Senior history major Brian Jacobs was in the second grade when he and a friend got into a contest trying to one-up each other.
“At one point he said basically, ‘I’m the second most knowledgeable person next to God,” Jacobs said. “I then said I was basically above God. He got (offended) and told me that I was in trouble with God and that bothered me.”
After reflecting on the situation, he asked his father what he should do, and his father explained to him all the different religious options out there. Jacobs comes from a family with a Methodist mother, a Zen Buddhist father and a set of staunchly Catholic grandparents.
Jacobs’s religious choice? None of them.
He is now the president of the Student Secular Alliance and describes himself as an agnostic atheist – someone who personally doesn’t believe in a deity, but can’t prove or disprove its existence.
“Just like with religion such as Christianity, you have people all over the spectrum,” he said. “I believe that a deity can’t show itself because it would disprove certain aspects of the religion. So, if a deity can’t show itself, you can’t really prove they exist.”
Most individuals, Jacobs said, assume agnostics – generally those who say that there isn’t proof either way deities exist – are on the fence.
“Everyone goes, ‘Oh they just don’t know what they believe in,'” Jacobs said. “The agnostics I know either truly don’t care or just don’t know. It’s not really an issue in their life.”
Atheism, on the other hand, Jacobs said, has the more negative connotations of the two groups. He said many get associated with immoral practices and bad behavior.
“I have been trying to dispel those notions and misconceptions,” Jacobs said. “When I got to [Sam Houston State University] four years ago and told my friends I was (at the time) atheist, they said, ‘Oh well I assume all these things about you.'”
One of the most alarming, he said, was about his sexual practices.
“One girl in one of my classes accused me of having sex every night and basically that I was a man-whore,” Jacobs said.
Although Jacobs said he is comfortable with his belief system, others may not be so comfortable.
“Obviously being in Texas, people will assume certain things about you like you’re Christian,” he said. “And there’s a bit of an awkward moment at times when you have to say, ‘No actually I’m non-religious.'”
According to a study conducted by The Houstonian, 21 percent of atheist students said they were dissatisfied with the atmosphere for religious differences compared to 17 percent of Christian respondents. However, 46 percent of Christian respondents said they were satisfied with the religious environment, 20 points less than 66 percent of atheists.
Jacobs said this represents the divide between the “angstheists” and other non-religious people.
“What I call angstheists are people who are very vocal and tend to challenge other people’s faith,” Jacobs said. “They are the newer atheists that tend to be elitists and really just rude.”
Professor of psychology Jerry Bruce, Ph.D., studies individuals attachment to a god and said that it’s not surprising that non-religious individuals feel uncomfortable.
“We do have a population here that, for lack of a better word, have a fundamentalist approach to religion,” Bruce said. “Their goal is to help other people recognize the right way. I have found that people that are most comfortable toward their belief or whatever are less likely to try to convince other people their way is right.”
Bruce said people who have firm beliefs are less likely to try to convert others to their own belief.
“If you’re really secure in your beliefs, you will listen to what other people have to say,” Bruce said. “They’ll do that because it will broaden their experience.”
Jacobs agreed and said that the angstheists and the other non-religious highlight that.
“Who are the ones going out and talking to the religious groups?” Jacobs said. “It’s the angstheists. And that’s why there are stereotypes of atheists talking down to everyone on their high horse.”
Jacobs said that atheists and agnostics don’t generally hate religious groups but respect their choice to have that faith. He said the same is true for religious groups toward the atheist community. Through SSA, Jacobs has organized several events on campus with several of the religious organizations like the Baptist Student Ministry and the Catholic Student Union.
Bruce said the religious students might sometimes feel uncomfortable with challenges to their faith like the theory of evolution.
“We have a lot of classes that teach that,” Bruce said. “Most people don’t have a problem with the idea of evolution. They say, ‘If you do believe in evolution, that’s ok. If you don’t believe in evolution, that’s fine too.’ We have a very tolerant community at Sam Houston and that’s one reason I chose this school.”
In addition, the uncomfortable feeling for non-religious students can stem from meetings that start with prayers.
“Some schools do (have prayer times), that would make (non-Christian) students feel uncomfortable,” Bruce said. “If they are walking on campus and a group walks up to them and tries to convert them to that particular belief, then that’s another way.”
While Jacob said that’s true, he said he’s accepting of other alternatives like moments of silence that don’t force one particular belief.