgraduate education or beyond.
The study also suggests that perhaps age has something to do with this new acceptance of atheism. More than half (56 percent) of youth participants approved of atheism as opposed to a measly 34 percent in elderly participants.
While the researchers responsible for this study do not imply that there are no academics whom associate with a formal religion the numbers do suggest that the academics of today recognize the validity of atheism as a belief system in and of itself.
Professor John A. Mueller, author of Understanding the Atheist College Student: A Qualitative Examination, found a similar correlation among the 16 atheist graduate/undergraduate students he interviewed for his research.
“What I learned from interviews with atheist college students was that they were intellectually curious and always had been,” said Mueller. “They immersed themselves in learning more about how the world operates from various disciplines — science, history, philosophy, etc. — and found the answers much more satisfying and reasonable than those offered by religion and belief in a god or gods.”
With colleges being the academic hubs for the youth of America, it is no coincidence that this shift to atheism has resulted in a growing presence of atheist voices on campuses. The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) website lists over 360 college groups nationwide, over four times as many than existed in 2004.
Mueller, like The Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, suggests that this growth of atheism on college campuses has a lot to do with the Internet.
“In the pre-Internet days, when young people, including myself, had questions about god and religion, we were in the bubble of our families and the church. All the answers to our questions echoed within the bubble,” said Mueller. “The Internet now provides people access to all sorts of information that offer a range of different perspectives”
Mueller went on to discuss how this pool of instant information combined with well-known celebrities associating with atheism and best-selling books on atheism has essentially exposed the atheism movement.
Conners echoes a similar sentiment as Mueller. “Christianity spread like wildfire after the invention of the Guttenburg press, so why would there not be a shift of consciousness after we start really understanding what is going on in the world with the Internet?” said Conners. “Now that we access valid information you can start to collect facts for yourself you can start to think ‘logically.’ I don’t think it’s just college campuses, but rather the whole Western world.”
However, the Internet is not the sole factor contributing to college students turning to atheism. As mentioned earlier by Mueller intellectual curiosity plays a big role in this shift of belief system, Amory thinks this desire for knowledge has everything to do with this change.
“I think that we are a part of a generation that will always be increasingly creative, question traditional rules of authority and question traditional schools of thought in order to discover and spread the ultimate truth about humanity and life itself,” Amory said.
Students are now seeing atheism as a more accessible option than ever before and as more students make the shift the stigma around atheism is slowly shifting as evidenced by the growing factions of the SSA.
Most of these SSA clubs work the same way as a Christian or Jewish student group would, getting together to talk about their beliefs in a friendly and safe forum. However, some campus sections have tried to tackle the challenge of awareness about atheism.
Students at University of Illinois exemplify this type of atheism-awareness in a very vocal form.
This year, students of the campus planned a bunch of activities surrounding and dealing with atheism in college life such as Hug An Atheist Day as well as a celebration of Darwin Day.
However, Vic Stenger, author of New York Times bestseller: God: The Failed Hypothesis, knows that this increased presence of college atheists does not mean there is not still a strong negative connotation surrounding atheism.
When asked about whether or not there was still a deep prejudice against atheism, Stenger was quick to point out a 2010 article by Douglas L. Keene and Rita R. Handrich entitled Panic Over the Unknown: America Hates Atheists. The article cited a study done by the American Mosaic Project, which found that Americans really did hate atheists. They did not want their kids marrying atheists, they did not think atheists fit into the fabric of America and some went as far as to call atheists “evil and immoral.”
This is the stigma that college students identifying with atheism face. Amory said he did not necessarily like the term atheism because it has such a negative connotation.
The shift to atheism on college campuses is clear, so moving forward the real question will be how to deal with this stigma. Mueller cites this need for a change in thinking about atheists as the main reason for why he writes.
“Acknowledging that there are atheist college students is something fairly novel to colleges and universities,” said Mueller. “Part of the reason I write and speak on this topic is to get it on the radar of my higher education colleagues and to challenge some assumptions and myths about atheist college students. For example: they’re evil, lost, wounded, without purpose, etc.”
Atheism is a new strand of thinking, not a “corrupt” way of being. Nor does it mean the end of traditional religions. Stenger cited an American Religious Identification Survey, which found that traditional religions are still prevalent on college campuses across the U.S.
Perhaps Mueller best sums up the actual mindset of atheists: “As more atheists are open and not afraid to challenge the myths and assumptions, I think the stereotypes will fade, probably never go way though. [Atheists] prefer to challenge ideas and beliefs, not attack the person.”
Sabrina Dorronsoro is a junior journalism major who is accepting of all religious experiences and beliefs. Email her at sdorron1[at]ithaca.edu.