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Get Thee to a Nonery

March 15, 2011
by Glen Martin
a diverse group of students

As atheism loses its stigma, more students identify as nonbelievers.

For those of a certain age, Sproul Plaza today seems like an analog locale on Bizarro World, the cube-shaped planet from the Superman comics where everything is backwards. In the 1960s and 1970s, of course, Sproul was a hotbed of social activism. And to an extent, that remains true: The placards are still abundant, and there are plenty of undergrads handing out flyers and advocating in earnest.

But the flavor has changed. Students are not so much decrying war and corporate greed or promoting the redistribution of wealth. Instead, they’re conservative and they really, really want to talk about Jesus. Activism on the Cal campus in 2011 appears to be, for the most part, evangelical; it is rooted in religion, not dialectical materialism.

To hear some conservative Christians tell it, this simply reflects social reality: The Radical Left is practically extinct, its members as scarce and harried as spotted owls. Even basic progressivism is embattled, as demonstrated by the rout of liberals from the U.S. House of Representatives by the Far Right. The zeitgeist, they say, is right wing and pro-faith. And some research seems to support this: In an article on the needs of atheist students published in the Spring 2009 issue of the quarterly journal New Directions for Student Services, authors Kathleen Goodman and John Mueller cited studies that found atheism in America to be characterized as an evil force devoid of morality and ethics. Atheists were described as the least-trusted segment of society, ranking below even such favorite targets for discrimination as Muslims, recent immigrants, and gays and lesbians.

But hold your Bizarro World horses. Culture manifests its own dialectic. Yes, evangelicals are out front and extremely vocal. But according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, Americans are becoming less religious as a whole, with professed Christians declining from 86 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008. Some of that attrition is due to the growth of other religions, from Buddhism to paganism and Wicca. But most of the drop can be attributed to the rejection of organized religion.

The people who characterize themselves as “Nones”—atheist, agnostic, or no stated religious preference—grew from 8.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. People who refused to state a preference rose from 2.3 to 5.2 percent of the population. The bottom line, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, is “one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind.”

In other words, nondenominational spiritualism, secularism, agnosticism, and atheism are on the ascendant. “What we’re seeing is a hollowing out of the center,” says Tom Flynn, executive director of the New York-based Council for Secular Humanism and editor of the organization’s publication, Free Inquiry. “Yes, evangelism is a strong social movement. Millions of people have abandoned liberal mainstream churches for churches with fundamentalist doctrines. But this is a process of polarization—it flows both ways.”

Of those Americans who are Nones, says Flynn, roughly one-third are seekers who eschew religion but not spirituality. The remainder are people who feel no particular affinity for any supernatural force. “And of that remaining two-thirds, 10 percent describe themselves as ardently nonreligious—atheists or dedicated secularists,” continues Flynn. “So we have 35 million people in this country who are distributed along a nonreligious spectrum. That means there are as many Nones as there are African Americans and Hispanics, and more than Jews. In other words, there are enough to demand a place at the table.”

And those demands, says Flynn, have begun in earnest. “Right now, we’re more or less where gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals were 30 years ago,” he contends. “Like the LGBT community, we’re a sizable minority that has been historically spurned. Three decades ago, many people felt it was okay to discriminate against gays—today, they feel that way about secularists. But that’s changing. We’re becoming more organized, much more willing to engage and far less tolerant of abuse.”

The nation’s campuses are especially fertile ground for secularists, reports David Fitzgerald, the San Francisco–based author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All and cofounder of the world’s first atheist film festival. In a 2006 Generation Next Pew study, Fitzgerald says, 20 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds claimed they had no religious affiliation or were agnostic or atheists. Additionally, 63 percent of that same age group subscribed to evolution; that number declined to 42 percent for those aged 61 and over.

“This generation of college students is the least religious of any,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s true that evangelical student organizations are visible and strident—virulent, even. But that doesn’t mean they represent the majority—to the contrary. I think they sense the tide is going against them.” Fitzgerald pauses, then continues with a chuckle: “It reminds me of a quote I heard, something to the effect that both Christians and atheists feel the enemy is winning, and both are right. The discussions get heated. But as long as there is discussion, I feel secularists will prevail. We have the evidence supporting us.”

Secularism’s growth is also widely acknowledged—if not enthusiastically celebrated—by theists. “I definitely believe society is becoming more secular,” says Emerlyn Tseng, a Cal undergraduate majoring in economics and the coordinator of the Berkeley Christian Fellowship. “It’s especially obvious in a place like Berkeley, which has a long tradition of rationalism.”

Tseng says the trend is no deep surprise for Christians, since the Bible warns of increasing secularism as the world approaches the End Days. And she also understands why many people find it difficult to reconcile devout religious beliefs with modern life. In the past, she observes, many phenomena were reflexively accepted as miracles; now, the tendency is to seek scientific, rational explanations. Skepticism is the default position.

“In the end, I think of faith as a blessing,” Tseng says. “So I don’t think it makes any sense to impose value judgments. Some people in my own church will disagree with me, but people shouldn’t be condemned simply because they haven’t received a blessing you enjoy.”

Perhaps the best measure of secularism’s popularity among the young and educated is the growth of—for want of a better term—faithless-based campus organizations. “Three years ago, we had 80 affiliated groups,” says Jesse Galef, communications director of the Secular Students Alliance. “Today there are 233. That kind of growth isn’t a blip—it points to a major social movement.”

That trend has been driven, Galef feels, by several books published in the past few years: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion; Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation; and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. These books, says Galef, questioned both the moral and factual underpinnings of religion in compelling and reasoned fashion; they became tremendously popular on campus.

