The Brown Phenomenon May 1, 2008

The Brown Phenomenon

A number of years ago, a high school senior wrote to the Secular Student Alliance.

He was heading to Brown University in the fall and he was hoping to start a group for non-religious students.

Of course, the SSA wanted to help him. Our Executive Director, August Brunsman, told him to contact us again when he arrived at the school and we could take him through the steps from there.

Fall came. He never contacted us.

So the SSA wrote him back: What happened?

The student responded with this (paraphrased) statement:

Brown is like one big atheist group and there is no real reason to start a freethought group there.

It turned out this was a recurring theme. The SSA tends to have a harder time getting groups formed at colleges we figure will be more amenable to our cause.

We do extremely well in helping groups form in the Bible Belt states, though…

August dubbed this “The Brown Phenomenon.”

Maybe it’s not all that surprising.

At the schools with larger conservative Christian populations, you need a safe haven — a rational oasis — if you’re not one of them. Students actively seek out groups that are specifically for non-religious people.

When the vocal Christians are in the minority, finding an atheist group may not seem as large a priority.

Brown University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson had this to say last year:

Because Brown’s religious communities encourage dialogue, Cooper Nelson said, students might not have felt the need for a secular student organization. “Students seem to form communities around what they enjoy doing, and there’s something about the bits and pieces of growing atheism as if they are ‘against-ness’ organizations,” she said. “Our formation of organizations at Brown has seemed to be more pro- than anti-.”

While Cooper Nelson does not see Brown students turning away from religion, she said she believes atheist viewpoints are already well represented on campus. Atheist presenters often speak at the Interfaith supper Cooper Nelson hosts in her home each Thursday.

“We’ve always had very strong-spoken, well-articulated positions of atheism at Brown by enormously moral people,” she said. “For us, the presence of an atheistic voice is a constant.”

Rachel Kerber ’10, who is also an atheist, described religion as a “non-issue” at Brown. “Atheist people don’t feel a need to protect or defend their atheism,” Kerber said, adding that she does not see Brown as a religious campus.

Kerber said she senses a lack of organized discussion about atheism on campus and thought an active atheist group would be a good addition to Brown. Nonetheless, Kerber felt that unofficial dialogue on campus is generally open and accepting.

“Having conversations with people who are religious, I’ve never felt attacked or felt a need to defend why I’m atheist,” she said.

So how do you get the atheist students at liberal colleges more engaged and active?

Perhaps we need to make them more aware of the realities that exist outside their campus environments.

We’re still a minority when you look at general religion statistics for the country.

We’re still unpopular (PDF).

We’re still facing discrimination.

And the Christians are coming.

If you have other suggestions, they’d be welcome.

I should mention there are exceptions to this phenomenon. Boston, for example, is a fairly liberal city, but it is home to plenty of secular student groups: Tufts, Harvard, Bentley, and Brandeis.

Why isn’t this type of situation more commonplace in other major cities like Boston?

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This is more or less the same reason we didn’t have InterVarsity or Campus Crusade groups at Wheaton College.

  • sabrina

    That sounds great. Can you imagine not having to define yourself as an atheist and then having to defend your non belief? I would imagine that if the entire United States was like Brown, atheist groups would begin to dissolve, while atheists joined specific groups for specific hobbies. Some would join different science/evolution groups, philosophy groups, Ayn Rand fan clubs (*sigh*), or something a little more defining than a group devoted to non-belief. But, thats not happening anytime soon, so I will stay in my little atheist group sanctuary 🙂

  • The Brown Phenomenon? Well, I’ve always suspected, but it’s hard to tell with a sample size of 1. Over here (I’ll forget anonymity for a moment–it’s UCLA) I feel like the group is relatively small, though growing, and relatively “hardcore” if you know what I mean.

    However, my impression is that religious groups are not in the minority. Hell, even I’m sort of a member of one of them. They’re all over, while the secularist group is barely a presence. It’s not that people aren’t religious, but that everyone is so liberal/open-minded that there’s not much to complain about. These Christian groups are the type who like to give hugs, and apologize on the behalf of religion and so forth.

    As for your efforts to justify creating a group, I don’t think it will be very effective. Sure, people in the Bible Belt are being discriminated against, but what can I do about that? Maybe in the Bible Belt, activism looks courageous, but here, it just looks like militancy for its own sake. I’m not saying I can think of better ways to encourage groups (if indeed they should be encouraged), but trying to show how most people would see it.

  • Funny, isn’t it, how people need to feel like a marginalized minority before they get really energetic about something? Growing up in a fairly right-wing religious setting, there was always a feeling that “true” Christians were in the minority and diminishing and that atheists were just on the verge of winning a war to take over the schools and the country. When I started reading atheists a while back, I was surprised to find that they usually feel that they are the persecuted ones.

  • Growing up in a fairly right-wing religious setting, there was always a feeling that “true” Christians were in the minority and diminishing and that atheists were just on the verge of winning a war to take over the schools and the country. When I started reading atheists a while back, I was surprised to find that they usually feel that they are the persecuted ones.

    I’ve had the exact same experience.

  • I only became active in reading and writing about atheism in response to the increasingly astonishing behaviour of the fundies (of various stripes), creationists and their friends.

    If they could bring themselves to behave decently, I’d go back to being a quiet atheist. I doubt it’s going to happen.

  • NYC too. We have our atheist group, but it isn’t as large or as well funded as you would expect from such a big city with so many heathens.

  • We’ve got the same thing happening at Wesleyan University, which is a pretty safe place to be an atheist. There are a number of reasons why I personally am unable to start an SSA chapter at Wesleyan, but when I looked into it I found out that someone had requested a group starting packet, but of the 200+ groups on campus, none is an SSA.

  • Vincent

    I’m not too surprised to see my alma mater of Cornell does not have an SSA group. I don’t think I knew any atheists when I was there, but I didn’t know any prostheletizers either. Sure, theres a Campus Crusade chapter, but I barely remember seeing them do anything. I was part of the Cornell Catholic Community when I was there, and we didn’t recruit. I remember there being an inordinate amount of Jews there, but that my have just been culture shock of leaving Oklahoma where there are like 20.
    I believe there’s plenty of room for such a group, and if I could do anything as an alumnus not living there to encourage such a group I would. I think it would do best if it focused on something like debate, and tried to bring back the flavor of Ingersol. In fact an Ingersol fan club might to better as a launching point.

  • @Vincent

    I guess you didn’t cross paths with CCF (Cornell Christian Fellowship, the Cornell InterVarsity chapter). I was part of that group for a year or so and we were pretty heavy into campus evangelism.

    It’s also where I met the succubus who would spend the next five years completely dismantling my self-worth and social life. A friend of mine brought her there as an evangelism attempt… Go figure…

  • cipher


    Campus evangelism has been growing here in Boston for some time. Here is a 2003 article I saved from the Boston Globe:

    I think that the reaction to it here may be more pronounced than it is in other parts of the country, because we have such a long history of liberalism and secularism -hence these organizations.

    You’ll notice the article says that there are 15 evangelical groups at MIT. This floors me; if you told the kids that relativity had been invalidated, they’d demand proof – but Christian truth claims they accept without qualification.

  • Christophe Thill

    Hurray for Brown University ! HP Lovecraft would be proud of them.

  • Kori

    There are religious groups at schools where the religion they entail is “well-represented” – why not let the same occur for nonreligious?

error: Content is protected !!