James Johnson used to be a Jehovah's Witness. He used to think atheists were sinners and had no morals. He used to judge atheists for not believing in God.
But that was four years ago. Now he's one of them.
"I actually started to challenge my religion," said Johnson, a graduate student studying plant science and biotechnology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. "For once in my life, I questioned, 'Is there really a God?'"
The number of secular student organizations on college campuses is on the rise, with a 42 percent increase from last year, according to the Secular Student Association. Syracuse University has been home to a secular student organization since 2009.
"The outlook for secular groups is really promising," said Jesse Graf, communications director of SSA. "We're noticing a lot of growth, both on campus and in support of students."
The number of national SSA-affiliated organizations grew to 225 this year, compared to the 159 last year, Graf said. There are usually 25 to 30 members in each organization, he said. As these groups gain more prominence, students are stepping up to support each other and their beliefs, he said.
Reasons for the increase are uncertain, but secularism is gaining more attention nationwide with leaders like atheist Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," paving the way, Graf said. College students particularly want to get involved because they have enough time and resources to make a difference, he said.
"There are just genuinely more and more non-religious Americans, and that's something that's even stronger among younger generations," Graf said.
Secular student organizations have formed in all but six states, according to the SSA website. In the Northeast, most of the organizations are located in the tri-state area, and 11 groups are in New York state.
One of those 11 groups is at SU. In the summer of 2009, Johnson started the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers Alliance.
"We try to build a safe space for people who feel like they can't talk to anyone else about it," Johnson said.
There were only six members when AAF first started. Within months, the organization grew to 20 members. Now there are more than 100 members on AAF's Facebook page and 25 members on OrgSync, in addition to 80 new students who signed up for the listserv this year, Johnson said.
"I thought we would be camping along with, like, six members," he said. "But there was positive reception. The people who saw AAF were really excited."
Despite the growing number of secular student groups, atheism is still considered taboo, Johnson said. It is not uncommon for atheists to face discrimination from their family or friends and hostility from the community in which they grew up, he said.
Marc Mason, a junior international relations and communication and rhetorical studies major, adopted atheism when he was 14 years old. Before that, he was Orthodox Christian, as is his mother. And before Mason told his family about his religious beliefs, he imagined they could have had a negative reaction to the news, he said.
It was a while before he gathered the courage to tell his family that he would no longer practice Christianity, or any religion, for that matter, he said. When he finally did tell them, he did not face as much hostility as he expected, he said.
"It's a big reaction from them at first, especially because the norm today is to say that you're religious," Mason said.
But groups like AAF will be helpful for atheists who might feel like they are part of the minority, he said.
"It works as a support system, to let people know that like-minded people do exist on campus," Mason said.
But people are not always entirely accepting. Johnson, the president of AAF, said about 60 percent of the posters AAF members put up around campus get torn down. The posters were usually announcements for special events sponsored by AAF, such as guest speakers, he said.
But now that the organization has stable membership, Johnson said it can set out to do what it was created to do: fulfill a need for secular students.
"You think you're alone in how you view the world, and you find out that you're not. And there's an entire group of people who think like that," Johnson said. "And, you know, you get pretty excited about things like that."
Where agnostics and atheists can freely discuss
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We (my group) are on the front page of Syracuse University's newspaper Daily Orange
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