“Increasingly, secularism, including atheism, isn’t necessarily the stigma it once was,” he observes. “As the polls document, the percentage of people who describe themselves as religious is declining, and general acceptance—or at least tolerance—of secularism is growing. It’s becoming easier and easier for people, particularly young people, to come out. And when they come out, they find a lot of like-minded people on campus, and it’s natural for them to get together.”

That includes Nones on the Cal campus, of course, where the foremost secular student group—Students for a Nonreligious Ethos, or SANE—holds weekly meetings, regularly sponsors guest speakers, and throws social events. An affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance, SANE characterizes itself on its Facebook site as “… Berkeley’s atheist, agnostic, secular, skeptical … student group. We’re bringing a little sanity to the UCB campus!”

On one cold and foggy night at a small apartment just off campus, I meet three of SANE’s leaders: undergraduates Kevin Gorman (geology and Scandinavian studies), Haley Kovacs (philosophy), and Katie Gilmore (rhetoric). The SANE acronym seems to inform the tone of this little get-together—there is an atmosphere of easy reserve, a kind of benign skepticism and disinclination to commit that seem at the very heart of the Millennial Generation.

That’s due in large part to SANE’s raison d’être, explains Gorman, a tall, hyperarticulate young man with a lazy smile. SANE is rigorously opposed to any faith-based notion (acceptance of a doctrine without hard evidence). Accordingly, “beliefs” in the group are all over the map—and they are freely expressed in the informal Socratic colloquia the group regularly convenes. “Politically, we range from Far Left to extreme Libertarian,” he says. “It makes for some very interesting debates. I guess if there’s a single thing that unites us, it’s a commitment to rationalism and a rejection of the supernatural. Anyone taking a position in our discussions is expected to defend it with facts and logic.”

Kovacs confirms SANE’s catholic—in the all-inclusive sense—membership. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to have much in common with any other secularist besides secularism,” she says. “One of the most annoying people I ever met was an atheist who was also a hard-core Republican—very pro-Bush, pro-war—for me it was weird, but we had to acknowledge our mutual commitment to rationalism. That transcended our differences on one level—but I still found it hard to be around him.”

Gilmore acknowledges that SANE members occasionally experience the type of reflexive hostility that the committed have long faced. Such encounters, she suggests, generate larger misgivings. “When I graduate and I start job interviews, I want to be able to note my extracurricular activities,” she says. “SANE has been part of my campus life—but do I mention it? I certainly don’t want to lie about it, but it can be difficult to just blurt out, ‘Hi, I’m an atheist!’ It’s one thing in the Bay Area—but if you move to any other part of the country, it’s different. We still have to deal with discrimination, with rejection.”

Devotion to secularist doctrine varies widely among campus adherents, notes Debbie Goddard, campus outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Center for Inquiry in New York. For some, secularism is a commitment to battle. For others, it’s a social opportunity—a chance to meet students with similar interests and plan dances and outings.

“I’ve really noticed that there is a generational difference,” says Goddard. “Older activists tend to be more confrontational, and younger ones tend toward accommodation. For Gen Xers—graduate students, undergrads who came late into the university system—there is more passion, a tendency to see things in black and white.” Goddard counts herself in the latter group. “I’m 30, and when I cut my teeth [as a secularist] organizer, it was war out there. Fundamentalist Christianity was ascendant—it looked like we were going to lose the teaching of evolution in schools. It was scary, and we were aggressive in countering what we saw as a dangerous trend.”

Millennial secularists, on the other hand, seem more interested in making friends, says Goddard. “For them, the social angle seems paramount—I mean, the main secularist group at the University of Oregon is the Alliance of Happy Atheists. That kind of says it all. They’re also far more involved in cooperative outreach than Gen Xers—they’re happy to co-sponsor dances with Christian groups, for example.”

What’s going on? Facebook and Twitter, mostly. The Internet in general and social media in particular have become so embedded in the quotidian lives of Millennials that it is changing elemental behaviors, Goddard says; the emphasis is on connectedness, not divergence. “The language of social media tends to be soft, accommodating,” she says. “It emphasizes points of mutual interest and compromise, not differences and areas of conflict.”

Undergrad theists also seem more disposed to accommodation than confrontation. “It can be challenging to be a Christian in an increasingly secular world,” Emerlyn Tseng says. “Would I like to bring more of my secular friends to Christ? Yes—but it doesn’t happen much. And while many Christians disagree with me, I don’t think that means I should disassociate myself from secular acquaintances. I live in a secular world—I have to deal with it.”

But Goddard believes it isn’t quite time yet to link arms and sing Kumbaya. Secularists still suffer from discrimination. “I think we have to get a little mad to change things,” she says. “But among younger students, I often sense real uneasiness when confrontation or anger is broached—it isn’t seen as ‘nice.'”

Goddard at the same time acknowledges that it isn’t sufficient to demand changes from society at large—secularists must also view themselves differently. They have to transcend their own sense of exceptionalism and embrace lower common denominators. To succeed in America, in other words, secularism may find it necessary to court mediocrity.

“I follow a blogger named Greta Christina, and she writes that it isn’t enough for highly intelligent people, for remarkable people, to declare themselves as secularists,” Goddard says. “It’s one thing for an academician in a large city to support secularism—the risk isn’t necessarily large, and the impact on society isn’t that great. But when the guy working at Walmart or McDonald’s in a little town in the Midwest comes out as an atheist and it’s no big deal—then we’ll know we’ve won.”

Glen Martin is currently writing a book for UC Press on the conflict between animal rights advocates and conservationists in Africa. His “Game Preserves” about Namibian hunting quotas appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of California.
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