Story by Jesse Wright
On Nov. 8, David Muscato, the director of public relations for American Atheists, spoke at Drake University on the subject of epistemology.
The talk was sponsored by Drake’s Secular Student Society, and was attended by members of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers.
The fact that there would be an audience for such a talk is reflective of a new trend in American life: the rise of secularism.
According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, the number of American adults who claim no religious affiliation has increased from 15 percent to just under 20 percent in the past five years.
This group includes more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics, who make up nearly six percent of the U.S. public.
These numbers combined with the popularity of books by atheist writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, suggest a significant shift in American zeitgeist.
Over the past couple of years secularism has also become more visible on Drake’s campus.
In 2011, the Secular Student Alliance was formed on campus to “provide a venue for students to convene and discuss issues pertinent to atheism and agnosticism, advocate the separation of church and state, promote rational thinking, and organize activities such as meetings, community service and campus-wide events to educate peers and the community at large.”
In fall 2012, Sean Faircloth, the director of strategy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, spoke to a large crowd on campus. There is tentative talk about Dawkins coming to speak at Drake in spring 2014.
Students at Drake have mixed feelings about the rise of unbelief.
Mohamad Abdul Rahman, a member of Drake’s Muslim Student Association, said he is not particularly concerned with the rise of unbelief in America.
“I think everyone must create their own purpose in life, regardless of their religious beliefs,” Rahman said. “I also agree with Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who said that a truly secular society should allow people of any faith, no faith at all, can believe whatever they want. This is something I think is good about America. In my home country of Malaysia, a lot of discourse about religion is shunned because of fear of offending people. The U.S. is much more open about such discussions.”
David Goodman, the President of Drake’s Secular Student Alliance, said he views the rise of the nonreligious as positive.
“Strong secular communities need to be more prominent to encourage a more robust debate about religion’s role in American life,” Goodman said.
Goodman also dismisses the idea that if more people abandon belief in a supreme being, that there will be negative consequences for society.
“I don’t find any compelling evidence that secularism is a blight on society. Bringing up certain tyrannical atheist regimes is unproductive and to bring up such irrelevancies is to derail meaningful discussion,” Goodman said.
Sophomore Sam Bourland, a member of Drake’s Campus Fellowship, takes a different view.
While he said that he knows atheists who have a high moral standard, he worries about where society would head if more and more people forsake religious belief.
“I feel that without God, it is impossible to know absolute truth and to have an absolute moral standard,” Bourland said. “I believe without God there is nothing from stopping society from deciding that actions such as stealing and lying are not moral.”
Campus Fellowship President Jason Wood also feels the rise of unbelief is bad but for different reasons.
“I think that most humans have a natural moral compass which prevents them from committing immoral acts regardless of what religious beliefs they hold,” Wood said. “However, I worry about people turning away from God because I don’t want large numbers of people to spend eternity separated from Christ.”
Junior InterVarsity Christian Fellowship member Janet Eckles takes a more neutral approach.
“I don’t have an opinion about the rise of nonreligious people,” Eckles said. “Religion is a matter of personal preference and I’m not going to judge someone for what they choose to believe.”
“I think people are getting fed up with religion and rightly so. The religious people who are most prominent are the outspoken, hypocritical fanatics who don’t portray an accurate depiction of their religion or what their religion teaches.”