Secular Students Find Their Place On Campus

Religious surveys find that 15 percent of Americans identify themselves as non-religious. Now, college students who identify that way are finding or creating opportunities to fellowship with others that fall into that category. But how does identifying as atheist, agnostic or humanist play out for black college students? Host Michel Martin talks with Mark Hatcher, founder of the Secular Students of Howard University, Debbie Goddard , spokesperson for the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group that promotes secular values, and Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, you tell us more about what you thought about this week's program. That's Backtalk, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.

But as school is back in session, and we've been digging into education matters, we thought we would talk about the rise of secular, agnostic and atheist groups on college campuses.

Now that might not seem so remarkable. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 15 percent of Americans now self-identify as nonreligious, and college is often the time for students to question the values and points of view with which they were raised.

But we found that across the country, more college students who fall into that category seem to be seeking out opportunities for fellowship, for celebration and community service events with like-minded peers.

To talk more about this, we called Mark Hatcher. He is a Howard University Ph.D. candidate in neurophysiology, and he is founder of the Secular Students of Howard University. He's seeking official recognition for that group. And if and when it is granted, it will be the first such group recognized by a historically black college or university. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Also with us is Debbie Goddard. She's a spokesperson for the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group that promotes secular values. She's the director and campus outreach coordinator for the group African-Americans for humanism, and she's with us from member-station WBFO in Buffalo, New York.

And we welcome Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He's also author of the book "Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe," and he's with us from the studios at Harvard. I welcome you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MARK HATCHER (Founder, Secular Students of Howard University): Great to be here.

Mr. GREG EPSTEIN (Humanist Chaplain, Harvard University; Author, "Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe"): Thank you very much.

Ms. DEBBIE GODDARD (Spokesperson, Center for Inquiry): Thanks for having me on today.

MARTIN: Now, Mark, let's start with you because, as we mentioned, you are the founder of the Secular Students of Howard University. So, Mark, in order to get official campus recognition, you have to get 10 signatures, presumably from your peers.

Mr. HATCHER: Yes.

MARTIN: And even getting those 10 signatures was hard.

Mr. HATCHER: The signatures was, it was a task because once they see the word secular, 90 percent of the people on campus say oh, no, that's I'm going to hell. And a lot of people who are sympathetic, they don't want their name on a piece of paper that says secular in case they're running for president one day, and it pops up. And, you know, you can't run for president in this country if you have anything associated with secular.

MARTIN: I do want to ask, did you have any hesitation about pursuing your studies at Howard because religion, as it's traditionally understood, is such a big part of life? There's a chapel. It's a center for African-American worship, theology, scholarship around religion. Did you ever hesitate, thinking I won't fit in?

Mr. HATCHER: Oh, no, not at all. I celebrate Christmas, and I go to church with my family. And I mean, I have I understand the country is so very wrapped around religion. So I had no problem with going to Howard.

I thought that it would be a great opportunity for me to be in a place that is so important to black people, and then bring something new to the conversation.

MARTIN: Debbie, what about you? Tell me about the group that you are a part of, African-Americans for Humanism. Why was it important to have this kind of group? And what kinds of things do you do on campus?

Ms. GODDARD: African-Americans for Humanism was started back in 1989 by Norm Allen, Jr., who was at a conference run I think by the Council for Secular Humanism. And he stood up and said, why aren't there more African-Americans represented?

So they started this outreach program specifically to try to help humanism have a bigger impact in the African-American community.

MARTIN: Greg, I confess that I went to Harvard. I did not know there was a humanist chaplain in Harvard. Tell me a little bit about your post, and why was it created?

Mr. EPSTEIN: There has been a humanist chaplain at Harvard for about 35 years now. But when I came here to Harvard six years ago, most people did not know that such a thing existed. And, really, just the same way that most people don't know that there are organizations and communities and educational programs for people who define themselves as humanist, atheist, agnostic, nonreligious.

But there are. There are some great programs and organizations and opportunities out there. And I wanted to set out to create something that would really give people a sense of community, and also that would create a top-notch educational program, where we could really train young people on this campus to be great and well-trained leaders within a movement of people who are humanist, atheist, agnostic and nonreligious. And we've seen tremendous, tremendous growth and enthusiasm over the last several years.

MARTIN: Can I just ask, how do people find their way to you, and how do you try to support them in that community?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, we've got people who find us in such a variety of ways. I mean, you can imagine everything from people who have had really negative experiences with religion to people who have had almost no experience with religion whatsoever. Or they really have no problem at all with anything religious, but they find themselves looking for something to make them feel a little bit more connected to those around them than their sort of average, everyday clubs or activities that they might join, something that has the shape of a community that we might expect from religion but without any of the material about God or the supernatural or worlds beyond this one.

And people just sort of show up, and they say how can I get involved. I never knew that anything like this existed before. Let me do something with my humanism, my atheism, whatever it might be.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with advocates of nonreligious or secular students on college campuses. And we're speaking with Greg Epstein. He is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. We're also speaking with Debbie Goddard. She's the spokesperson for the secular group Center for Inquiry. And Mark Hatcher is the founder of the Secular Students of Howard University.

So, Mark, tell me a little bit, if you would, about how you became attracted to humanism. You said that you grew up in a religious family.

Mr. HATCHER: Yeah, I grew up a Catholic. I grew up in that I'm a Catholic school boy. So basically, I mean, I got into sciences. I got into looking into physics and looking into biology and evolution and things of that sort. And it would be a lie if I didn't say that that kind of pulled me away from the theistic sort of outlook on life.

And I really just started looking into other religions, other cultures, other beliefs and came to the conclusion that, well, what makes more sense, that one person's right or maybe nobody's right?

