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