When religion is discussed in public discourse, one group of people is often left out — atheists. Atheists make up roughly a quarter of America’s population by some estimations, but are often overlooked in religious and political discussions due to the fact that atheism isn’t a religion, but a lack of one altogether. In fact, there is only one politician who openly lists her religion as unaffiliated — Arizona Democratic Representative Krysten Sinema.
However, many NYU students are open and steadfast in their atheism. Steinhardt junior Lucas Solon started doubting his belief in God when he began attending a Catholic school in seventh grade.
“I didn’t feel whatever divine comfort that faith in God seemed to give to other people, and I couldn’t bring myself to fully believe in something with no proof,” Solon said. “This was difficult for me as I didn’t want there to be no God. Losing faith in God felt like I was losing a piece of my innocence and my childhood in the same way one may feel about finding out Santa isn’t real.”
CAS junior Cole Swartz also made the allusion between Santa Claus and God.
“Over most of my childhood life until age 15, I was required to attend church regularly with my family,” Swartz said. “I was raised Christian, and to be more specific, Presbyterian. I never felt the connection which many of the adults, young adults and my peers felt with God during my time attending the church. I wanted to experience that connection because as a child I just wanted to fit in, but every time people talked about their relationship with God, he sounded like Santa Claus to me.”
Many atheists say that they started off as agnostic, but became atheist over time. Steinhardt sophomore Brianna Dishman said she started off as agnostic because for her, coming to terms with the idea that there is no higher power at a young age was scary, especially since she was raised as a strict Catholic.
“I decided that I was surely an atheist in freshman year of high school after doing some deep introspective thinking and realizing that there doesn’t need to be a God or anything to give people purpose, and how that notion of living your life for some imaginary being is completely wild to me,” Dishman said.
For many students, one of the biggest pieces of evidence against the existence of a deity is the ongoing existence of injustice and cruelty in the world.
“If there’s a God, why is [Donald] Trump president?” Ella Azoulay, CAS senior and a self-defined agnostic Jew, said. “Also, the morality of most theists rests upon God’s command, which determines what is good, even if it increases suffering. If God is omnipotent, then a God whose commands increase suffering is not a good God.”
Another common instance that atheists point to is the lack of evidence for the existence of a divine deity.
“I decided to become an atheist simply because of the fact that there is zero evidence supporting the existence of a God,” Michael Lugg, a junior in CAS, said. “It’s like if you tell someone they have a broken leg, they are not going to believe you unless they see proof of it.”
Others, like Swartz, said that they could not believe in something that has been twisted into an excuse for hatred and bigotry.
“Just because you have not experienced something, doesn’t mean that it isn’t real,” Swartz said. “However, things that are real and tangible are people — people who use and warp the Bible and other religious texts into furthering their own message. I do not believe in any religion because of what people do in the name of it. As a gay person, there are multiple countries who see who I am as punishable by death. All of these countries are extremely religious and I don’t feel that is a coincidence … Seeing so much hatred and vitriol come from a demographic which is supposed to preach love and acceptance is one of the biggest reasons for my atheism.”
At NYU, most who identify as atheists feel relatively comfortable, without pressure to try being religious.
“Religion isn’t really pervasive in [New York City’s] culture,” Azoulay said. “No pressure to decide or believe in one thing or attend services or be part of a religious community.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 23 print edition. Email Jordan Reynolds at [email protected]