New Rebels on Campus

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

BY: David Briggs

 

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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.

"I've heard it compared to herding cats," said Abraham Kneisley, 22, a member of the executive council of the Campus Freethought Alliance, which is sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism.

The Secular Student Alliance itself evolved last year in part because founders didn't want to be aligned with any particular group.

"The student movement is such an important part of the free-thought movement that the entire secular movement has to back it," said August E. Brunsman, executive director of the Secular Student Alliance.

Humanist leaders at the conference expressed fears that some people outside their circle view them as "baby eaters." But they are like a typical group of college students, with perhaps a slightly more independent streak.

They were raised as Catholics, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ or, in the case of Brunsman, by "lapsed atheists," and are searching for a sense of community to replace the isolation they have often felt as nonbelievers in a religious society.

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