New Rebels on Campus

Young nonbelievers carve out a niche for themselves at universities across the country.

c. 2001 Religion News Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They celebrate Darwin Day instead of Christmas, are among the staunchest opponents of President Bush's proposed faith-based initiative and like to relax with alternative rock.

Dressed in black or in an array of T-shirts with sayings such as "Smile, there is no hell," members of the Secular Student Alliance are the future of the atheist and secular humanist movements.

These leaders of religious unbelief can be found in schools across the country holding superstition bashes, fighting in local city halls to have the Ten Commandments removed and sponsoring debates on creationism vs. evolution.

Recently, about 100 young atheist and humanist leaders gathered at Ohio State University for the association's second national conference, provocatively titled "Kicking Ass for the New Enlightenment."

They're nonbelievers, they're proud, and they're not going to stand in the shadows along school walls anymore.

"It's similar to the gay pride movement," said Tyson Gustus, 25, co-founder of Students for a Nonreligious Ethos, or SANE, at the University of California at Berkeley. "It is sort of a coming-out-of-the-closet issue in a lot of places."

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But first they have to get organized. And that, student leaders say, is a difficult task.

Like the larger atheist and secular humanist movements, they do not have a large pool of people to draw from in America, where Gallup Polls have consistently found 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God.

The largest of the 40 affiliated campus groups of the Secular Student Alliance is the Berkeley group, which has a mailing list of more than 400 people. But only about 30 show up at meetings.

Stephanie Kirmer, 17, who organizes high school groups, said there are only six chapters in the United States. Kirmer said she could not even start a group at her high school in Topeka, Kan., because she could find only three students who were nonreligious, and one of those students just moved to Alabama.

In addition to the difficulty of finding secular humanists, there is a fierce individualism that causes many to look suspiciously at any type of organization. Adult groups are organized under several banners, including the American Atheists, Atheist Alliance International, Council for Secular Humanism, Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.

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