New Rebels on Campus
Young nonbelievers carve out a niche for themselves at universities across the country.
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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."
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.
"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.
"In high school, it's really easy for people to get lost and blend in among the woodwork," Kirmer said. "It does make you feel different" to not believe in religion.
Discovering a nationwide network of people who share similar skepticism, however, "makes me a lot more self-confident."
John Franson, 25, started an Individuals for Freethought group at Kansas State University in reaction to fundamentalist evangelists who were active on campus.
"It's a community experience for me," said Tracy Pinsent, 20, a member of the Kansas State group. "Everybody needs to belong somewhere. ...We don't go to church. We go to free-thought things."
As they build networks, both locally and nationally, student leaders say they can be more effective in tackling issues such as opposing government funding of religious social-service providers, prayer in schools and the teaching of creationism.
At Kansas State, alliance members actively opposed the placement of the Ten Commandments in a prominent place in the City Hall in Manhattan, Kan.
At Ohio State University, Students for Freethought have expressed concerns about the continued practice of an invocation at graduation and wording on the diplomas that says "in the year of our Lord."
While student leaders say there is still prejudice against atheists and humanists, for the most part they have found a civil environment on campuses. Harassment has been limited to the occasional e-mail saying they are all going to hell or having posters for a campus event taken down.