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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2003, Vol. 30 No. 1

Inviting Atheists to the Table: A Modest Proposal for Higher Education

Robert J. Nash

—When I begin to feel that others are not judging me as less than human because I am an atheist, I will be open to their religious ideas. When I can be assured that I am not viewed as morally askew because I do not go to church or believe in God, then I am willing to have honest conversations about religion and spirituality. We talk a lot about pluralism and tolerance in higher education. But where is the acceptance of non-believers? When will atheists like myself feel that it is safe for us to state our ideas without believers’ feeling sorry for us, or worse? I don’t care. The only person, real or imaginary, transcendent or material, that I can count on is myself—my own mind, ideas, decisions, and judgments. There is no divine destiny or master plan. Does believing this make me a bad person?

Kristin, a graduate student

Is Atheism a Threat to Judeo-Christianity in America?

Atheists in this country have a bad name. They always have. This statement is not meant to be a front-page headline, but a simple reality check. Despite years of protestations to the contrary by religious believers and spiritual seekers, atheists do not dominate our college campuses, our popular culture, or our print and electronic news media. We are not a de-Christianized, religion-hating country. In fact, we are just the opposite. Neither do atheists present a threat to organized religion, or to un-churched spirituality, either on college campuses or in the society at large. While they are an easy group to stereotype and demonize, particularly by many leaders of the world’s major monotheistic religions, and by heads of very conservative, evangelical-fundamentalist Christian churches, atheists are relatively powerless in the United States. They represent something less than five to ten percent of Americans, and less than ten percent of people throughout the world.

In fact, as a number of observers have noted, it is highly unlikely that an "out" atheist would ever be elected to public office in this country. I would add that it is also unlikely that an outspoken atheist with a penchant to go public would ever secure a college presidency in any of the 100 most prestigious institutions in the United States. For one, many loyal alums would be unlikely to donate to their alma maters if they thought for a minute that "godless" leaders had taken over their institutions. For another, what board of trustees would want their constituents to think of their alma maters as bastions of atheism, particularly during the current George W. Bush administration when religious belief has become the major litmus test for pro-American patriotism?

The Growing Presence of Religious Pluralism on College Campuses

Lately, there has been much talk about a resurgence of religious pluralism on college campuses. Spirituality is fast becoming a boom industry for the student affairs profession, religious studies departments, human wellness centers, campus ministry, and counseling centers. It seems that sundry religious denominations, and all manners of spirituality, are finally getting their rightful due in higher education. Despite some notable holdouts, no longer does the academy at large dismiss religious believers and spiritual seekers as anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. No longer is the wall of separation between church and state a sacrosanct barrier in the American university. No longer are reason and faith seen as exhaustive disjuncts.

God-based religions and free-floating spiritualities are highly visible everywhere on college campuses today, or so it seems. So, too, are a variety of non-supernatural religions and spiritualities. In contrast, secularism and humanism are everywhere in retreat. Presently, it is the fashion on many campuses throughout America to celebrate religious difference and spiritual diversity, as a way of enlarging the meaning of multiculturalism. A growing number of publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, and About Campus, often feature stories that describe bold, new religious and spiritual initiatives on college campuses.

It is not uncommon to read articles heralding the growing presence of Islam, Buddhism, or even Hinduism in American colleges and universities. Religious adherents everywhere are stumping successfully for their right to meet, worship, and, in some cases, to proselytize, openly on secular campuses. Moreover, they want university-sponsored resources in order to do this. It is a wonderful time in higher education these days to be either religious or spiritual.

But it’s not a good time to be an atheist in a theophile’s (God-lover’s) society. I have located only one article, for example, in the last several years dealing with the presence of atheism among college students in the two publications I mentioned above. I have not found a single article on atheism published in any of the leading journals in higher education or in student affairs administration over the last decade (e.g., The Journal of College Student Development and the NASPA Journal). And I have seen only one such piece in the popular bi-monthly periodical for academicians, Lingua Franca, a journal which, unfortunately, terminated publication in the year 2001.

Atheophobia Is Alive and Well on College Campuses

Let me say immediately that I consider the turn to religious pluralism to be far more positive than negative in its overall effect on higher education. I, myself, have been among the strongest proponents of more open and unbounded religious dialogue on college campuses, both in and out of the classroom. I encourage this type of pluralism everywhere—in my courses, publications, and in my speaking engagements throughout the country. Having said this, however, I now need to state that, in my opinion, it’s equally important for college students to be able to openly declare their non-belief in cross-campus, pluralistic dialogue, and this includes being encouraged to have a presence in religious studies courses.

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge where I stand personally on the topic of religion: I carry no special brief for, or against, atheism in writing this essay. I have met some atheistic students in my seminars whom I personally like and some I don’t. This is true for my theistic and agnostic students as well. If I had to characterize my own philosophical perspective on religion, it would lie somewhere between an existential agnosticism and a postmodern skepticism, depending on the events of the week and my mood.

Although I have no strong feelings of advocacy one way or the other about atheism per se, I do have strong feelings whenever I think any belief system is unfairly stereotyped, ridiculed, misunderstood, or dismissed outright as ignorant or evil. This, of course, includes various kinds of fundamentalist religions. But I’ve seen too many atheistic students in my courses, and on my campus, who feel stigmatized for their lack of belief in a God or Gods. They resent being treated as a sinful or depraved "other." Many "out" atheists think of themselves as the one last group on college campuses, and in local towns, that it is still fashionable to hate.

Here, then, is my modest proposal: it is time for those of us who are faculty and administrators in higher education to invite atheists to join us at the pluralistic table throughout the campus; moreover, we need to do this with compassion and enthusiasm, out of respect for their right to express their beliefs and to voice their concerns. I consider this a modest proposal because in the best of university worlds, it wouldn’t have to be made at all. It ought to be self-evident that, in a university, all voices, no matter how controversial and against the mainstream they might be, have a right to be heard and responded to. But I am also a realist. I know that welcoming atheists to join us at the table rarely happens, even in my safe seminar rooms. It’s almost as if some believers perceive an open avowal of atheism in the classroom to be nothing more than another manifestation of anti-religious prejudice or, in some cases, even a form of hate speech.

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