You know, so I just stepped away from it and said hey, I'm going to look at it from a point of view of agnostic. I don't know. I'll let the evidence talk to me as opposed to making it what I want it to be.

MARTIN: Was this a crisis for you?

Mr. HATCHER: Not really. I've had some rough times as a result from it, you know, maybe a couple relationships that were strained because of it. But mostly, my family's very supportive. My mom I love my mother to death, and she's extremely supportive of me and everything I do.

MARTIN: Is this one of those things you can agree to disagree on?

Mr. HATCHER: Yeah, and it is. It's one of those things where she's like, you know, hey, believe what you're going to believe. I love you. And I'm fortunate. I'm extremely fortunate. I've heard some horror stories.

MARTIN: Tell me about that because, as we know, I mean, this is, as you discussed, a very religious country, a very observant country, particularly compared to, say, our peer economies in, you know, Western Europe.

Mr. HATCHER: Right.

MARTIN: And I think in the African-American community particularly, traditional religion has been a very powerful source of leadership, culture, inspiration, community, all of the above. Even if people may have their private doubts, it just is not something that one hears commonly expressed openly.

Mr. HATCHER: And that is exactly why I felt the need to start the Secular Students at Howard University because a lot of times, if people feel like they can't be themselves because they think it's committing social suicide, and in some circles it really is. In some families, they won't talk to you.

And like I said, I was lucky because I have a very understanding, a very intelligent family who says, you know, we believe something different, but hey, we can have the conversation with you.

MARTIN: Debbie, what about you? Talk to me a little bit about your interest in humanism. What do you hope your group will accomplish?

Ms. GODDARD: I got interested in humanism and nonreligious ethics when I was a kid, also like Mark, in Catholic school. My father is Jewish, but my mother was raised Catholic. She's from Trinidad, and it's a pretty Catholic country, generally. There's a lot of Catholic influence and culture.

In sixth grade, I was supposed to go through confirmation, and I wasn't sure I wanted to be Catholic forever and ever. And so, I thought maybe I could convert to Judaism. I told my father I wanted to convert to Judaism to get out of the commitment ceremony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GODDARD: And he suggested instead that maybe I should start preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, so I could be Jewish forever and ever. And I thought oh, crap, here's my choice, either be Catholic forever or be Jewish forever.

And then I thought, well, what about the Hindus? What about Muslims? I grew up in Philadelphia, which is a very diverse city in a very diverse neighborhood and thought how do I know that they're not right? How can I evaluate who's right because they can't all be right.

And so rather dramatically, one day I decided that their stories were probably made up and reinforced over time through culture and whatnot. And I told my teacher the next day, Sister Terez(ph): Sister Terez, I don't think there is a God.

And she wasn't as happy as I thought she'd be, and I was punished. And so that gave me a keen interest in promoting critical thinking and doing ethics.

MARTIN: And can I ask you though, Debbie, of all your sort of various identities, do you ever feel like being African-American and being a humanist are ever in conflict in a way that you find difficult to resolve?

Ms. GODDARD: I find other people tell me so. But I grew up in a very African-American neighborhood. However my mother is from Trinidad and so my black identity was different than that of many people around me. I didn't grow up on soul food. I grew up with Caribbean food. And I've talked to other people who have a Caribbean background who have said the same thing. That we need to kind of expand our idea of what it means to be African-American sometimes.

MARTIN: Mark, I'm wondering if you think that other campuses will follow your lead. I know that this is very new. I'm curious about where you think it will go.

Mr. HATCHER: I think that this is, hopefully this is just the spark that ignites the fire because there are so many people. I know that they're out there and the issue is that they don't know anybody else is out there. I have people come up to me on campus when I table. I mean I get a lot of responses such as you know, I don't want to go to hell or you know I'll be praying for your soul. But most of the time I get very, you know, we have conversations, people who want to know what atheism is and how I came to it and this, that or the other.

But occasionally, rarely I get this person who comes up and very quietly says you know what? I don't believe either. I had no idea that there was anybody else that was black and that had this type of culture that grew up in the church that walked away from it as well.

MARTIN: And is it your hope to persuade people of your perspective or...?

Mr. HATCHER: I don't. I want to have a conversation. I think that the problem is that we're not having the conversation. That's all I want to do. I'm not going to change anybody's mind. The only person that's going to change their mind is you. That's it.

MARTIN: And Greg, can I have a final thought from you? I'm curious because you don't really think of the Ivys as being a place that's hostile to people who are humanists or secularists or atheists. So I guess I'm curious about what it does there and what role you think you're playing in people's lives?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure, well a few quick things Michel. First of all, I think that the entire idea of our community, the humanist community at Harvard and beyond, is that we are really trying to get beyond just hostility or responding to hostility. This is about a positive identity. It's not just that I disbelieve in any god. Anybody on Earth has things that they disbelieve in.

But this is about standing for something. It's about standing for humanism. It's about standing for secular values. It's for standing for the idea that this is the only life we'll have. And for the first time we really believe that this community is unified and important enough that it ought to have a home, not just on our campus but eventually, and this is what we're working towards, on every campus.

MARTIN: Greg Epstein is the author of a book, "Good Without God: What a Billion Non-Religious People Do Believe". He is also the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and he joined us from their studios there.

Mark Hatcher is here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. He's the founder of the group, the Secular Students of Howard University. Also with us Debbie Goddard, she is the campus outreach coordinator for the Center for Inquiry and the director of African-Americans for Humanism and she was with us from member station WBFO in Buffalo, New York. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Thank you very much.

Mr. HATCHER: Thank you Michel.

Ms. GODDARD: Thanks for having me on.

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