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Atheism on Campus and the Growing Focus on Spirituality: Seeking a Framework for Inclusivity


Conflation of definitions: spirituality and religion. Need for New Frameworks ... The current focus on spirituality and religion on campus requires an exploration ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Atheism on Campus and the Growing Focus on Spirituality: Seeking a Framework for Inclusivity

Atheism on Campus and the Growing Focus on
Spirituality Seeking a Framework for Inclusivity
Poster Presentation, October 19, 2006 Association
of American Colleges and Universities Diversity
and Learning A Defining Moment
  • Kathy Goodman
  • Research Assistant
  • Center for Research on Undergraduate Education
  • University of Iowa

Learning Objectives
  • The audience will consider how atheist students
    may be marginalized and alienated by todays
    focus on spirituality in higher education.
  • They will make connections to how other student
    populations may experience similar problems.
  • They will begin to consider broader frameworks to
    make sure that all students, regardless of belief
    or identity, are encouraged to develop a sense of
    meaning and purpose in their lives.
  • Please spend a moment thinking about your
    answers to the reflection questions on the
    handout provided.

Literature Review
  • In his essay Inviting Atheists to the Table A
    Modest Proposal for Higher Education Nash (2003)
    laments the lack of research articles on atheism
    and college students I have not found a single
    article on atheism published in any of the
    leading journals in higher education or in
    student affairs administration over the last
    decade ... (p. 3).
  • My own search has turned up a few essays or
    anecdotal articles, and only two research
    articles that approach the topic of atheism and
    college students.
  • (Please help yourself to a bibliography.)

Anecdotal Articles
  • The belief that college campuses are highly
    secular is ubiquitous (Hollinger, 2002 Roberts
    Turner, 2000), yet there is considerable evidence
    that atheists on campus feel like they must keep
    their beliefs hidden (Nash, 2003).
  • In describing a conference at New York University
    to explore the division between believers and
    secularists, Dacey (2005) states that Americas
    colleges and universities are reluctant to
    facilitate such discussions for fear of appearing
    anti-religious or bigoted (2005, p. 21).
  • In the past decade, atheist students have begun
    to bond together by joining the Campus
    Freethought Alliance (CFA), a student branch of
    the Council for Secular Humanism (Nussbaum, 1999
    Reisberg, 1998). What surprises many theists is
    the fact that the student organization goes
    beyond the role of personal support and education
    it is an activist organization that is a
    proponent of high moral standing (Nussbaum, 1999).

Empirical Research - Mayhew
  • Exploring the Essence of Spirituality A
    Phenomenological Study of Eight Student with
    Eight Worldviews (Mayhew, 2004) is a small
    qualitative study designed to find commonalities
    in the definition of spirituality among students
    representing Agnosticism, Atheism, Buddhism,
    Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, and
    Roman Catholicism.
  • The researcher finds that the atheist and
    agnostic do not describe spirituality in terms of
    emotion, as the other six students do. Instead of
    accepting this as a legitimate difference in
    world view, Mayhew postulates that those who
    attend church (the other six students) are able
    to develop and use emotion-based vocabularies to
    describe spiritual differences (p. 667), thus
    implying that the agnostic and atheist student
    are missing something or less developed .
  • Mayhews conclusion that spirituality carries
    personal meaning for all students, even those who
    identify as nonreligious, (p. 667) appears to be
    an over-generalization of his results, since his
    sample purposefully only included students who
    had experienced spiritual moments.

