This is a guest post written by Gordon Maples. He’s a Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University, where he serves as a Research Associate for IDEALS. He is also the former Senior Campus Organizer for the Secular Student Alliance.
Recently, the Pew Research Center released a new report indicating that the “rise of the Nones” — which they initially reported to great fanfare in 2012 — is steadily continuing, with younger generations increasingly not identifying with any organized religion.
Given this focus on rising secularism among younger Americans, atheist and otherwise non-religious college students have received quite a bit of attention over the past decade, particularly as Secular Student Alliance groups have grown and risen to prominence at numerous higher education institutions, including many with religious affiliations.
But what does that mean for campus life? How has the changing religious landscape impacted friendships among college students? Anecdotally, of course, there’s a lot of tension between religious and non-religious people, especially when both sides are fairly certain of their beliefs.
Is it possible, though, to form strong friendships despite these religious shifts?
Last month, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) published a new report on the effects of what they refer to as “interworldview friendships” — those made across religious, nonreligious, and spiritual differences — on American college students.
Comprised of researchers at North Carolina State University and The Ohio State University, IDEALS followed a cohort of American college students at over 122 diverse colleges and universities between 2015 and 2019, tracking trends in their friendships and taking specific note of bonds formed across religious differences.
The new report finds that 61% of surveyed first-year college students reported having a close atheist friend — a higher percentage than those who reported having evangelical Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or “spiritual but not religious” friends. Additionally, the findings indicate that first-year students are even more likely to have atheist or agnostic close friends after a full year in college.
The numbers make sense. For students who grew up in a more sheltered environment, college may be the first time they’re meeting (and becoming close to) someone who doesn’t share their religious background. While a lot of atheists grew up surrounded by religious people — and that informs how we talk in person and online — many devout believers may not have been exposed to people who didn’t share their views, much less became close to them.
Interestingly, IDEALS has also found that atheists generally have some of the most durable friendships across ideological differences of any religious, spiritual, or non-religious identity. Atheist respondents reported a higher “relational endurance” — a measure of retaining friends after a disagreement about religion — than other religious/spiritual/nonreligious identities, followed by evangelical Christians and Mormons.
That’s not necessarily because either side is less secure in their beliefs, but because atheists don’t have much of a choice. We’re used to being close to people who don’t share our non-belief because what other choice do we have? If we cast aside anyone who was a believer, our circle of friends would be a dot.
Other key findings of the report include indications that engaging in interworldview friendships uniquely prepares college students for living in a diverse society. These friendships significantly contribute towards students’ pluralistic orientation, even when controlling for the effects of other college conditions and experiences, including the presence of a welcoming campus climate, having the support to freely express their worldviews, and engaging with challenging encounters with diverse peers.
The survey also found that, in some cases, gaining a close interworldview friend doubled the percentage of first-year students who were highly appreciative of the worldview of their new friend. This means that religious students who make friends with atheists are likely to increase their appreciation of atheism as a worldview, and vice versa. Knowing an atheist makes someone less likely to demonize atheists. (All the more reason elected officials who feel safe doing so should announce their non-religiosity.)
Perhaps even more intriguing, the research showed that having a close friend with a different religious belief made you more like to appreciate all worldviews, not just the ones held by your friends. So having a close atheist friend made it more like for a Christian to appreciate (or at least respect) the beliefs held by Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, and evangelicals. This occurred in all directions.
The number support what we’ve long suspected. If you’re an atheist college student, you should talk about it. There’s value in being part of an atheist group, and there’s value in having conversations about religion with people who disagree with you, as long as you can do so without it turning into a shouting match. If you want to defeat the cultural stigma against atheists, the best way to do so is by being the sort of person religious people want to know, talk to, and debate. If nothing else, it helps to talk to someone who actually holds religious views and not a straw man online.
(Image via Shutterstock)