How Long Until We Have Campus Atheist Resource Centers?

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In my post yesterday, I argued that challenges to religious beliefs should be pursued despite the emotional defensiveness such challenges often spur. Such self-victimization is really a façade for cognitive dissonance, cognitive dissonance that is never addressed if we allow the defensiveness to sway us. Respecting faith has the consequence of reinforcing dualism and stifling an extremely personal form of cognitive development by allowing beliefs to go unchallenged. Is it possible to honor the racial, ethnic, and cultural intersections of our students’ worldviews while challenging the privilege many have to hold such worldviews unquestioningly? Yes, and I think we have to.

It shouldn’t be too long before the work of evolutionary psychologists like Hank Davis and Gregory Paul are synthesized with our existing models of cognitive and moral development. These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking: Can an individual ever truly appreciate social contracts and individual rights (Kohlberg’s 5th Stage of Moral Development) if that individual still believes that a God who intercedes in the course of events is the ultimate judge of morality? Can our students ever achieve reflective thinking if they still see religious beliefs as being on-par with scientific theories? How can we help students become contextual or even independent knowers if they still believe in divine knowledge bestowed upon the Earth by a deity?

While there is a lot of identity development encapsulated in the culture of religious worldviews, I foresee a day when higher education addresses religious beliefs independently as a matter of critical thinking and cognitive development. Rather than continuing to shelter students and helping them continue on the track they were already on with their beliefs, we ought to be encouraging them to consider not just what they believe, but why they believe it, how they came to believe it, and any implications that result from their believing it.

We’ve seen some very slight movement in this direction with a few (countable on one hand) campuses offering humanist chaplains. This seems like more of a blind accommodation for atheist students because the field of student affairs has done  little to even recognize atheists on campus (ask me for the Goodman & Mueller PDF), let alone research any conception of atheist student development. The focus continues to be on “spirituality” and “spiritual development”, which by word choice alone assumes there is such a thing as spirituality and also assumes that all students experience spiritual development. The latter claim is blatantly wrong, and the former sets a foundation for enshrining religious privilege in a field that so often prides itself on supporting social justice. We have a long way to go in unraveling this mess.

This all leads to the question I ask in the title: How long until we have campus atheist resource centers? Your first reaction to that might be to say it will never happen, because that would be “promoting religion.” Well, no, it would not be. Atheism—or perhaps more accurately skepticism—is not a belief system; it’s an approach to knowledge. Based on my understanding of skepticism juxtaposed with my understanding of student development theory, it’s quite a good approach too. In fact, many academic disciplines (the natural sciences, as an obvious example) already encourage and demand skepticism. It’s the foundation of inquiry! Why shouldn’t we promote it beyond the bounds of specific academic curricula?

Maybe the word “atheist” is making you uncomfortable. Check your religious privilege! A 2006 study from the University of Minnesota (ask me for the PDF) found that “atheists are more distrusted and despised than any other minority.” Just this past week, a new city councilor in North Carolina is trying to be removed from office just for being an atheist, because North Carolina is one of many states with laws still on the books prohibiting atheists from elected office. Clearly there is a case to be made that atheist students could use some support on campus. But, to be pragmatic, let’s call it a Skepticism Resource Center for now.

A model already exists for a Skepticism Resource Center. The parallels it would have with an LGBT Resource Center are uncanny. It would need to provide support for coming out (though it would probably help if we did some research on the atheist coming out process first). It would need to provide a library of resources. It would need to provide social opportunities. It would need to function as a safe space (for challenging questions!). It would need to providing enriching development opportunities for students who identify as nonbelievers (once we actually collect some research on atheist development). There would also be a need to educate the greater campus about these identities and why it’s important to respect skepticism and understand what we can all learn from it. Education and advocacy—yeah, we should know how to do that.

The only obstacle is our own unease with these issues. Education has lost its critical edge, with a recent study showing that undergrads majoring in education tend to be more religious. While the field of student affairs seems more and more eager to blindly subscribe to spiritual development, higher education takes a hands-off approach to religion in general. (The exception, of course, is religiously-affiliated universities who bend over backwards—even to the point of compromising ethical standards and academic credibility—to cater to religion.) Important opportunities for cognitive growth are lost and our own field flounders to truly understand the students we are serving and how to appropriately raise the level of challenge.

What will it take for us to recognize that atheism, skepticism, critical thinking, and cognitive development are all linked? What will it take for us to welcome such conversations at our conventions or on our campuses? Can we start to uncover the religious privilege we maintain by our silence or subscription to spirituality so that we can truly serve all of our students and maximize their potential?

How long until we have campus atheist resource centers?

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