For many new Princetonians, freshman year starts with the search for a new spiritual home among the dozens of religious groups on campus. For Daniel Schiff ’12, however, one group seemed to be missing.
“I came and saw all these religious posters, and it made me feel a little alienated,” said Schiff, who was raised in the Jewish tradition but no longer believes in God.
Last year Schiff, along with Corinne Stephenson-Johnson ’12, David Perel ’12, and Kaylyn Jackson ’13, founded the Princeton University Society of Humanists (PUSH) to promote discussion based on reason, not religion. The group now has an email list of about 100 students.
PUSH, which is affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance and Foundation Beyond Belief, was created as atheist and humanist groups have launched on other college campuses as well. Following in the footsteps of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and Yale’s Humanist Society, PUSH chose to organize around humanism — a secular moral philosophy that focuses on ethical living without belief in the supernatural — rather than atheism.
“Organizing around humanism allows you a lot more breadth and depth,” Schiff explained. “It allows you to cover the full scope of issues — like a religious group, just without the religion.”
This year was the first time PUSH held events and weekly meetings, which attract a small group of students with a diverse set of religious histories. Discussions often focus on ethics, with philosophy and politics dipping in and out of conversations about everything from vegetarianism to war. The club also has hosted lectures by speakers including philosophy professor Gideon Rosen and anthropology professor Alan Mann.
PUSH holds its meetings at Murray-Dodge Hall, which houses the Office of Religious Life, two prayer rooms, and several campus ministries. Seem incongruous? PUSH’s founders made a point to organize under the auspices of ORL.
“We’re not a religion, but we’re effectively meeting the same sort of community needs,” Schiff said.
The society’s ambitions include more interaction with religious groups and the creation of a humanist chaplain position alongside the 15 campus chaplaincies. Many universities, including Harvard and Rutgers, offer chaplaincies that support humanist, atheist, agnostic, and other nonreligious campus communities.
One of PUSH’s primary functions is to provide a welcoming community for students questioning religion, said Jackson, the group’s president.
“Princeton is a pretty open environment,” said Michael Pretko ’13. “No one would put you down for your religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs.”
Still, some students feel a stigma attached to atheism, not just on campus — where they say it is sometimes expressed with “a weird look” — but especially in their hometowns. Some describe themselves as “closet atheists.”
“People want to talk about their background, their history, how their beliefs are changing, and whether their families are accepting of them,” Schiff said. “You want to make sense of an ethical system and talk with other people, without having to invoke religion —and feel safe and comfortable.”