Three HU students share their experiences being nonreligious on a religious campus.
By Thad Arnold, Staff Writer
Leaning back comfortably in his chair, HU sophomore Kevin Gorman listens in rapt attention as Baker Second erupts into thoughtful discussion at the latest floor worship. Gorman enjoys the discussions that floor worships can open up about God, relationships, morals and life in general.
But one thing separates him from most of the other attendees: Gorman isn’t a Christian. He isn’t even religious.
Gorman identifies as agnostic. Despite being raised in a church-going family, he questions faith’s personal relevance to him.
Gorman is one of several students on campus who have no religion. In a convenience survey of 150 HU students from the Coffey Break and at the Dining Commons, 14 students identified as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “none.” Three students—Gorman, Ace Yeomans, and Ana Hoglund—opened up about being nonreligious on a religious campus. Despite rejecting religion, the degree programs here have drawn them to HU—even though the college is evangelical Christian.
“With Christianity you base a lot of yourself on what you believe, and the Bible, and all that,” Gorman says. “I think for me—I don’t really care, per se.”
Gorman is no stranger to Christianity. His 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 drawn to attending church. Although he would still call 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 is not to say that Gorman is totally dismissive of the possibility of the supernatural.
“There’s got to be something spiritual,” Gorman says. “There’s got to be something that we connect to in some other way than our reality. I just don’t know necessarily if that’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 Ace Yeomans. Friendly 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 household, but their (Yeomans prefers to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns) change in beliefs came about less gradually than Gorman’s.
In a debate over the topic of evolution when Yeomans was 18, a friend called Yeomans “an idiot.”
This sparked a dive into research on the topic, which eventually lead to an interest in apologetics—the rational defense of beliefs—in general.
“I pretty much listened to debates between theists and nontheists nonstop in all of 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 an unfamiliarity with faith than a rejection of it. She has not been to church regularly since elementary school, and religion has never really played that big of a role in her life.
“It just kind of faded over time,” Hoglund explains. “And after that I just never thought about it.”
Hoglund went to a Catholic church when she was younger. But her mother, despite being Catholic, wanted Hoglund to choose what to believe in for herself.
Overall, nonreligious attitudes are on the rise. According to the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of U.S. adults said they had no religion in 2021. And the rise in nonreligious students attending Christian universities is not unique to HU.
“I think the presidents and dean(s) are also asking the same question,” explained John Schmalzbauer, a sociologist at Missouri State University in a Zoom interview when asked about how Christian universities are reacting to these students. “How do we have a Christian college with people who may not even be religious as part of the student body?”
So why attend an openly Christian university when you’re openly nonreligious?
The simple answer appears to be the degree programs offered here. Gorman and Yeomans are both Digital Media Arts majors, 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, Mich., and Hoglund, who is from Fort Wayne, Ind., HU offered the program they were looking for as close to their hometowns as they could get.
For these students, their lack of religion also makes the motivation for attending chapel harder to find. But their resistance to attending chapel might not be as extreme as one might think.
“I’m open to it,” Hoglund says. “If that’s what I have to do to get my degree and do better in school, then I’ll follow it, or deal with it, but, like—I’d rather get out of it if I could.”
Yeomans wouldn’t mind the requirement as much if less chapel credits were required.
“Who goes to church two or three times a week?” Yeomans added. “Crazy people, that’s who!”
Despite not sharing the same beliefs as the mainstream culture on campus, neither Gorman nor Hoglund said they feel discriminated against due to their beliefs.
“I’ve talked with people who were concerned that I was not going to heaven,” Hoglund says. “But those were pretty good friends.”
“There’s times like that when I feel like I’m not really connecting at all,” Gorman says. “But in terms of community—no. Everyone around here is great. I’ve never … felt like I’m singled out.”
Yeomans is willing to participate in friendly debates about beliefs. While Christians might expect atheists to be angry with them, Yeomans feels that atheists and theists can have disagreements over belief without resorting to vitriol.
While not afraid of discussion, Yeomans says that Christian spaces can feel, while not necessarily uncomfortable, a bit awkward.
“Sometimes how I feel at Christian events—it’s like everybody is holding their breath,” Yeomans says.
There is still definitely a level of tension for those nonbelieving among the believing.
Take Hoglund as an example, who was worried about connecting with her Christian boyfriend’s mother, who was a pastor’s daughter.
“At first it’s a challenge,” Hoglund says. “But you kind of overcome it.”
Gorman is thankful that his family has been accepting of his change in beliefs.
“There was a part of me that’s like, ‘Hey, should I share this with them, or is it that big of a deal? Is it not that big of a deal?’” Gorman explains. “It wasn’t a high anxiety thing or anything.”
Gorman admits that, while he may not accept the entirety of it, there are things he can learn from Christianity. He finds it interesting studying a religion as an outsider, rather than from the inside.
“I just took my midterm for [Biblical History and Literature],” Gorman says. “And it was a weird experience where I was like, ‘I know way more about it than I did when I was a Christian.’”
On the other hand, some Christians seek to learn from nonbelievers. RA of Roush First and ministry major Gretchen Accola says she interacts with both believing and nonbelieving residents on her floor.
“I think nonbelievers, from my experience, are really good at asking questions to understand,” Accola says. “Whereas sometimes the Christians I hang out with come sometimes with a set of assumptions and aren’t asking questions to understand.”
When asked what they would tell Christians on campus, the three gave a common answer: respect others’ beliefs, even if you disagree with them.
Yeomans adds: “Respect goes a long way.”