Atheism on Rise Among Young Adults
In the past decade, religious affiliation and belief has decreased by 13 percent in the U.S., with young adults making up the bulk of those moving away from religion, recent surveys show.
People are generally confused about atheism, said Camille Richoux, an anthropology major from Camden, Ark. Richoux also is president of Occam’s Razors, a secular student society.
“They think that it means you believe that there is no God, but I just don’t have a belief in a god,” Richoux said. “I don’t say, ‘there is no God’ instead I say, ‘show me the evidence.’ God really doesn’t have an effect on my life. I live my life by treating other people well and maybe leaving this world better than when I came into it. For me, that’s always been enough.”
There’s a good base in northwest Arkansas for an alternative to religious groups, Richoux said.
“One of the things that gives the atheist movement a lot of hope is that among the 18-to-26 age group, non-belief is at its highest levels ever,” said Douglas Krueger, philosophy and world religion professor at Northwest Arkansas Community College. Krueger is also author of “What is Atheism?”
From 2005 to 2012, individuals who identify themselves as religious fell from 73 percent to 60 percent. In comparison, atheism has increased from 1 percent to 5 percent, according to WIN-Gallup International’s “Global Index of Religion and Atheism.”
Seventy-one percent of Americans believed that religion is losing its influence on American life, according to a 2011 Gallup religion poll.
Ages 18-to-29 make up 31 percent of people who identify themselves as “unaffiliated”, according to the Pew Forum, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.”
“There’s a large group of people who are not interested in religion, or they’re agnostic. They don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t necessarily follow mean they accept the term ‘atheist.’ The category of atheist doesn’t represent the group that doesn’t believe in God because it’s a term that has a lot of baggage over the years,” Darrel Henschell, co-founder of the Fayetteville Freethinkers.
Fayetteville Freethinkers promotes “a method of arriving at conclusions, not a set of beliefs.” The group has been active in Fayetteville for the last 14 years. Although many members are atheist, Fayetteville Freethinkers is not an atheist group, Henschell said.
“We have people who sit on church boards and come to the (FreeThinker) meetings,” Henschell said. “One fellow said he goes to church for his heart and comes to our meetings for his head.”
Thomas Senor teaches philosophy of religion at the UA. The question of God comes up in his class all the time and “for the most part students are interested” in learning about the different arguments for and against God, he said.
In recent years, students, in particular, are becoming more tolerant of atheism, Krueger said.
“I’ve seen, just in the past five or six years, more and more students who are sympathetic to the arguments against God’s existence and less sympathetic towards the argument for God’s existence and even here in the bible belt in a more conservative country, Benton County, that suggests that there is some sort of a seat change taking place among the young that they are much more open to religious arguments than they used to be,” Krueger said.
Although Krueger sees an increase in tolerance in his students, he still sees a fair share of students who are uncomfortable talking about the idea that God may not exist, he said.
“I don’t want to project on everyone else they have their own reasons for responding the way they do. I was very insecure in my beliefs,” said Kevin Lyon, a UA graduate student. “When someone questioned my beliefs, it scared me and sometimes I responded kind of viciously. So I’m not angry towards religious people who respond in that fashion because I’ve done it. Your whole worldview and your comfort are being attacked just by someone standing there. If you understand it, it’s hard to be angry.”
Lyon is now a self-proclaimed atheist. Moving from a religious upbringing to full-blown atheism was a slow process, he said.
“I’ve always had an insecure belief structure, religiously, and it just evolved. I figure whatever is behind the universe has things under control and it is clearly not seeking any relationship with me or wants me to know about it,” Lyon said. “There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for that. I just go on the assumption that we are on our own. That implies that we have responsibilities. If God isn’t going to save the people who need to saved, guess who gets to do it?”
Lyon thinks that the need for a belief in God comes from a fear of mortality, he said.
“I’m a big proponent for rationality; it sure feels good to believe that were going to live forever and God will come back, but here’s the thing that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Lyon said. “People can manipulate that need so easily to make good people do bad things they wouldn’t normally do. I think it’s best to accept our mortality and just deal with it.”
One of the main arguments against atheism is that there is no proof that there is no God, but Lyon pulls his ties to atheism from the lack of proof that there is a God, he said.
“My whole perspective is a lack of evidence for God,” Lyon said. “You can’t define God; when you start putting limits on Him, that’s when you can logically walk your way out of it and eventually you are just accepting God as this vague ideal.”
Last year the UA played host to LogiCon, was an event that started as a “joint effort by many secular groups in Arkansas.” Secular refers to attitudes or activities that have no religious basis. The event was used to project “the importance of reason, logic, scientific education, support equality for all and assist in advancing the secular movement forward,” according to the LogiCon webpage.
“I liked the atmosphere. It was very non-anti-religious. I used to have the view that atheists were just angry people who had a hard run on religion, but more and more you start to see people and it’s just not anger — no hatred, no dislike,” Lyon said.
The Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Arkansas began in the fall of 2011 and has grown steadily for the past year, said Lukas Deem, senior at UCA.
“I helped start the atheist club at this school,” Deem said. “Our membership has been increasing pretty steadily throughout time and people have been really interested in it. It started with around 10 members and now we are up to 30 members who come all the time. Our Facebook group has about 150 members, and our official organization online has 50 members.”
The UA also has its own secular student group called “Occam’s Razors.” The name of the group comes from a phrase stated by William of Ockham, English Scholastic Philosopher, Richoux said, president of Occam’s Razors.
“People identifying as atheist, agnostic or non-religious are the largest increasing group of people in this country, so we want to reach out because a lot of people don’t know there is a secular group on campus,” Richoux said.
Occam’s Razors is not defined as an atheist group but as a skeptic group. The members promote scientific literacy, reason, logic and skeptical inquiry of the world, Richoux said.
“It’s not necessarily a club for people to talk about atheism but it’s there for students to talk about things affected when you start looking at the world through a scientific and skeptical lens,” Richoux said.
Occam’s Razors has more than 100 members on Facebook, and has 30 to 50 members at each meeting. Their membership is steadily on the rise, Richoux said.
“Maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t that be great?” Lyon said. “I don’t think God would be such a jerk to punish you for making the rational decision.”