New Research Examines What It’s Like to Be An Atheist College Student August 24, 2012

New Research Examines What It’s Like to Be An Atheist College Student

The latest edition of the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice features an article about college atheists by John A. Mueller of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (The article is free to access if you fill out a form.) In 2009, Mueller and colleague Kathleen Goodman published an article about “why colleges should embrace and acknowledge atheists on campuses nationwide.”

The topic this time around: “Understanding the Atheist College Student:A Qualitative Examination.”

Mueller spoke with 16 atheist undergraduate and graduate students at a large public university to understand how and why they lost their faith and what campus life is like for them. It might be a small sample, but there’s a lot to learn from their experiences — certainly, if religious people wonder why people ever become atheists, this article offers insight into why it happens.

Some of the highlights are below:

In numerous instances, the students expressed frustration at the dubious information they were given by those (typically authority figures) who had taught them earlier about God and faith. Corey remarked, “The more and more that I read and the more and more that I study, the more I question the legitimacy of what I was taught.”

In sum, the process of moving from faith to reason shared several key elements:

  • a decline in religious behavior while growing up;
  • a desire to understand;
  • a set of behaviors to learn about how the world operates;
  • a curiosity about religion;
  • a growing doubt and even cynicism about religion as an explanation for the world; and
  • a turn toward science, evidence, and reason to explain the world.

The loss of faith among the students in this sample was not an emotional response to the lack of fulfillment, marginalization, or betrayal they may have experienced as part of their religious upbringing. Instead, it was a liberating and positive experience and response to the questions, challenges, and uncertainties of life that religion and belief in God could not adequately address.

So what do you do with that information? Among Mueller’s suggestions are the following:

1) We need to educate everybody on what atheists really believe and what they go through. (“In a culture that places great value on religion and belief in God, student atheists at U.S. colleges and universities are often misunderstood and stigmatized due to misinformation and stereotypes.”)

2) “… spirituality programs and interfaith efforts on campus should more deliberately include a nontheist perspective.” (Mueller also suggests those words put religious beliefs on a pedestal, so schools would be wise to use more inclusive terminology.)

3) Students could start an atheist group or, if that’s a no-go, it might help young atheists to have “access to a network of faculty and staff who are open about their atheism or who can convey an openness to ally with student atheists and serve as advisors.”

All of those are ideas I would support, too. In my experience, students who become atheists in high school or college (and become passionate about it) need a way to vent their frustrations involving religion and talk about their newly-formed identities.

Just as religious students tend to have venues available to them to do those things, schools should find ways to offer the same opportunities to atheists.

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