April 17, 2010

Atheists find company on campus

DeKALB, Ill. - What do you call an atheist with a wife and two kids?

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Katie Panger, left, founder, Brett Jacobson, president, Thomas Hodges and Jonathan Guca are seen before a meeting of the Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers group at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. There are nearly 200 atheist or agnostic student groups on college campuses in the United States.

William DeShazer/Chicago Tribune

During the course of their weekly meeting, members of the Northern Illinois University secular student group, Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers, will reveal the punch line to that joke, debate whether religion causes human suffering and consider a Bible study group leader's invitation to help build houses for the poor.

But first, the introductions:

"I'm Brett," says senior Brett Jacobson. "I'm a triple major in sociology, philosophy and psychology. I'm here because I'm the president."

"So you have to be!" interrupts junior Haley Whiting, to guffaws. "Way to be a go-getter!"

"I'm an atheist," says the group's founder, Katie Panger. "And I'm here because when a man and woman love each other very much ..." She pauses, leaving her audience of 14 in suspense for a few seconds before concluding, ever so sweetly:

"The stork comes."


Twenty years ago, a sanctioned public meeting of atheists and their allies at a large public university -- attended by a friendly Methodist pastor, no less -- would have been an extraordinary event.

Even five years ago, it would have been highly unlikely.

But emboldened, in part, by best-selling books such as "The God Delusion" (2006) by Richard Dawkins and "God Is Not Great" (2007) by Christopher Hitchens, young atheists are stepping forward, bonding with their fellow skeptics and reaching out to the religious.

There were at least 195 secular student groups on college campuses in late 2009, up from 42 in 2003, according to the Secular Student Alliance, a nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio.

"You go to college now -- it doesn't matter where you go -- everyone knows someone who's an atheist, and they know that they're not bad people," says Hemant Mehta, chair of the Secular Student Alliance's board of directors.

Public response has generally ranged from supportive to neutral.

"I think (campus atheism) is a normal aspect of young people inquiring into what's important, and we shouldn't just castigate people for doing this," says Mark Wilhelm, leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's educational partnership team.

"For those of us who believe that God revealed God's self in Jesus Christ, we would want to engage them in that conversation."

Twenty percent of young Americans are atheists, agnostics or have "no religion," up from 11 percent in 1988, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

And it's not just society that's changing; it's the atheists themselves.

Traditionally, the nation's nonbelievers have been a contentious lot, sticking it to the nonreligious in the style of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and atheist Rob Sherman of Buffalo Grove, a Chicago suburb, who fires off lawsuits and inflammatory one-liners ("God is make-believe!") with equal relish.

Not these kids. "We don't have to face a lot of the (discrimination) older people did, so I don't think we're as angry," says Mehta.

The new atheists are inviting outsiders to their meetings and partnering with evangelicals for service projects. They're engaging in lively but respectful dialogue with religious groups. They're launching blogs such as Mehta's, aptly named "Friendly Atheist."


Who are these 21st-century nonbelievers? What do they want? Why are they rejecting religion?

Panger, the founding member of Northern Illinois University's AAFT, grew up Catholic. She says she "loved God" as a child and got, if anything, more religious for a while in high school.

But, in retrospect, religion was always an awkward fit.

"It kept me up at night: Is there any evidence for this? Am I just believing a story?" she says.

(Continued on page 2)

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