Humanism Goes to School

By Dacey, Austin | Free Inquiry, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Humanism Goes to School


Dacey, Austin, Free Inquiry


Inside the student freethought movement

American education is run by "secular humanists," say best-selling authors Tim LaHaye and David Noebel (see "Mind Siege Metastasizes," page 28). This would come as quite a shock to students who identify with atheism, humanism, or skepticism, or who seek to explore such views at their high schools, colleges, and universities. They see themselves as a small and frequently embattled minority. To be sure, educational institutions and professions in the West are basically secularized. Theology no longer dominates the disciplines; clergy no longer decide the curricula. Nevertheless, a number of national cultural currents are converging to swamp the great humanist and rationalist potential of education. And until quite recently there was nothing like a campus movement devoted to these ideals.

Over the last five years this new movement has involved hundreds of student organizations and many thousands of individual students, faculty, staff, and supporters. The organizations range from small, short-lived philosophy discussion clubs to large, enduring campus communities and advocacy groups. One longstanding freethought organization at the Ohio State University boasts a network of three hundred students on its campus alone.

In 1996, leaders of a growing number of such communities recognized the need for an umbrella organization and convened under the auspices of the Council for Secular Humanism to form the Campus Freethought Alliance, or CFA. Grasping the tremendous potential inherent in a unified movement, the Council dedicated a professional staff to the CFA, which began to support and stimulate student humanism and skepticism through literature distribution, news and information services, lecture circuits, field visits, grant funding, scholarships, internships, leadership opportunities, marketing, and publicity National and campus media picked up news of this milestone and the project developed dynamically. The resulting network has helped to facilitate other national initiatives, such as the student counselor program for Camp Quest--the country's first secular humanist summer camp--and CommonSense, an intercollegiate journal of humanism and freethought launched in the spring of 2000 by students at Princeton, Cornell, the Uni versity of Maryland, and elsewhere.

Like many of the great student movements of the twentieth century, today's North American student rationalist movement is in part about resistance and in part about consciousness-raising and self-identity. The resistance is first and foremost resistance to the influence of an increasingly strident conservative Christianity on campus. Evangelical "born-again" Christians make up a vocal 25 percent of the eighteen to twenty-nine age group. These young evangelicals are supported by a great number of religious organizations with budgets and administrative infrastructures of biblical proportions (one of the leaders, Campus Crusade for Christ, brings in $373 million annually). Jende Huang, of University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists, traveled to the headquarters of one such organization, Summit Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to participate in a youth training institute led by none other than Mind Siege co-author David Noebel. In his contribution to this special section, Huang relates what he discove red about this organization--and himself--in the process.

Embedded as they are in a surrounding social environments, educational institutions are inevitably exposed to its cognitive atmosphere, polluted as it may be. As faculty sponsor Professor Niall Shanks details in "Fighting for Our Sanity in Tennesee," the side effects are especially startling in communities saturated with Bible Belt fundamentalism: "Medieval ideas that were killed stone dead by the rise of science three to four hundred years ago are not merely twitching, they are alive and well in our schools, colleges, and universities. …

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