A Study of Religious and Nonreligious Campus Organizations March 17, 2008

A Study of Religious and Nonreligious Campus Organizations

There’s a project I’ve been interested in doing for some time, and I finally was able to complete it this weekend. (I actually did it a number of years ago and wanted to see if anything had changed since then.)

Before you read further, try to guess the number of Christian groups at any one large college campus. Also, try to guess the number of atheist groups, Muslim groups, Jewish groups, etc.

I wanted to get some hard numbers on this, so here’s what I did:

I used the Wikipedia list of the Top 10 largest universities in the country as a starting point. Each school on the list has over 40,000 students. Some have over 50,000.

All the major universities have pages on their websites specifically for student organizations. It’s easy to search for just the religious groups or just the special interest groups. At many of the sites, it’s also easy to see which groups are active and which groups are not.

I was only interested in the active groups — the ones that meet regularly and are recognized by the school.

To the best of my ability, I organized the clubs by faith and (if necessary) sect. There may be mistakes along the way, so I provided the raw data. Feel free to rip it apart. I’ll post an updated version when I make changes.

I can anticipate people saying I lumped too many different versions of Christianity together. I separated larger sects out, but ultimately, some groups simply revolved around having faith in God whether they were athletes, accountants, or Asian. Those are all “Christian” groups to me and there’s no need to dissect them further.

The results look something like this:


Here’s the PDF of the spreadsheet.

And here’s the PDF of the raw data for the spreadsheet.

Amazingly, in the four years since I last did this, one thing is very clear: There are a hell of a lot of Christian groups and only one atheist group (if that) on all these campuses. I suspect this ratio doesn’t change much at smaller schools.

Of course everyone has a right to start an organization. I’m not saying Christians should stop forming them. I question why there is such a need for so many of them on any one campus, though.

I also wonder if the atheists are more united than the Christians on these campuses. Are the groups larger because there is just one of them? Why is there never more than one atheist group at a school?

I have my own speculations about the answers to these questions, but I’ll stop here for now.

Maybe those of you interested in this info can take this a step or two further.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Matt

    Fwiw, there is a Michigan State Univ. Freethinker Alliance (MSUFA) group. They’re not explicitly atheist, but they might as well be.

  • Cade

    It might just be that there’s not enough people to have more than one group.

    Or perhaps atheists simply don’t see a need for those distictions. It’s not like we disbelieve any different from one another. I know there’s a million different names to call an atheist, but I don’t think they really distinguish us. (except for humanists, perhaps)

  • There only needs to be one atheist group because that’s all there’s demand for. Even in a giant university of 50,000, you’re not going to get a huge atheist group. To most people, the idea sounds alien, and even nonsensical. On the other hand, most people wouldn’t think twice about a group for Christian pre-meds or something like that.

    Your numbers are likely to be underestimates, since not every group is explicit about their religiosity. Someone at our university once did an informal survey by going to each group’s meetings, and he counted seventy-some religious groups. We also have two atheist groups, neither of which is explicit, (and one of which is really an objectivist group, so maybe that doesn’t count).

  • Nancy

    Maybe atheists just aren’t “joiners”. I’m not, never have been. I don’t know that I’d join and go to meetings if an atheist group were available in my area.

  • What would help this is to break down the percentage of students that participate in each group by the total percentage of students who self-identify with each of these traditions. Percentages give you a more accurate portrayal of the variance.

  • Hey! There’s not enough room on this board for two Drews!

  • Isn’t it Richard Dawkins who said getting atheists together in groups is like herding cats? A bunch of freethinkers are hard to corral :).

  • This, of course, makes us all shake our heads at the talk of ‘atheist agendas’ at colleges and universities that seek to discriminate against Christianity (and those liberal elite professors that spearhead the agenda).

    I think Nancy is right, atheists aren’t joiners, really. Since we don’t need to get together to affirm our non-belief in god, we just live our lives and go to clubs/orgs that have other purposes.

    The cynic in me thinks that perhaps the Christian groups get together in order to keep talking at each other lest their credulity starts to break down and they start questioning…

  • Hey! There’s not enough room on this board for two Drews!

    Haha, luckily I’m the only atheist in NYC. 😉

  • Julie

    This just brings up more questions for me. When I would walk around UCLA as a grad student, I would see so many signs for undergrad Christian groups. I don’t remember there being so many Christian campus groups when I was an undergrad back east, in the late 80s – early 90s. So one question I have is: has there been a proliferation of these groups? If you were to do the same study but get hold of information from 20 years ago, would we see an increase in Christian groups? OR, my second question, is it just that I went to a particularly non-Christian, small liberal arts college on the east coast, so I never noticed these groups as an undergrad. I’m sure there were a few, but they were hardly an influence on campus at all.

