Secular Students: The Overlooked Minority on College Campuses
What Proportion of College Students Are Secular?
About a third of college students are not religious and the proportion who identify as secular appears to be increasing. Secular students are a sizeable minority, yet they are often overlooked.
Let’s begin by looking at the numbers for the religiously unaffiliated. This group includes atheists, agnostics, and those who report “no religious affiliation.” They are often grouped together as “The Nones.”
Survey of Millennials
According to Pew Research surveys, religion is in decline among Americans in general, but especially among millennials. A comparison of the statistics from the 2007 and 2014 surveys makes this obvious. (1)
- Among the population as a whole, 22% report no religious affiliation, up from 16%.
- Among older millennials, 34% report no religious affiliation, up from 25%.
- Among younger millennials, the college-aged group who were between 18 and 24 years old at the time of the survey, 36% report no religious affiliation
Older Millennials (born 1981 to 1989
Younger Millennials (born 1990 to 1996)
It should be noted that not all of the Nones are atheists or agnostics. However, the trend is going in that direction. Among all adults, in 2014 7% were atheist/agnostic whereas in 2007 only 4% were atheist/agnostic.
The atheist/agnostic group is even higher among the college age millennials—in 2014, 13% self-identified as atheist/agnostic.(2)
% Atheist, Agnostic, or No Particular Religion
Among Younger Millennials (2014)
Among All Adults (2014)
Among All Adults (2007)
No particular religion
Survey of College Freshmen
Among college freshman, CIRP Freshman Survey shows that a large majority of incoming college freshman report no religious affiliation, and the trend shows that this group is growing.(3)
- In 2016, close to one-third (31%) of college freshmen reported that they had no religious affiliation.
- Thirty years ago, in1986, the proportion was only 10%
Survey of College Students
Another survey showed a similar proportion of students are non-religious. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) surveyed college students and found that 28% identified their worldview as secular; 32% as spiritual; and 32% as religious.(4)
Why Do Secular Students Get Overlooked?
Secular students may get overlooked because they are a relatively small group. As we saw in the previous section, only a little over one in ten (13%) are atheist/agnostic. Additionally, they don’t see themselves as an “interest group.” As a consequence, they are not visible to the rest of the student body.
There are several long-established campus organizations for the religiously affiliated. Some of the best known are:
- Hillel (for Jewish students)
- Newman Center (for Catholic Students)
- Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ) (a network of organizations for students belonging to Protestant denominations, especially the Evangelical ones)
[Note: Cru is short for crusade. The ministry explained the name change this way: "Cru enables us to have discussions about Christ with people who might initially be turned off by a more overtly Christian name.”]
In the past, secular students, tended not to be interested in joining a group based on what they did not identify with—a group for people without religion. However, that is changing. The Secular Student Alliance is a newcomer to campuses and it is growing.
What Is the Secular Student Alliance?
The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) was founded in May 2000. As of this writing (May 2018), there are 276 chapters with over 13,000 members making it the largest organization for secular students.
The website for the Secular Student Alliance gives the following mission statement. “The Secular Student Alliance empowers secular students to proudly express their identity, build welcoming communities, promote secular values, and set a course for lifelong activism.” (5)
SSA provides a wide array of services to its chapters, including leadership training and support, guest speakers (free or at discounted rates), free tabling supplies (pens, brochures, pens, stickers, banners, etc.) and even legal help. They also hold an annual conference for students.
What Does a SSA Chapter Do?
I live near the University of Central Florida located in Orlando Florida. It is a huge university with over 66,000 students. I’m on campus frequently because I attend an adult education program there. In front of the Student Union building, there is a lawn where student organizations can set up tables to promote their group to other students. The SSA table is always there.
To get a better idea of what a SSA chapter does, I went to the website for the SSA UCF chapter. The website provides an overview of the group activities.
- Social events to combat the social isolation nontheists often feel
- Education in the areas of science, critical analysis, and secular values
- Positive activism to promote inclusion for all faith and non-faith individuals
- Volunteer activities in the community
- Peer support, especially for issues related to a non-religious identity, for instance, bullying)
There is a weekly meeting every Monday (followed by dinner at a local restaurant), a book club, a monthly movie night, a monthly humanist/peer support group meeting, and the occasional party, potlucks, brunch, etc.
There are also some special events like the Pi(e) Day Festival. [Pi(e) Day is on March 14, because the value of pi is 3.14. The event is held for kids to encourage an interest in science. [Of course, pie is served in order to celebrate the pun.]
Why Do Secular Students Need a Peer Support Group?
In a word, bullying. Non-believers are subject to discrimination and insults, both subtle and not so subtle.
