Faithlessness on the rise?

Faith on Campus: Second in a series on religious life at the University.

Is God losing ground in the crusade for college students’ faith? More and more college-aged Americans are identifying themselves as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. But this trend may not hold water at Brown.

Atheists on Brown’s campus have not noticeably increased over recent years, and the percentage of Brown students who actively identify as “atheist/agnostic” is actually smaller than the national numbers reported by Pew, according to University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson.

The Pew survey, published in January, found that 20 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds identify as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious – twice the percentage found in the 1980’s.

Cooper Nelson said, since she came to Brown in 1990, about 5 percent of Brown students identify themselves each year as “atheist/agnostic” on surveys given to newly matriculated students. While more than 20 percent of students “don’t say anything about themselves religiously,” about 70 to 75 percent “offer some proper noun about what they are religiously or culturally,” she said. There have not been large demographic shifts in Brown’s religious populations in that time, Cooper Nelson said.

Cooper Nelson doubts the accuracy of the Pew survey’s findings, and said she thought the results might reflect a particular agenda to paint religion as losing importance in American life.

The recent, rapid spread of secular student groups to many college campuses, however, seems to suggest that secularism is on the rise among college students. The Secular Student Alliance, which seeks to facilitate the growth of student groups that “promote the ideals of scientific rationality, secularism, democracy and human based ethics,” according to its Web site, has grown dramatically from 30 affiliated groups to 106 affiliated groups in the last seven years, according to Executive Director August Brunsman. The number of SSA-affiliated groups has doubled in the past year alone.

Greg Epstein, who serves as Harvard University’s humanist chaplain, said he has noticed greater interest in humanism, which is closely related to atheism, on college campuses. Epstein defined humanism as “a progressive life stance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity.”

While only four students were active in the Harvard Secular Society four years ago, several dozen students are now involved in the group, and its events attract hundreds, Epstein said. He said he had seen student-run secularist or humanist groups spread to many college campuses, including Tufts and Brandeis universities and Bentley College.

“Clearly it’s growing. It’s growing at a rate that somebody like myself – I could clone myself six or seven times and still not be able to keep up with all the people who are interested in what I’m doing on campus,” he said.

Cooper Nelson said she has never heard of an organized student atheist group on Brown’s campus, and the idea for a humanist chaplaincy has never come up. She said her office would be supportive if students expressed an interest in organized atheism.

Harvard has had a humanist chaplaincy since the 1970s, a position that became a permanent and endowed chaplaincy in the 1990s, Epstein said.

Brunsman thought college students’ increased interest in atheism might be due in part to recent books like Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” which challenge principles of religious belief. “Those books are reducing the social cost of being an open atheist or agnostic or humanist, and it’s easier for people to come out as having those beliefs,” Brunsman said.

Epstein attributed the spread of atheism and humanism to scientific advances, increased campus diversity and current events. Greater religious pluralism on campuses is allowing students to be more comfortable expressing conflicting beliefs, including atheist ideas, and dislike of religious fanaticism may drive others to atheism, he said.

College students are particularly likely to adopt atheist values, Brunsman said. “When people are students, especially college students, they’re at a place in their lives where they’re open to exploring new identity and saying, ‘What do I want to believe?’ I think they’re especially receptive and comfortable with coming out or deciding to be nonreligious,” he said.

Then why wouldn’t Brown – known for its strong, diverse interfaith community and accepting student body – also have experienced a marked increase in atheism?

Cooper Nelson said Brown’s welcoming religious community might instead eliminate pressure or desire to identify strongly as religious or atheist. “There many have been more opportunities at Brown to gather around ideas of conviction without having to declare yourself,” she said.

Because Brown’s religious communities encourage dialogue, Cooper Nelson said, students might not have felt the need for a secular student organization. “Students seem to form communities around what they enjoy doing, and there’s something about the bits and pieces of growing atheism as if they are ‘against-ness’ organizations,” she said. “Our formation of organizations at Brown has seemed to be more pro- than anti-.”

While Cooper Nelson does not see Brown students turning away from religion, she said she believes atheist viewpoints are already well represented on campus. Atheist presenters often speak at the Interfaith supper Cooper Nelson hosts in her home each Thursday.

“We’ve always had very strong-spoken, well-articulated positions of atheism at Brown by enormously moral people,” she said. “For us, the presence of an atheistic voice is a constant.”

Herald Opinions Columnist Zachary Beauchamp ’10, an atheist who says he is “nominally Jewish” and doesn’t “ascribe to the theological aspects of the religion,” said he thought general apathy might explain students’ lack of interest in organized atheist groups.

“Brown students on the whole don’t get involved in organizations unless they really think there’s a reason they should,” he said. “They don’t care so much about religious beliefs.”

Both Epstein and Cooper Nelson said the absence of leaders willing to organize around atheism might also explain why secular student groups have not formed at Brown. People who reject religion often identify its organized nature as a threat, but such organization is vital to the process of creating an effective humanist community, Epstein said.

“Disorganized religion doesn’t visit you in the hospital,” he said. “Disorganized humanism can’t be successful. … We have to learn to have leaders and stand together.”

David Sheffield ’11 is trying to step into the void to lead a Brown secular community by starting a Brown Freethought group dedicated to promoting scientific inquiry, atheism and humanism, according to its Facebook page.

Sheffield is currently trying to organize the group’s first meeting and hopes to eventually get the group approved by the Undergraduate Council of Students. Sheffield himself identifies as an atheist.

“I have not seen anything to convince me otherwise,” he said. “The same thing with Russell’s Teapot. If someone says there’s a teapot circling the sun, same as the Earth I guess, there’s no way I should believe it unless someone shows me a teapot.”

Sheffield was surprised to discover the lack of organized atheism at Brown, especially since he had heard of secular groups at Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Columbia universities.

Sheffield said he thinks an atheist group is needed to help stimulate campus discussion, because organized religious communities at Brown hamper debate. “People don’t like having their beliefs called into question,” Sheffield said. In his vision, a Brown Freethought group would bring speakers to campus to encourage discussion about atheism.

Sheffield agreed with Epstein that organization was essential to promote dialogue. “In order to get something done, you need to organize something, or it isn’t that effective,” he said.

Rachel Kerber ’10, who is also an atheist, described religion as a “non-issue” at Brown. “Atheist people don’t feel a need to protect or defend their atheism,” Kerber said, adding that she does not see Brown as a religious campus.

Kerber said she senses a lack of organized discussion about atheism on campus and thought an active atheist group would be a good addition to Brown. Nonetheless, Kerber felt that unofficial dialogue on campus is generally open and accepting.

“Having conversations with people who are religious, I’ve never felt attacked or felt a need to defend why I’m atheist,” she said.

Beauchamp said he sees no need for an organized atheist group and probably wouldn’t join one.

“I don’t think an atheist group would fulfill any need or function that I would need,” he said. “What are they going to do? Sit around and talk about how there is no God? That seems unnecessary.”