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Accommodating Secular Students


Whether intentional or not, many academic institutions and administrations marginalize secular students. But more and more campuses are accepting nontheistic students as part of student diversity and are reaching out to make their campus more welcoming to this demographic. Listed below are several ways an administration can recognize and accommodate nontheistic students on campus. For additional guidance, refer to "Invisible, Marginalized, and Stigmatized: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Atheist Students" by Kathleen M. Goodman and John A. Mueller.

Supportive administratorEducate the campus about nontheists.
Stereotypes and bias exist where there is a lack of information. By educating the administration and student body about nontheists, you can help reduce the effect of stereotypes and replace misinformation with accurate information. Student affairs professionals can provide information and resources on nontheists to other administrative offices. Training for residential life staff and student leadership positions should include information about nontheists. Additionally, include information about nontheists in student programming, especially when discussing issues of diversity, religion or spirituality. Silence implies a taboo, so speak openly about nontheists and nontheistic worldviews on your campus.

Engage nontheists in student programming.
Invite secular students to participate in student programing focused on diversity, multiculturalism or interfaith. As an identity that doesn't fit neatly into any one box, nontheists often don't feel welcome in these programs. Directly invite secular groups to participate in interfaith programs, or specifically identify and approach secular students as welcome participants in multicultural or diversity programs. Evaluate those programs to identify and adjust any activities, language or behavior that assumes a god belief or a religious identity.

Examine language and practices to identify sources of marginalization.
Colleges and universities often use language and practices that marginalize nontheists. Many formal campus activities, such as commencement ceremonies, use invocations or benedictions that exclude nontheists even when efforts are made to be nondenominational. Likewise, many institutions use language like "spirituality" and "faith" in programs to engage students' inner development or meaning-making: these terms marginalize nontheistic students. Secular students usually don't think of themselves as having a "religion," and respond better to words like "worldview" or "identity." "Interfaith" programs, while often in practice welcoming to nontheistic students, have in their very name a barrier to secular participation. Explore different language and names for programs that do not assume belief in a higher power to use in programming, and consider replacing formal invocations with a moment of silence for all students to reflect on their own worldviews.

Identify and provide safe spaces for nontheist students.
A significant practice to normalize the nontheistic worldview and accommodate nontheistic students is to ensure that your campus has visible safe spaces for nontheist students. Identify faculty and staff who can be resources and allies for nontheist students on campus. Support or encourage the formation of a secular student group to provide a place where nontheists can convene with like-minded students. Where no such group exists, connect individual students with off-campus secular groups, or help students find a supportive network online. The Secular Student Alliance page on Facebook is one such space; other networks include Atheist Nexus or the Atheism forum on Reddit.

Return to the SSA's Resources for Educators.

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