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Atheism on Campus and the Growing Focus on Spirituality: Seeking a Framework for Inclusivity Kathy Goodman Research Assistant Center for Research on Undergraduate.

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Presentation on theme: "Atheism on Campus and the Growing Focus on Spirituality: Seeking a Framework for Inclusivity Kathy Goodman Research Assistant Center for Research on Undergraduate."— Presentation transcript:

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

2 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.

3 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.)

4 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).

5 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.

6 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 reported.

7 Empirical Research – HERI 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 all. 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. 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.

8 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 religion

9 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?

10 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.

11 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 tradition. 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.

12 Beyond the Spirituality Framework Student Affairs and Academic Affairs Collaborations –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

13 Conclusion 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.

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