April 17, 2010

Atheists find company on campus

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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

Her faith was rattled by nonfiction aspects of the novels "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels & Demons" and shaken by her research into world religions, with their competing claims and dire warnings to nonbelievers.

"After a while, I just couldn't believe in any of them," she says.

She drifted away from one close friend during the process and encountered resistance from others.

"Oh, my God! You can't be thinking that!" she recalls her friends saying. Or, "I'll pray for you."

"I didn't really tell a lot of people because I found every time I told (a friend), the reaction was negative," Panger says.

Seven states, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, have laws on the books restricting atheists from holding public office. A 2007 Gallup poll found that only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president; 55 percent said they would vote for a gay person and 92 percent said they would vote for a Jew.

Still, change was in the air in 2006, when Panger entered college. Atheists and other "hidden" minorities were inspired by gay high school and college students, who made great strides in the 1990s and early 2000s by "coming out" and facing stigma directly.

The secular student movement was gaining momentum. And in 2006, Mehta was making a splash in the media by auctioning off his time on eBay, saying he was an open-minded atheist who was willing to attend church -- for $10 an hour.

The top bidder at $504 was Jim Henderson, a former evangelical pastor who saw the project as a way for Christians and nonbelievers to learn from each other.

Mehta attended more than a dozen churches and wrote a book based on his experience, "I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes."

Back at NIU, Panger soon discovered that while there were more than a dozen religious groups on campus, there wasn't one for the nonreligious.

"Why don't you start one yourself?" her boyfriend asked.


Which is how she found herself standing in the middle of campus on a sunny day in the fall of her sophomore year, handing out fliers to strangers.

Five people showed up for the first meeting of the NIU atheists, held a month later at the campus library.

"Nobody wanted to say, 'Hey, are you here for the atheist group?'" Panger recalls. "Finally, someone said it, and we were all like, 'Yeah! Yeah!'"

Three years later, the NIU AAFT chapter is going strong, with weekly meetings attended by 10 to 25 people. There are occasional speakers and service projects, but mostly the students spend the time discussing topics.

A recent meeting began with introductions in which students identified themselves by their names, their years and their majors -- math, psychology and philosophy were popular -- and briefly stated their beliefs.

Many were atheists, some were agnostics, several were "curious" or "here to get a perspective," and one, a pastor who attends regularly, was a Methodist.

Members of the group were bemused, as opposed to hostile, when Jacobson said that a friend of his, a Bible study group leader, had invited them to join a Habitat for Humanity project in Texas during spring break.

"Isn't Habitat for Humanity a Christian organization?" someone wanted to know.

"I've done Habitat for two years, and you would never guess the background (of the group)," Jacobson said patiently. "All you do is build a house. It's a good thing."

The jokes flowed freely, but if some were irreverent, few seemed angry.

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