What is a Non-theistic Student?
While we believe that it is important for adults to refrain from labeling children, it is equally important - if not more so - that we understand the labels a student might choose for him or herself.
A nontheist is an individual who does not believe in a higher power or supreme being. A nontheist might choose one or more of many labels. Common terms include atheist, agnostic, freethinker, skeptic, humanist, secularist, naturalist or bright. Most nontheists use more than one label to identify themselves: for example, most Humanists will agree that they are atheists or agnostics in addition to subscribing to the philosophies of Humanism.
An atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods. An agnostic either sees the existence of a god or gods as unknowable, or makes no individual claim to know the answer. A common misunderstanding is the assertion that an atheist doesn't believe in anything, which is of course not true: the atheist label indicates only a stance on the existence of a god or gods, with no implications of belief or disbelief in any other idea or philosophy.
Freethinkers and skeptics see science and reason as more dependable than religious doctrine and revelation. Freethought places a particular emphasis on freedom from religion, traditional authority or dogma. Skeptics often have a wide range of topics about which they are skeptical, ranging from the existence of a god to crop circles and UFOs. Skeptic magazine is a quarterly publication with a weekly email companion that focuses on promoting science and critical thinking.
Humanism is a nontheistic philosophy which focuses on improving the human condition. The idea rises from Renaissance humanism, and maintains the simple concept that mankind can be "good without God." The American Humanist Association is the largest and oldest Humanist organization in the United States, and has a wide range of resources available on their website at americanhumanist.org.
Secularists emphasize a secular society and approach to their lives. These individuals may or may not emphasize strict nontheism, but push for the separation of church and state, the advancement of scientific achievement, human-based ethics, and similar principles. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is an organization for secularists.
For naturalists and brights, only the natural world (as opposed to the supernatural - deities, ghosts, etc.) warrants consideration, and empirical evidence is at the core of their naturalistic worldviews. The Center for Naturalism and Naturalism.org are excellent resources to learn more about naturalism in this sense. The Brights Net is an online community for those nontheists who identify as brights.
Many nontheists also use satirical labels such as Pastafarian, a fan of the parody religion "The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster." While popular among nontheists of all ages, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been particularly embraced by college and high-school students. Wikipedia has a great article explaining the origins and story of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Myths About Nonreligious Students
There are many common misconceptions about nontheists. Educators play an important role in correcting the fallacies that are often presented in our culture and the media, and schools are in a unique position to educate in ways that put an end to many of those myths.
For example, it is commonly believed that someone without a belief in a god cannot have a moral compass or find purpose in his or her life. However, there is no evidence that a lack of belief in a higher power leads to immoral behavior, nor that such a worldview results in unhappiness.
Kathleen M. Goodman and John A. Mueller, in their article "Invisible, Marginalized, and Stigmatized: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Atheist Students," (New Directions for Student Services, Spring 2009) elaborate:
Recent research….shows that many students who identify as atheist - or related designations, such as humanist or free thinker - are, in fact, quite thoughtful about their purpose, morals, and values ....They state that their life purpose is to use their skills and talents in service to the environment, humanity, and all living creatures. Their purpose and morality are less about personal salvation after death and more about celebrating and contributing to the human condition.
Another assumption is that nontheists wish to convert others to their views or redesign society. But in reality, most nontheists, and especially nontheistic students, simply want to be accepted for who they are. Reshaping society or converting others is rarely a priority.
Gen Next Religious ID
Nonbelievers and others unaffiliated with religion are practically invisible in our society, having no visible trait that sets them apart from the majority (compared to racial minorities or nonnative English speakers, for example). This leads to the assumption that there are only a few stray individuals who do not believe in a god or gods. However, the percentage of youth who do not identify with any religion is growing rapidly: formal studies estimate the number of unaffiliated youth to be at least 20% of 18-25-year-olds, with an informal Harvard University study placing the number as high as 30-40%.
Chart data compiled from the Pew Research Center For the People & The Press: "How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics, a Portrait of 'Generation Next'" and the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008) Summary Report.
To see data and results from many other polls and surveys please click here to check them out.