Higher Ed Struggles to Serve Atheist Students

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I don’t think Higher Education really knows what to do with students who identity as some form of nonbeliever. I worry to what extent higher education cares about nonbelievers’ nonbelief, but it definitely seems like we’re starting to make a little bit of progress.

I was delighted to see an article on Inside HigherEd today about humanist chaplains. There are currently three humanist chaplains employed in Higher Ed (Harvard, Rutgers, and Adelphi) and nonbelieving students at Tufts are now clamoring for theirs.

I personally think higher education is quite cowardly in its approach to students’ worldviews. There is no willingness, that I see, to challenge students on their beliefs. Rather, the goal has been to cater to what students already believe and allow them to grow in their own faith. I argue that this is a compromise of critical thinking and doesn’t really further understandings between religious groups while beliefs are allowed to persist as shallow subscriptions to dogma.

Providing humanist chaplains is a nice band-aid (and an important accommodation to maintain fairness if other chaplains are provided), but it doesn’t address the real challenge. Consider the freedom of thought that nonbelieving students have. Some might still be looking for something to believe in, while others struggle with the multiple paths they have to take as open nonbelievers. Do they keep their nonbelief to themselves? Do they maintain a semblance of faith by identifying as Agnostic and participating in a Unitarian Universalist community? Do they disavow all beliefs and start writing a blog about religious privilege? The options for those identities are infinite.

At the same time, many believers might have their own questions. Maybe they’re unsure of whether they’re on the right path. There are plenty of opportunities for that individual to explore other belief systems, but student affairs offers no support for reconciling those questions. For a field that prides itself on studying and supporting identity development, there is little recognition for the needs to explore worldviews beyond previous indoctrination.

Part of the problem is that our research and vocabulary has focused on spirituality. Spirituality is not inclusive. I pointed out earlier this year that Alexander Astin’s big study on “spirituality” was horribly (and irreconcilably) biased towards a belief in God. Unsurprisingly, he was called upon to comment on this issue of humanist chaplains:

They may not be alone, according to Alexander W. Astin, founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied the issue. “Most students — religious and non-religious — have an interest in what we consider to be spiritual issues: the meaning of life, their most deeply felt values, why they’re in college, what kinds of lives they want to lead, how connected they feel to others, etc.,” Astin wrote in an e-mail.

He’s so eager to rope everyone into spirituality, even though all of the issues he listed require no spirituality to explore. I was delighted to see someone else in the article call him out. Unfortunately, it was someone who seemed to think that nonbelievers could not benefit at all from that which is called “spirituality”:

“Perhaps there is some validity there,” said Don Brewington, president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. However, Brewington added that spiritual guidance may require “a little more than humanism will and can provide.”

“Using the word ‘spiritual’ — that seems to be somewhat contradictory,” he said.

The humanist rabbi they interviewed, Greg Epstein, does a much better job of painting the picture, though I still think he’s off:

“Right now, higher education is failing miserably to provide a place on campus where non-religious students can find purpose, compassion, and community,” Epstein says.

“A lot of students come to campus knowing they’re not religious, but also not knowing what they do believe,” says. The opportunities for discussion, meditation, and service that grow out a chaplaincy “help them learn more about the positive aspects of their identity,” he says, “not just what they don’t believe in.”

This continues the assumption that all students have to believe something, without stopping to critically consider what it means to believe. It’s not just the difference between being religious and nonreligious; it has to do with the very way people think about the world in which they live. (That’s why “worldview” is a more appropriate term than “belief system.”)

Higher education needs a jolt of critical thinking before it falls behind. We know that the “nones,” (those who do not identify with a religion—not necessarily atheist) is the largest growing population in our nation. There are huge chunks of nonbelieving students on our college campuses already that have no support and might feel unwelcome raising challenging questions about religion.

Beliefs are ideas like any other ideas. If an institution of higher education isn’t an open marketplace of ideas, then what is it?

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