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. Co-leaders of the study, Dr. Matthew Mayhew and Dr. Alyssa Rockenbach, as well as research associate Kevin Singer, also contributed to the article.
In 2003, Dr. Robert Nash wrote an essay published in the journal Religion & Education about the experience of atheist students in college. He recounted conversations with atheist students who felt stigmatized on campus, who perceived pressure to keep their non-belief hidden as to not offend their peers, or who kept quiet just to avoid proselytization on campus.
According to a new report, things may be changing for atheists on campus today.
Between 2015 and 2019, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) research team collected data on college student perceptions of — and engagement with — religious diversity throughout their college careers. In the latest IDEALS report, Bridging Religious Divides Through Higher Education, the team of researchers at North Carolina State University, Ohio State University, and Interfaith Youth Core sought to answer a central, intriguing question: Does college prepare students for our religiously diverse society?
Among the many findings in the report are indications that atheists are getting more comfortable being open about their atheism on campuses.
Atheists reported above-average levels of feeling comfortable expressing their worldview beliefs both in class (77%) and on campus more generally (84%). For a group that has long been considered stigmatized and marginalized on college campuses, as noted in Dr. Nash’s essay, this is a good sign.
Also of note: 33% of all surveyed students reported that they dedicated time while in college to learn about atheists.
This percentage is roughly equal to what students reported about Buddhism, though below other groups like Muslims (46%), Jews (40%), and Evangelical Christians (40%). Still, the fact that a third of college students apparently spend time learning about atheists and atheism is worth noting, particularly since as recently as 2009, higher education researchers described atheists as a largely invisible identity on college campuses. This apparent increased exposure is another sign that things may be looking up for atheists on campus.
The latest report includes a number of other intriguing findings related to atheist students. First, it appears that atheists are less likely to value building bridges across religious divides than many other groups. 63% of atheist college students stated that they felt committed to bridging religious divides in their first year, which increased slightly to 66% by their fourth year. This final number is still one of the lowest among all groups, roughly equivalent to the responses of Evangelical Christians (65%), STEM majors (68%), and political conservatives (63%). The lower the percentage, the less committed these groups are to bridging their religious divides with others.
Speaking of political conservatives, atheists have had a curious, developing view of this partisan group. Atheists reported a more favorable attitude towards conservatives at the end of their first year than when they first entered college, but those positive feelings evaporated by their fourth year, sinking to 48% from an initial 57% favorability. This is particularly interesting given the political makeup of atheists within the IDEALS sample. In the first year of IDEALS, 71% of surveyed atheist students identified as liberal or very liberal, and were far more likely than non-athiests to support transgender (81% vs. 67%) and lesbian, bisexual, and gay (86% vs. 72%) people. Regardless of these initial positions, atheists warmed in their views towards conservatives over the course of their first year in college, before a plummet in opinion between 2016 and the last survey in 2019. (While the survey didn’t explore the reasons for this change, it’s very likely that those views were shaped, negatively, by the current administration.)
The central purpose of this latest IDEALS report was to examine whether college prepares students for a religiously diverse world. For atheists, as well as all groups across the board, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Only 27% of surveyed atheists reported that college provided them with a deeper skill-set to interact with diverse religious perspectives, compared to 44% of Muslims and Evangelical Christians at 37%.
In a nation that is becoming more religiously diverse, that isn’t a good sign. While the status quo for atheists on college campuses seems to have improved over the past decade, there is still ground to gain, and the tide of colleges and universities focusing institutional efforts on religious diversity could lift all boats by better preparing students to navigate our religiously plural society.
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