Multiple studies in recent years have concluded that the non-religious population in the United States is rising, especially among younger demographics.
That trend is influencing life in a variety of ways, but now we are seeing the impact at religious universities, where nonreligious students are opening new chapters of the Secular Student Alliance at religious schools.
Nearly four in 10 young adults ages 18 to 29 are not affiliated with any religion, which is four times more likely than young adults a generation ago according to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Schools like Fordham University in New York, California Lutheran University, Trinity University, Southern Methodist University, Nazareth College, Bethel College, and Temple University are just some of the schools in the last few years where chapters of SSA have been started.
At some of these religious schools, students face challenges trying to recruit members and offering services. At Baylor University, the longest running chapter of the SSA at a religious institution has been around for 12 years, but they are not officially recognized by the school. That means they cannot advertise their club on campus, and they cannot use any campus resources. That must make recruitment pretty difficult.
One of the students at Baylor said, when asked if they tried posting flyers, “We could try it but at the risk of getting expelled.”
Sophie Cote, a math and economics major, and Charlotta Lebedenko, a chemistry and philosophy major, are both studying at Fordham University and just started the school's first SSA chapter. The two met in a medieval theology class where they had to defend their atheism against challenges from their believing peers.
“It became pretty clear that our views were very, very different from everyone else,” Lebedenko said. “People would be upset that Sophie and I would speak up in class against theologians such as Aquinas and Anselm and say, ‘We disagree with this and here’s why.’”
Cote added, “I knew I was an atheist before, but I was very non-committal about it. That class kind of drove me to try to have to defend myself, finally, and come up with reasons why I thought what I did.”
Cote and Lebedenko's SSA chapter has been recognized by the national SSA organization, but has yet to be recognized by their school.
Talking about what motivated them to start an SSA chapter, Cote said, “SSA can be a space where we could have a retreat, we could talk about our lives and talk about spirituality, volunteer and do things that are usually associated with the church. But it has no religious connection at all.”
I wish these students the best in their efforts to provide a safe space for non-believing students. Giving students who lack a belief in a god a safe space at religious universities is an admirable thing to do.
If you would like more information about the Secular Student Alliance, click here.