By Jeff Kunerth
In his first class of the fall semester, University of Central Florida professor Charles Negy suggested to his cross-cultural psychology students that they might want to read his email to last semester’s class that went viral on the Internet — twice.
In the email that created a sensation at the time and again just weeks before the fall term began, Negy chastised the devout Christian student who told the rest of the class to ignore the professor questioning their religious beliefs.
“Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots — racial bigot or religious bigots — never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct,” Negy wrote.
The confrontation between the agnostic professor and the Christian student is, in miniature, a re-enactment of the ongoing clash in American society between strident true believers and increasingly vocal non-believers.
“I think the tension you are seeing now is the more nonbelievers there are, the less willing we are to accept that arrogant assumption” that Christianity is the only true religion, Negy said in an interview. “We are not going away any time soon, and the more of us there are, the more confident we feel.”
About 19 percent of Americans now identify themselves as “unaffiliated” with any religion, including about 5 percent who say they are agnostic or atheist, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center. In 2008, 16 percent of adults identified themselves as unaffiliated — up from 7.3 percent when they were children, according to Pew.
Nationwide, 29 percent of Americans say they do not believe in God, according to another Pew survey.
“There is certainly a concern about the increase of secular and nonreligious people becoming more vocal,” said Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that advocates for Christian religious views. “What we have seen in the past few years is an aggressiveness among atheists and nonbelievers toward those who believe in God.”
Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason, said the rising profile of nonbelievers in the United States began around 2004 with several popular books by atheists and humanists such as Christopher Hitchens. Local groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers began springing up throughout the nation, and a movement to unify the different varieties of nonbelievers started in 2009.
Edwords compares the growing size and visibility of nonbelievers to the gay-rights movement in its infancy. Nonbelievers often refer to “coming out of the closet.”
“What we are finding is more people coming out,” said Jack Maurice, founder of the Orlando Freethinkers & Humanists organization. “Coming out is a lack of fear.”
The increase in the nonreligious, along with declines in church attendance, is the subject of many sermons about the United States becoming a godless nation.
Both sides proclaim the nation is headed the way of Europe, where many countries have become predominantly secular.
“I see a movement to a more secular society,” Staver said. “That is a continuing trend that should concern all of us.”
Many blame professors such as Negy for contributing to a generation that has largely turned its back on organized religion. The Millennials, ages 18 to 29, are far less religious than their parents. About 25 percent of them have no religious affiliation compared with 13 percent of baby boomers at the same age.
“I think the negative criticism [of Christians] is much more in academia than the general population,” said Clark Whitten, senior pastor of Grace Church Orlando in Longwood, Fla. “There is a patronizing way that is offensive when they make you feel small-minded to believe in faith.”
Whitten said the student was right to stand up in defense of Christianity: “I don’t see it as bigotry. I see it as the truth.”
Negy said he never tries to convince his students they should change their beliefs or adopt his views on religion, but to learn to think for themselves — as he did when he was their age.
Negy grew up as Southern Baptist in Texas and didn’t begin to question his religious beliefs until he was a college student in Spain and learned about Islam. He found himself thinking, “Is Jesus the true prophet or is Mohammed? What proof is there that either is?”
“And then I realized, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve been believing this for 25 years because everyone around me believes it,’” Negy said. “I understand if you are raised to never think critically, and question those beliefs, you are shocked that anyone would question that validity. That’s what I want to do in my class.”
Not everybody fears the increase of nonbelievers through the process of critical thinking. Pastor Dan Lacich, director of church planting for Northland Church in Longwood, contends that those who are truly Christian are strong in their faith, while many of those who have left the church were Christian in name only.
“People are more honest about who they are. To me that’s a good thing,” Lacich said. “They’re not just faking it because they think it’s the right thing to do. What you have remaining is those who are serious about loving God and loving their neighbor.”
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