At the present time, negative myths about atheists are so deeply ingrained that people express anti-secularist views without even realizing that this is prejudice. There was a popular article written in 2013 that cites comments by a disparate group of people blithely saying discriminatory things about atheists in some cases maybe without even realizing they were doing so —Oprah Winfrey, former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Scalia, and Time magazine are among those cited.6)
The SSA offers training for the volunteers, including modules on how to “identify and understand secular students and speak up against discrimination.” An article in The Atlantic magazine cited the following list of common misperceptions about secular students that may lead to discriminatory acts.(7)
- Nontheists are just angry at god.
- Nontheists worship Satan.
- Nontheists have no morals.
- Nontheism is the product of a personal tragedy
- Nontheists are arrogant.
- Nazis were atheists.
- Nontheists love sinning too much to give it up.
Given the prevalence of false beliefs, it is not surprising to see that a recent poll found that 50% of Americans find atheists threatening.(8)
Peer support groups help students cope with these myths and the behaviors they inspire. Often when a student stands up for equal treatment for non-religious students, he or she is accused of advocating for discrimination against religious believers.
Ms. Tee Rogers is a volunteer Humanist Chaplain and the faculty adviser for the UCF chapter of SSA. I spoke with her to learn about the types of discrimination students may face at college
She began our interview by stressing that “UCF is a genuinely welcoming and inclusive institution and we work to address issues that we become aware of—a lot of work has been done here to provide support.”
She pointed out that UCF is of community of more than 70,000 people (students, faculty, and staff). Given the university’s size, it is not surprising there are incidents that require education and advocacy efforts.
She mentioned the following challenges that are commonly faced by secular college students.
- Prayer (faith expectation) at public university events
- Faith organizations using free speech law as an opportunity to harass students on our campus
- Faith/Non-faith conflicts between students and professors
- Christian identities are welcome to be open and expressed; other identities may face an inability to be their authentic selves
- International students feeling like campus groups are trying to convert them to Christianity
- Stress caused by the knowledge that they are (according to statistics) not trusted, looked down upon, and not included
- Stress caused by not knowing how others – including in power- inequity relationships such as supervisors and professors – would treat them if they came out as non-religious
- Students facing relationship difficulties with family and friends because of their non-faith identity
- Feeling that their challenges are not recognized by the institution and by society
What Is the Safe Zone Project?
The Safe Zone Project was originally designed to help LGBT students. When the sticker was displayed it was a silent indication that the room was a safe place where the student would not face discrimination.
SSA has adopted this program and modified it to include secular students. Jesse Galef, former communications director for the SSA, said, “It's shocking how often people tell secular students that they don't belong in America.”(7)
Many college students are not ready to embrace an atheist identity; they are in the process of examining the traditional religious beliefs they learned as a child and making a decision on religious identity for themselves. They need a place where they can feel safe when they ask questions. SSA Safe Zone provides a space for open discussion and acceptance.
Galef cautioned that “It’s important to approach the questioning student in a neutral manner. As Secular Safe Zone allies, we are not here to push either religion or nontheism."(7)
Does College Turn Students Into Atheists?
It is time to dispel the myth that college turns students into atheists. The change from religious to non-religious usually happens during the high school years. This is evident from the statistics cited in the first section of this article. Incoming college freshmen are just as likely to be non-religious as college students as a whole.
In fact, some studies show that the non-college group is actually less religious than the college group. Other studies suggest that religiosity has nothing to do with the level of education attained, but is due to life-style differences of college grads.(9)
Other studies reveal that the college-educated group is indeed more secular than their less-educated peers. But it’s not because their professors are indoctrinating them. In some cases, it is because they are away from home for the first time. They may be meeting people of other faiths or of no faith for the first time. They begin to realize that their religious behavior was more due to a desire to fit in and please their parents that because of deeply held religious belief.(10)
Believers have nothing to fear from their professors, and neither should they fear other students. Most atheists I know are very laid back. They don’t proselytize their non-faith and they will engage with a theist on this only when asked.
So does college make students become atheists? There is data on both sides of this question. Take your choice.(11)
What Is the Future for Secularism on College Campuses?
As the secular life-stance becomes adopted by greater numbers of people, secularism may be better understood. The myths cited above may begin to fade.
There is something else going on as well. Unlike their parent’s generation, atheist, agnostic, and humanist college students today more often consider their secularism to be an important, part of self-identity. Former SSA spokesman, Jesse Graff said, “"We're witnessing a major shift in our society. More students are proudly calling themselves atheists, which inspires others to do the same. We used to go out and find them. Now, they're springing up everywhere and finding us, asking to join the movement." (12)
Perhaps social media is playing a role in this, as well. Many young non-believers in the Bible Belt used to think that they were the only one who didn’t believe, but now they can see that there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, intelligent, attractive people, who think just as they do on matters of religion.