  • Well, from experience at my own university, most if not all Christian campus groups are associated with a particular church or denomination.

    Technically they’re not supposed to be directly promoting an organisation outside the uni, so often they pick a generic Christian name instead of one that obviously says who they are. But you don’t have to look too hard to work it out. And anyone looking to join a Christian group will generally join the one that matches their own dogma.

    So the reason there are a gazillion Christian groups and only one atheist group is the same reason that there are a gazillion Christian denominations and only one atheist one (well, a handful, if you think of “humanist”, “freethinker”, “Bright” etc as different).

  • Andres

    I think it’s important to consider why atheists would or should unite in the first place. When two people assert that they are atheists, one can only assume that they have one commonality, disbelief in a god. But it’s arguable whether this commonality is even a common value because it is not a positive assertion. For example, why would all non-Hindus unite? or why would all non-Polish people unite? Why would all non-bearded people unite? Yes, given this silly categorization, one can assume at least commonality amongst them, but that’s pretty much about it. In any one of these groups there could be very different people with very different ideologies. So I ask, why would atheists unite? Some atheists are socialists, some are capitalists, some are aggressive about convincing people about atheism, and some are subjectivists. I think it’s plausible that atheists have more to disagree about than to agree about.

    However, in light of what I have just written, I do see one common thread that may unite atheists – social marginalization. It’s true that openly atheistic people are a minority. And it’s probable that each of them experience similar acts of discrimination. This discrimination may in turn compel people to unite over just treatment and tolerance of the atheistic. So common concerns would probably lean towards policy issues and social equality.

    Lastly, just because there are Christian athletic clubs and Muslim pre-med clubs doesn’t mean atheists have to mimic them. Why the need for voluntary segregation? I like the idea of atheists spreading out into other communities and sharing atheism with others that may not have otherwise been exposed to it.

  • Yeah, I counted the Christian groups that had stands at the start of the academic year. I stopped counting at 30, because it was getting hard to tell with some of them (a few of them seem to act as Trojan horses, and I try not to get near those – I didn’t have the energy to engage them in the agonizing conversation that almost inevitably results from saying anything to them).

    A few of the groups are for farily specific subsets (left-handed-accountants-for-Jesus!), and I guess that’s fine, if they can sustain the membership, but many of the general groups appear to espouse entirely identical aims and activities, and all of them are on about exactly the same damn sky-fairies. Why so many groups? It’s ludicrous. What’s it all for? Why do you need 14 or 15 groups all doing exactly the same thing?

  • Kathryn

    I don’t think that an atheist group is necessarily unneeded. What we need is more of them. I know plenty of atheists/agnostics at my school, but none who had ever heard of our resident “atheist humanists & agnostics” group, which just shows how poor visibility is.

    And I really don’t see anything wrong with the existence of a large number of Christian or other religious groups to serve a campus of 40,000+, they are for completely different groups of people, and they even out the numbers so there’s no huge megachurch or whatever on campus (that would really by terrifying).

  • I went to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign back in the early 1990s. I actually was in a church group for a while, then I stopped going. There are a LOT of Christian groups there. The biggest ones were non-denominational (IV and the Navigators).

    Then I looked for an atheist group. There was a small one that met a few times. One of the problems was that a lot of the fliers kept getting torn down.

    If their religion is true, what is their to be afraid of?

  • Patience

    Frankly, I would rather have a dozen Christian groups with only a handful of members each than a single large group. Smaller groups get less money from the college, and have less influence. They basically split the metaphorical Christian vote (on which club to attend) and become useless.

  • steve

    Perhaps you are underestimating the number of Christians on campus?

  • anything4shoes

    I thought this was interesting and enjoyed the other comments. The one thing I found odd though was that on the spreadsheet you have not listed “Mormon” as Christian. They are a Christian religion and to make your spreadsheet more accurate, should be lumped with those at the top.

  • E. Toby Evans

    As an Atheist who used to be a practicing Jew, I have some thoughts based on my experiences. When I gave up my faith (everyone who is a believer struggles to hold on to their faith, that’s why I say give up, its a very accepting thing to just let it go.), I found  that I had a LOT more time, more money, more motivation and tremendously more emotional energy to devote to my secular interests and activities. I’m sure there are a lot of Atheist students on campus who don’t necessarily feel the need to hang out with other Atheists, they are doing band, sports, volunteer work, etc.

    When I was in college, I was part of the Jewish student group because I was hoping to meet a nice Jewish girl, I wanted to deepen and broaden my experience of Judaism and, I wanted to struggle together in a community for faith and meaning. Religion makes it HARDER to find a meaningful existence, not easier. Once you accept that humans create meaning, that I have the power and responsibility to create meaning for my life, well, there’s less NEED for community. Its just an easier existence, overall. A lot of religious communities are more like support groups because being a believer is so stressful. 

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