Empirical Research HERI
  • According the 2003 Higher Education Research
    Institutes study on The Spiritual Life of
    College Students, (Higher Education Research
    Institute, 2004-2005) 17 of students survey
    picked none as their stated religious
    preference (p. 17) and 15 stated that they are
    not interested in spiritual/religious matters
    (p. 6).
  • One of the limitations of this survey and the
    twenty-five page report summarizing the results
    is that it does not contain a definition of
    spirituality or religion, though it compares and
    contrasts the two concepts.
  • Furthermore, it does little to delineate the
    beliefs and values of believers from
    non-believers. For example, although the
    question Do you believe in God? (Higher
    Education Research Institute, 2004, p. 5) is on
    the survey, the results of the question are not

Empirical Research HERI
Much of the survey seems to be constructed in a
way that does not provide an opportunity for
non-believers to answer the question accurately.
  • Question 59 asks how frequently within the past
    year that the student has experienced feeling
    distant from God, angry with God, or loved
    by God and provides the options of frequently,
    occasionally, and not at all (Higher
    Education Research Institute, 2004, p. 6).
  • Without the option of answering not applicable,
    which would be the appropriate answer for a
    student who does not believe in god, the
    non-believing student is left to answer not at
  • The non-believing students answers of not at
    all would have a very different meaning than the
    believing students who indicate they have not
    felt angry with god, distant from god, or loved
    by god.

  • Question 23 which asks about religious preference
    is another example of a question that does not
    provide an answer that would accurately describe
    a non-believers preference.
  • Nineteen religious perspectives are listed,
    including Other Religion and the final choice
    is none (Higher Education Research Institute,
    2004, p. 2).
  • To accurately describe their religious
    perspective, a non-believing student might want
    the choice of atheist, agnostic, secular, or
    humanist. Instead, he or she would have to choose
    None along with students who do believe in god
    but do not subscribe to a religious tradition.

Spirituality Framework
  • Who gets left out of the conversation? Who feels
    marginalized because of their beliefs, life
    style, or culture?
  • Atheists/agnostics/humanists
  • Non-Christians
  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students
  • Negative Implications Biases
  • Exclusion
  • Religious Privilege
  • Conflation of definitions spirituality and

Need for New Frameworks
  • Surely it is not coincidental that atheist
    students have felt the need to group together for
    support at the same time that many in higher
    education are calling for a renewed focus on
    spirituality and religion.
  • How can we create a framework for discussing
    values, morals, authenticity, connectedness, etc.
    with all of our students? How can these issues
    be addressed in the curriculum and co-curriculum?

Beyond the Spirituality Framework
  • Holistic Student Development
  • The primary principle of student affairs work is
    to provide both challenge and support for optimum
    development. By providing an equal opportunity
    for all religious and non-religious voices, one
    provides support to students who may otherwise
    feel marginalized. Conversely, when students of
    dominant groups learn about new perspectives,
    this challenges them to view the world
    differently and adapt or recommit to their
    beliefs in a more meaningful way.

Beyond the Spirituality Framework
  • Liberal Education Curriculum
  • Topics such as meaning-making, life-purpose,
    knowing oneself, and connection to community --
    concepts that many people define as spirituality
    -- can also be addressed in the classroom. These
    concepts have roots in the liberal education
  • The Big Questions approach advocated by Bob
    Connor, president of The Teagle Foundation urges
    professors in the humanities to use big
    questions with students to explore these issues.
  • Edmundson (2004), author of Why Read? is also a
    proponent of using the humanities to get students
    to explore questions of who they are and what
    they believe. As a supporter of liberal
    education and an advocate of citizenship as a
    goal of higher education, he suggests using
    questions and literary texts to help students
    know themselves and others.

Beyond the Spirituality Framework
  • Student Affairs and Academic Affairs
  • These boundary-crossing endeavors within higher
    education often help students make the strides in
    knowing themselves and finding their place in the
    world because they link identity exploration and
    developing mature relationships with academics.
  • Service-learning
  • First-year programs
  • Multicultural initiatives

  • The current focus on spirituality and religion on
    campus requires an exploration of hidden biases
    and the impact on diverse populations.
  • This incarnation of the diversity movement must
    be inclusive and provide a place for all students
    to understand their authentic selves and place in
    the world.
  • If diversity is higher educations best guarantee
    for ensuring excellence, we must be willing to
    examine difficult topics and unrecognized biases
    in order to create a rich and inclusive
    educational experience for all.