Living in the Margins: Examining the Experiences of Atheist Undergraduates on Campus

Living in the Margins: Examining the Experiences of Atheist Undergraduates on Campus

Krista M. Soria
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Christine C. Lepkowski
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Brad Weiner
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities


Utilizing results from a multi-institutional survey (n = 11,000+), this study explored differences in perceived campus climate and sense of belonging between atheist and religious college students. Results suggest that atheist students perceive that their beliefs regarding faith are less respected on campus; are more likely to report that they have heard fellow students express negative or stereotypical views about religions; and feel a weaker sense of belonging on campus.


Atheists—those who do not believe in the existence of deities—comprise a marginalized population on American college campuses (Goodman & Mueller, 2009; Seifert, 2007), largely because they do not identify with dominant religious faiths in the United States. Even amidst increasing religious pluralism in American society, atheists are less trusted and accepted than other marginalized groups, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals; people of color; and Muslims or other religious minorities (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006). On college campuses, students from a variety of religious backgrounds perceive a societal hierarchy of religious privilege where atheists fall at the bottom, Christianity is at the apex, and all other religions fall in between (Small, 2008). According to Liddell and Stedman (2011), nontheistic students, including atheists, struggle to gain both acceptance and equality on campus. Encountering stereotypes about their beliefs, many atheist students maintain silence, preferring to remain invisible rather than face being ostracized (Goodman & Mueller, 2009).

Students’ marginalization or isolation in college directly influences educational and social outcomes for students, including sense of belonging, perception of mattering, and persistence (Cuyjet 1998; Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1998; Rankin & Reason, 2005; Schlossberg, 1989). Yet, while the campus climate for some underrepresented student populations has received attention (e.g., diverse racial and ethnic student populations), there is little scholarship regarding campus climate for religious beliefs, and existing work regarding atheist college students is often descriptive or qualitative (Heiner, 1992; Mueller, 2012; Small, 2008). It is important to bring the experiences of marginalized student identity groups (such as atheist students) to light so that student affairs practitioners can work within their institutions to promote a sense of belonging among these marginalized and alienated groups.

One of the primary goals of this study is to present quantitative data related to the experiences of atheist students across multiple institutions. In our study, we examined whether atheist college students have different perceptions of campus climate and their sense of belonging when compared with students who identify as religious and are affiliated with a particular religion or denomination. This topic is important to the field of student affairs as religious identity is an important element of diversity on college campuses (Mueller, 2012) and student affairs practitioners actively work to ensure that all aspects of students’ identities are recognized on campuses.



The Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey is housed at the Center for Studies of Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California-Berkeley. The SERU survey is a census scan of the undergraduate experience. All undergraduates enrolled at participating institutions in spring 2011, who were also enrolled at the end of the prior term, were included in this web-based questionnaire, with the majority of communication occurring by electronic mail.


The survey was administered to 213,160 undergraduate students across nine large, public universities classified by the Carnegie Foundation (2010) as having very high research activity. These institutions are located across the United States, with one in the Midwest, three on the West Coast, two in the Northeast, and three in the Southern/Southeastern part of the United States. The institutional level completion response rate for the SERU survey was 38.1% (n = 81,135). The items used in this analysis were embedded in a survey module that was randomly assigned to 20-30% of students, depending on the choice of the individual campuses. The sample was further reduced to include only students who identified as atheist or were affiliated with a major religion (n = 11,739). In the final sample, 41.1% were male (n = 4,824) and 58.9% female (n = 6,915). Additionally, 0.4% were Native American (n = 46), 6.4% were Black (n = 753), 11.4% were Hispanic (n = 1,342), 14.9% were Asian (n = 1,747), 58.3% were White (n = 6,839), 4.4% were other/race unknown (n = 518), and 4.2% were international (n = 494).


Religious and spiritual preferences. In the SERU survey, students were asked to select their religious/spiritual preference from a list of 26 options, which included one selection for atheist and 11 Christian-based denominations and faiths (Baptist, Christian Church [Disciples], Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, United Church of Christ/Congregational, and Other Christian); 14 options for non-Christian-based faiths (e.g. Judaism, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.); no preference or not particularly spiritual; and spiritual but not associated with a major religion.

As we were primarily interested in examining the experiences of atheist students in comparison with religiously-affiliated students, we dummy-coded the atheist selection with the other denominations and faiths as the referent groups. We excluded students who selected “spiritual but not associated with a major religion,” “not particularly spiritual,” “no preference,” and “Agnostic.” Atheists constituted 10.4% of the population (n = 1,217) and the other religion-affiliated students made up 89.6% of the final sample (n = 10,522). The largest religious group represented in the sample of religion-affiliated students was Christian-affiliated denominations (81.2%, n = 8,539).

Campus climate for religious beliefs and sense of belonging. Students responded to several questions that gathered a nuanced perspective of campus climate for religion. Students were asked to rate their agreement for the following items (scaled 1 = strongly disagree to 6 = strongly agree): “Students of my religious beliefs are respected on this campus” and “Students are respected here regardless of their religious beliefs.” Students were also asked to select the frequency with which they had heard nonteaching staff or administrators, faculty, and students express negative or stereotypical views about religions (scaled 1 = never to 6 = very often). Students were also asked to rate their agreement for the following items (scaled 1 = strongly disagree to 6 = strongly agree): “I feel that I belong at this campus” and “Knowing what I know now, I would choose to re-enroll at this campus.”


