A new approach to diversity

By Trevor Boeckmann – Trevor@unifreethought.com

Published: Thursday, April 21, 2011

Updated: Thursday, April 21, 2011

I am an atheist.

It has been about three years since I was first able to say this. I actually had it pretty easy. I didn't lose any friends. My parents didn't approve, but they didn't fight me on the issue. All I had to give up were my political aspirations. Others haven't had it so easy. Atheists are the most hated and distrusted minority in America.

A 2007 Gallup poll found that 94 percent of Americans would vote for a black president, 88 percent would vote for a woman and 55 percent would vote for a homosexual. Only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president. There is only one nonreligious member of Congress – but even he won't call himself an atheist. George H.W. Bush said, of atheists, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God."

Bush wasn't alone in his assessment. A 2006 survey by the University of Minnesota found that atheists ranked below Muslims and homosexuals in the number of respondents who said these groups "(share) their vision of American society." Nearly half said they would disapprove if their child wanted to marry one of us.

The nonreligious remain one of the only minorities that are openly discriminated against. Military personnel who object to religious indoctrination are harassed and threatened. Seemingly every big name in the nonreligious movement has had death threats against them. Even on our campus, nonreligious students have been threatened with violence.

Yet, at the University of Northern Iowa, the most hated minority in the country is excluded from campus discussions of diversity.

This is not meant to be a critique of the university as a whole. I spent the last two years serving as the president of UNI's nonreligious organization, the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers. In that time, I was amazed at the support we found from the Northern Iowa Student Government, the Dean of Students' Office and other university administrators. They helped to address issues of discrimination and stood up for our right to free expression. Still, when it comes to issues of diversity, atheists have been left out.

In 2007, President Ben Allen announced his commitment to diversity at this institution. "By dedicating ourselves to this cause, we learn and grow as a community and as an educational institution, and we assist students in developing cross-cultural competence necessary for success in life after UNI."

The following year, Allen announced a new Diversity Council and Diversity Advisory Council. Out of the 31 students, faculty and administrators currently serving on the committees, none are active within the nonreligious community. While these committees have spearheaded many great projects and events in the past years, to my knowledge, they have never reached out to atheists.

Programs on campus such as the "Standing on Higher Ground" series have sought to advance the acceptance of the LGBT community. Jump Start Orientation provides special opportunities for "ethnically, culturally and socioeconomically diverse" students. Where is the institutional support for the nonreligious community?

Again, this is not meant to be an attack on the administration. Every time atheists have been threatened, every time our fliers have been the target of vandalism, the university has been there to help us. I can't thank them enough for that. It's just important to recognize what nonreligious students are going through. We joke about new ways to keep posters expressing our religious views on our doors because they are so routinely torn down. Many of us face unwelcome environments back home. It's not easy.

So, here's my request. When discussing diversity on campus, don't forget the nonreligious. As an article in New Directions for Student Services read, we are often invisible, marginalized and stigmatized. Coming out as an atheist puts us in America's most reviled minority. It would be great to have more support for students who find themselves there.



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