At Stanford University, Fiorella Villar, 23, says there’s no social stigma attached to the school’s Humanist Community, but that most of its members are not undergraduate students.
Experts in the research of religion came together this month at a Pew Research Center panel to discuss the “rise of the religious ‘nones’” and other trends, highlighting the fact that one-third of adults ages 18-30 have no religious affiliation.
Their parents, however, might not be aware of it yet.
Ethan Conklin, director of outreach for the University of Central Florida’s Secular Student Alliance (SSA), has seen his share of “really messed-up situations,” he says. “We have members whose families don’t talk to them anymore, friends who isolated them. All because of that one word: ‘atheist.’”
Consequently, many students seeking like-minded friends are hesitant to openly reveal their involvement in SSA. The club has a public Facebook page but recently created a second group, which is private and visible only to approved members. Conklin explained that several members feel uncomfortable sharing their interest in a secular club with their families, friends or workplaces. The secret page allows those people to remain connected without the publicity of a “like.”
Elizabeth Ann Olson, associate professor of Geography and Global Studies at University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, has conducted extensive research on religion and spirituality among young people. While studying individuals in the United Kingdom, she found that many have difficulty discussing their changing beliefs with their parents.
Some simply don’t want to upset or disappoint parents, she says, but “others might avoid the topic because they want to authentically examine their own feelings about the faith they grew up with, and they feel that parental involvement could prevent them from finding authenticity.”
Several active members of the club keep it very quiet, Conklin said. “When we take photos, they step out, even though they’re there the entire time,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s a side effect of being secular.”
Age may also be a factor: Fiorella Villar, 23, says there’s no social stigma attached to Stanford University’s Humanist Community, but most of its members are graduate students working on their Ph.D.s.
As undergraduate liaison for the club, Villar’s job is to generate interest and recruit new, younger members. One of the club’s main goals this year is to expand its volunteer efforts in the Palo Alto area.
“Oftentimes people who do volunteer work have a religious affiliation,” says Villar, a self-described agnostic. “But there’s a lot of volunteering interest from secular people — they want to help non-profits; they want to make the world better. It’s sort of a ‘good without God’ idea.”
The Humanist Community holds weekly meetings, during which members openly discuss a wide spectrum of beliefs: Some are atheist, some agnostic, some humanist and some simply have unanswered questions.
UCF’s Secular Student Alliance encourages similar discourse during its meetings. The conversations typically begin with a thought-provoking question, Conklin said.
“The questions are meant to ignite discussion,” Conklin says. “For example, we may ask, ‘What would it be like if there were a God? What would you say to him?’”
Doubting long-held faiths can be a stressful and unsettling journey for students, Olson said. While rethinking can lead to positive outcomes and personal clarity, the process can be a deep struggle, especially if adults are dismissing the students’ thoughts as “just a phase.”
“It is important for all adults — parents and educators — to be respectful and supportive of college students who have begun to think deeply about beliefs that they used to take for granted,” Olson says. “It’s terribly important to think about the well-being of the young person during these experiences.”
In the meantime, classes at UCF began Monday, and by midweek “we had a whole lot of new members signing up,” Conklin says. He notes that the club’s main purpose is social, to create a comfortable environment for students of similar mind-sets.
“We discuss current events; we have movie nights,” he said, “It’s fun.”
For members who were formerly involved in religious youth groups or ministries, the group serves as a replacement for the community closeness they may have felt in those organizations.
“In an ideal world, we’d find the courage to tell people what our beliefs really are,” Conklin says. “But for now, for some people, this club is the only thing they’ve got.”
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