An organization of student atheists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is on track to receive the largest grant ever awarded by an American university to a nontheistic student group. The landmark grant, totaling $69,000, marks a cultural shift in attitudes toward atheists and other nontheistic groups as religiosity continues to decline around the country.
The Religion News Service’s Kimberly Winston reported that UW-Madison’s Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics, or AHA, will be the most well-funded student atheist group in the nation should the money be approved. The grant has already passed two stages of approval and is awaiting a final OK by the university’s student council, chancellor, and regents. Rejection at this stage is unlikely, RNS said.
AHA is a member of the Secular Student Alliance, a coalition of 387 nontheistic campus-based groups. Jesse Galef, the alliance’s director of communications, told RNS that more than one-half of its groups get by on $250 or less. She said the sizable grant to AHA will help give legitimacy to atheists groups nationwide.
According to the most recent “Global Index of Religion and Atheism,” a worldwide poll whose results were released in a PDF file by Red C Research & Marketing Ltd. in August, the number of people who identify as atheists is growing around the globe. In the U.S., the number of people who say they are “convinced” atheists has risen from 1 to 5 percent in the past seven years. Worldwide, the comparable current figure is 13 percent. The poll also found that 60 percent of Americans consider themselves “religious,” down from 73 percent in 2005. The Win-Gallup poll was based on interviews with 51,927 people from around the world.
While Americans are decidedly less religious than they were a decade ago, the vast majority of the country still believes in God, although that number, too, is declining. A Gallup poll released in June showed that 89 percent of the country believes in some form of supreme being, down from 98 percent in 1967.
Atheist groups say the number of nonbelievers would likely be much higher if not for social pressures to practice religion and anti-atheist information spread by religious organizations, which creates a mistrust of nontheistic beliefs. American Atheists, the country’s largest atheist group, has said that, despite its propensity for rabble-rousing, it is not interested in “converting the religious.” In August, the group’s president, David Silverman, told the IBTimes that the focus is on “trying to turn closeted atheists into outed atheists.”
In its mission statement, AHA echoes that credo. One aspect of the student group’s mission is to “raise public awareness about the misconceptions surrounding nonbelievers.” That can mean organizing “secular support groups” where nonbelievers can meet with likeminded people. And, with $69,000 in the bank, the group will finally have the resources to do just that.
The moral of the story? Don’t stop nonbelieving.