Three HU students share their experiences of being non-religious on a religious campus.
By Thad Arnold, Editor
Comfortably leaned back in his chair, HU sophomore Kevin Gorman listens with rapt attention as Baker Second bursts into thoughtful discussion during the final floor worship. Gorman loves the discussions ground worship can open up about God, relationships, morals, and life in general.
But one thing separates him from most of the other participants: Gorman is not a Christian. He’s not even religious.
Gorman identifies as an agnostic. Although he was raised in an observant family, he questions the personal relevance of faith to him.
Gorman is one of many students on campus who have no religion. In a convenience survey of 150 HU students from Coffey Break and the Dining Commons, 14 students identified themselves as “atheists”, “agnostics” or “none”. Three students – Gorman, Ace Yeomans and Ana Hoglund – said they were not religious on a religious campus. Despite the rejection of religion, the study programs here drew them to HU, even though the college is Evangelical Christian.
“With Christianity, you rely a lot on what you believe, and the Bible, and all that,” Gorman says. “I think for me, I don’t care, per se.”
Gorman is no stranger to Christianity. Her father is a devout Christian. For most of his youth, he considered himself a Christian. And one of his biggest role models growing up was his youth pastor.
After said youth pastor left, Gorman slowly felt less attracted to church attendance. Although he still calls himself a Christian, he began to have doubts. Throughout high school, religion began to play a smaller and smaller role in Gorman’s life.
That’s not to say that Gorman totally dismisses the possibility of the supernatural.
“There must be something spiritual,” Gorman says. “There must be something we connect to in a way other than our reality. I don’t necessarily know if it’s a Christian thing.
Some students are firmer in their disbelief. They cross the line from doubting the existence of a higher power to outright rejecting it.
Enter As Yeomans. Sympathetic and eager to answer questions, Yeomans is far from the stereotypical image of what one might call the “militant atheist”.
Yeomans, like Gorman, was raised in a Christian family, but their change in beliefs (Yeomans prefer to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns) occurred less gradually than Gorman’s.
During a debate on the subject of evolution when Yeomans was 18, a friend called Yeomans “idiot”.
This sparked a dive into research on the subject, which eventually led to an interest in apologetics – the rational defense of beliefs – in general.
“I pretty much listened to debates between theists and non-theists non-stop in all my free time for a long time,” Yeomans says.
Yeomans went from identifying as a Christian to an “atheist with superstitious beliefs”. Yeomans realized that they disagreed with much of the Bible “logically, historically, and morally”.
For Ana Hoglund, her lack of religion comes more from a misunderstanding of faith than from a rejection of it. She hasn’t attended church regularly since elementary school, and religion has never really played such a big role in her life.
“It kind of faded over time,” says Hoglund. “And after that, I never thought about it.”
Hoglund went to a Catholic church when she was younger. But his mother, despite being a Catholic, wanted Hoglund to choose for herself what to believe.
Overall, non-religious attitudes are on the rise. According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of American adults said they had no religion in 2021. And the increase in the number of non-religious students attending Christian universities is not unique to HU.
“I think presidents and deans also ask the same question,” John Schmalzbauer, a sociologist at Missouri State University, explained in a Zoom interview when asked how Christian universities are responding to these students. “How can we have a Christian college with people who may not even be religious among the student body?”
So why go to an openly Christian college when you’re openly non-religious?
The simple answer seems to be the degree programs offered here. Both Gorman and Yeomans specialize in digital media arts, for film production and animation, respectively, and Hoglund is in the occupational therapy assistant program.
Proximity to home is also a factor. For Yeomans, who is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Hoglund, who is from Fort Wayne, Ind., HU offered the program they were looking for as close to their hometown as possible.
For these students, their lack of religion also makes motivation to go to chapel harder to come by. But their resistance to frequenting the chapel may not be as extreme as one might think.
“I’m open to that,” Hoglund says. “If that’s what I have to do to graduate and do better in school, then I’m going to follow it, or deal with it, but, like, I’d rather get away with it if I could.”
Yeomans wouldn’t care as much about the requirement if fewer Chapel Credits were needed.
“Who goes to church two or three times a week? Yeomans added. “Crazy people, who are they!”
Although they do not share the same beliefs as the mainstream culture on campus, neither Gorman nor Hoglund said they felt discriminated against because of their beliefs.
“I’ve spoken with people who were worried I wouldn’t go to heaven,” Hoglund says. “But they were very good friends.”
“There are times like this where I feel like I don’t really connect at all,” Gorman says. “But in terms of community, no. Everyone here is awesome. Never have I ever… felt like I was singled out.
Yeomans is willing to participate in friendly debates about beliefs. While Christians might expect atheists to be angry with them, Yeomans believes that atheists and theists can have disagreements about belief without resorting to vitriol.
While he’s not afraid of discussion, Yeomans says Christian spaces can feel, though not necessarily uncomfortable, a bit awkward.
“Sometimes what I feel at Christian events is like everyone is holding their breath,” Yeomans says.
There is definitely still a level of tension for non-believers among believers.
Take Hoglund as an example, who feared connecting with her Christian boyfriend’s mother, who was a pastor’s daughter.
“At first it’s a challenge,” says Hoglund. “But you kind of got over it.”
Gorman is grateful that his family accepted his change in belief.
“There was a part of me that was like, ‘Hey, should I share this with them, or is it that important? Isn’t it that important?'” Gorman explains. wasn’t a very anxiety-inducing thing or anything.”
Gorman admits that while he doesn’t accept all of it, there are things he can learn from Christianity. He finds it interesting to study a religion from the outside rather than the inside.
“I just took my semester to [Biblical History and Literature]says Gorman. “And it was a weird experience where I was like, ‘I know a lot more about this than when I was a Christian. “”
On the other hand, some Christians seek to learn from non-believers. RA of Roush First and Ministry Major Gretchen Accola say she interacts with both believing and non-believing residents on her floor.
“I think non-believers, in my experience, are really good at asking questions to understand,” Accola says. “Whereas sometimes the Christians I hang out with sometimes come up with a set of assumptions and don’t ask questions to figure it out.”
When asked what they would say to Christians on campus, the three gave a common answer: respect the beliefs of others, even if you disagree with them.
Yeomans adds, “Respect goes a long way.”