We first began by testing the assumptions of normality and homogeneity of variance for the campus climate and sense of belonging items—these tests are important in determining whether data are normally distributed and can be further analyzed using specific procedures. We found the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test was significant (p < .05), suggesting non-normal distributions; however, in large samples, this test can be significant even if the data are only slightly non-normal (Field, 2009). In examining the histograms and Q-Q plots, we found evidence for slight negative skewness in the items. Additionally, we also found the assumption of homogeneity of variance was violated in each of our computations (Levene’s tests were significant [p < .05]); thus, we used nonparametric bootstrapping to analyze our data, as nonparametric bootstrapping makes no assumptions about the probability model underlying the population and uses the observed sample data as a proxy for the population distribution. Monte Carlo p-values were computed by drawing 1,000 random bootstrap replicates of the data, with replacement, using a correction suggested by Davison and Hinkley (1997). We found that less than 1% of data were missing for each of the items used in analysis, so we used listwise procedures for each individual t-test computation.


As demonstrated in Table 1, atheist student respondents were significantly more likely to report they had heard fellow students express negative or stereotypical views about religion, but significantly less likely to report they heard faculty or staff express those views. Atheists were also significantly less likely to indicate that students of their beliefs were respected on campus. Finally, atheists were significantly less likely to feel that they felt a sense of belonging on campus. Small differences often reach levels of significance in large sample sizes; therefore, we computed Cohen’s d statistics for each mean difference, which demonstrated that the relative magnitude of these differences was small for each of the items.

Table 1

Differences between Students who Identified with Religions and Students who Identified as Atheists on Items Related to Campus Climate and Sense of Belonging

Religious Students Atheist Students
n M (SD) n M (SD) t SE (95% CI) D
In this academic year, I have heard teaching faculty or instructors express negative or stereotypical views about religions 10456 1.66 (1.04) 1211 1.46 (0.85) 6.45*** 0.03 [0.14, 0.26] 0.21
In this academic year, I have heard non-teaching staff or administrators express negative or stereotypical views about religions 10460 1.50 (0.94) 1206 1.34 (0.82) 5.81*** 0.03 [0.11, 0.22] 0.18
In this academic year, I have heard students express negative or stereotypical views about religions 10464 2.77 (1.31) 1212 2.98 (1.37) -5.35*** 0.04 [-0.29, -0.14] -0.16
Students of my religion are respected on this campus 10442 4.71 (1.01) 1206 4.46 (1.22) 7.95*** 0.03 [0.19, 0.31] 0.22
Students are respected here regardless of their religious beliefs 10463 4.67 (1.08) 1214 4.60 (1.17) 2.29* 0.03 [0.01, 0.14] 0.06
I feel that I belong at this campus 10472 4.94 (1.10) 1261 4.65 (1.24) 8.62*** 0.03 [0.23, 0.36] 0.25
Knowing what I know now, I would still choose to re-enroll at this campus 10458 5.04 (1.18) 1260 4.82 (1.32) 6.10*** 0.04 [0.15, 0.29] 0.18
Note. * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001

Discussion and Recommendations for Practice

Our study suggests that students who identified as atheists experienced a less welcoming campus climate for their religious beliefs, in addition to a lower sense of belonging on campus. This is an interesting finding because the population comprises students at large, religiously-unaffiliated, research universities—ostensibly among the most welcoming to non-religious students. If atheists are significantly less likely to enjoy a sense of belonging on these campuses, then we predict the effect would be even larger on campuses with religious affiliations, higher proportions of religious students, or an increased homogeneity of religious groups. This is an area of future research.

The atheist students in our study were also more likely to indicate that they heard their fellow students—as opposed to staff or faculty—express negative or stereotypical views about religions. This presents a potential point of concern for higher education administrators and practitioners, as students’ interactions with peers are a “potent source of influence” on college students’ experiences and development (Astin, 1993, p. 398). Students’ lack of belonging and negative perceptions of campus climate can lead to attrition and can further isolate marginalized populations; consequently, atheist students’ experiences are too important to overlook further.

There are several steps that student affairs practitioners can take to provide a welcoming climate to students from diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds. First, it is important for student affairs practitioners to increase their own competency in serving students’ diverse religious identities (Small & Bowman, 2009). Student affairs practitioners can work holistically to frame religious pluralism as an asset in campus diversity. For example, when formal and informal campus conversations about meaning, ethics, morals, spirituality, and religion are held, it is important to invite atheists to the table along with groups that are traditionally invited (Barratt, 2009). Colleges and universities should comprehensively consider the needs and experiences of atheist college students within their structures including, for example, that mental health professionals are aware of the impact of religious and non-religious affiliation on students’ well-being (Small & Bowman, 2009). Student affairs practitioners can also develop programs to enhance students’ knowledge and awareness of religious pluralism. By openly acknowledging religious and non-religious identities as early as orientation and continuing to affirm these aspects of students’ identities until graduation, student affairs practitioners can work to ensure that the religious pluralism is understood and welcomed on campuses without privileging dominant belief systems.

Discussion Questions

  • How can colleges and universities work to improve atheist students’ sense of belonging on campuses?
  • What can student affairs practitioners do to help all students to feel that their religious beliefs are respected?
  • How can we acknowledge the role of religious beliefs in students’ lives and identities without privileging dominant belief systems?


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About the Authors

Krista M. Soria recently completed her PhD in higher education from the University of Minnesota. Krista’s research interests include college students’ leadership development, community engagement, and social class in higher education. Krista is an adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota and the University of Alaska Anchorage and works for the University of Minnesota as an analyst in institutional research.

Please e-mail inquiries to Krista M. Soria or follow her on Twitter.

Christine Lepkowski is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Minnesota and a graduate assistant for the Jandris Center for Innovative Higher Education. She studies gender, women, and leadership in higher education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Christine Lepkowski.

Brad Weiner is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on campus internationalization strategies, institutional advancement, philanthropy, and higher education finance. He holds a B.A. in English from The University of Kansas and a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from Vanderbilt University.

Please e-mail inquiries to Brad Weiner or follow him on Twitter.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Staff Office.