Faithless thinking trending; Non-believer groups grow on campus.
WORCESTER - Alex Caro, a 20-year-old political science major at Clark University, said he's not exactly sure when he lost his faith in God.
But he said he began experiencing a "de-conversion" during his early teenage years as he became more interested in science and began to believe that it was best to think logically when facing life's puzzles.
"When I was younger, I was deeply curious about how we got here," said Mr. Caro, who, until a couple of years ago, attended worship services at the local Congregational Church in Acton. "Reading a wide variety of views on the subject, talking with family and friends, and doing a lot of thinking on my own led me to my current position."
Mr. Caro said his views and beliefs are strictly in line with atheist thinking, but he added that he identifies himself more as a freethinker.
"That's because I follow the evidence and see where it takes me," he explained.
Mr. Caro is among the college students who have turned away from traditional religion and have become atheists, agnostics, secularists and humanists.
There is no data showing how many college students have turned a cold shoulder toward religion, but clubs and associations catering to non-believers have been steadily springing up on American campuses.
They stand side-by-side with long-established collegiate religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Newman Society or the Jewish Hillel.
Many of the groups are affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance, which has seen steady growth since its founding around 2000.
The SAC now has at least 300 chapters around the world.
The trend of students turning away from mainstream religion and embracing secular thinking seems to parallel the growth of humanism and atheism in the nation's cultural landscape.
The writings of atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for example, have elbowed out the works of other authors and are displayed prominently on library and bookstore shelves.
And while there are no polling numbers on college students, studies in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the American Religion Identification Survey show that about 15 percent of U.S. adults claim no religious affiliation.
David Niose, a local attorney who is president of the American Humanist Association, said many students today prefer reason or logic over spirituality.
"They prefer a naturalist approach. They choose reason over the beliefs that come from ancient texts," said Mr. Niose.
He said he also believes many students are being driven to non-belief because of the rigid dogma and very conservative views espoused by some churches.
"The views of the political right also play in," said Mr. Niose. "Many college kids see the right's stands on issues as being backwards and out of date."
Mr. Niose said atheist and humanist organizations are now cropping up even on high school and religious college campuses.
Mr. Caro, who said that his maternal grandmother was a devout creationist, helped organize the Clark University Free Thought Society last October.
Many of its members had been attending meetings of the Greater Worcester Humanists group.
About a dozen individuals showed up at a recent Friday evening CUFTS meeting at Jonas Clark Hall, and the ensuing hour-long discussion revolved around horoscopes and superstitions.
Some of those attending admitted that they haven't definitively given up on their faiths, while one coed said she enjoyed the works of Eckhart Tolle, a New Age spiritual writer whose first book, "The Power of Now," topped several best-seller lists.
Participants agreed that many are drawn to superstitious practices and customs.
"I have to admit that I avoid breaking mirrors," said Andy Masley, a Webster native studying philosophy and physics.
Daphne Kinney-Landis, a freshman from Guilford, Vt., said many celebrity sports figures perform their own little rituals in hopes of bettering their performance on the field.
"It's just like a lot of Italians who throw salt over their shoulder for luck," added Nick Porcella, a 19-year-old Needham resident studying English and philosophy.
Ms. Kinney-Landis said that most read horoscopes or take part in superstitious practices for fun.
But Mr. Caro said he wasn't too sure.
"Unfortunately, too many people take these things seriously and they act like placebos. Spirituality overall gives one a false sense of hope and that can be harmful to the individual," said Mr. Caro, who admitted that he tries to avoid stepping on sidewalk lines.
CUTLINE: Clark University student Alex Caro of the Clark University Free Thought Society leads a discussion at one of club's recent meetings.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN