What does Freedom of Conscience still mean, as Society silences Nonbelievers?

Nonbelievers go unnoticed and uncounted where social conformity rules. Their freedom to have quietly secular lives shouldn’t be infringed, but many can’t enjoy their freedom of conscience. Their conscience is telling them that religion can’t be right, while their communities are delivering the message to stay silent.

Demographers and sociologists know the situation all too well. Try to count all the people in churches, and you will be counting some nonbelievers along with the faithful. Obtain “Yes” answers from people about being Christian, and some nonbelievers will get included with the Jesus-followers. Directly ask “Do you will believe in God?” and some nonbelievers will try to reply with anything other than “No.” That is why estimates that as many as one in five Americans no longer believe in God may still be undercounts.

The Millennial generation (born roughly between 1982 and 2004) is the least religious generation alive today, by all measures. Yet there’s no immunity from peer pressure and community expectations, not at their age. If any generation’s unbelief is significantly undercounted, it’s probably the Millennials.

The Telegraph (London) recently reported on the atheism visible (and invisible) in one college town, on the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg (residents number around 43,000 people).

The report title reads: “Is America losing faith? Atheism on the rise but still in the shadows” and the article byline includes this phrase, “many keep quiet for fear of alienation in one Bible-minded Virginia town.”

The Telegraph describes some student concerns about entering the job market, as potential employers could notice signs of atheism while searching social media.

Going public about unbelief already has an immediate social cost for young people.

The Telegraph report states, “Atheists at Virginia Tech – and two young, closet atheists at Liberty interviewed by the Telegraph – also argued that the social shackles that prevent them going public with their atheism could mean that atheism and agnosticism is actually far more prevalent than the polls suggest.”

The Telegraph interviewed students who spoke about the nonbelievers who won’t speak up:

Brian Farrell, a 22-year-old computer science graduate who grew up a Christian but is now an “out” atheist, said that for many of his age group it was easier simply to “go along with religion” than to risk being left out in the cold. “The stakes are high,” he said. “Do I want to be supported by my friends and family, or am I going to risk being kicked out of clubs and organisations? It’s tempting just to avoid the whole issue. I would put 20 or 30 per cent of my friends growing up in that category.”

“A former Liberty student turned atheist, who works at the university but asked not to be named since staff are required to be believers, volunteered a similar estimate. Asked how many of his friends growing up in an Evangelical Christian community had moved away from their literalist faith, he replied “between a third and a half”, although few had openly declared it.”

The Telegraph’s reporter spent some time with the campus student group Freethinkers at Virginia Tech.

This website announces the purpose of the group: “Freethinkers at Virginia Tech is a student organization comprised of individuals interested in promoting and applying freethought.”

“Freethinkers value rational and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, and the need for tolerance and cooperation. Freethought is thought unconstrained by deference to authority. Freethinkers include, among others, atheists, agnostics, deists, humanists, sceptics, and rationalists.”

“We believe that diversity should be openly discussed and celebrated. We strive to create an open, safe space in which people feel free to express different ideas, opinions, and worldviews. Our aim is to promote critical thinking and positive attitudes towards both the similarities and differences in each other. All people are welcome to attend club meetings and events regardless of ability, need, background, lifestyle, culture, national origin, race, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, veteran status, political affiliation, or economic circumstances.”

These affirmations surely announce a healthy respect for each individual’s freedom of thought and conscience.

To get additional insights, this blog will run an interview next week with Dan Linford at Virginia Tech, who has led this Freethinkers group.

Dan is a graduate student at Virginia Tech, working on the history of atheism, its relationship to philosophy of religion, and on contemporary debates at the boundaries of science — the relationship between science and religion or between science and metaphysics. Last semester, he was the president of Freethinkers at Virginia Tech. He appears on panels on atheism and related subjects, including FTB Con 2.  Dan has participated in debates on God’s existence, including this debate at Virginia Tech – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bku9T91GyBo.   He was the first person to debate the existence of God on the campus of Liberty University, a private evangelical college founded by Jerry Falwell, and the video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OAUJfLm0fk
Dan’s blog (Libere) is available at www.skepticfreethought.com/libere.

About John Shook

John R. Shook, PhD, is a scholar and professor living in the Washington, D.C. area. He is research associate in philosophy and instructor in science education for the University at Buffalo. He is also President of Partners for Secular Activism, an educational nonprofit offering online classes of interest to the secular side of life at secularactivism.org. Click the About tab under the header to learn more about John.


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