Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2015

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors



First Advisor

Joanne Belknap

Second Advisor

Sanyu Mojola

Third Advisor

Rolf Norgaard


Atheists in the United States remain a largely invisible minority in a highly religious social climate. College atheists as individuals have also been largely dismissed in sociology and the sociology of religion, especially with regard to their identity formation, identity salience, and experiences of stigma and stigma-coping mechanisms. Based on in-depth, qualitative interviews with 14 self-identified atheist college students, I argue that atheists begin the process of forming their identity during adolescence as a result of numerous background factors and through an ongoing negotiation of a society that they perceive as unaccepting on some level. I also argue that college plays a role in providing a supportive context in which atheists can affirm and crystallize their identities as a result of processes set in motion before college. This thesis seeks to gain a nuanced understanding of how college atheists as individuals have formed their identities and how they negotiate this embattled identity that remains stigmatized by U.S. society based on social constructions of the atheist as immoral. Respondents reported similar trends in their backgrounds and events in their childhoods or young adulthoods that sparked the eventual adoption of an atheist identity. They also reported variations in atheist identity salience as well as perceptions stigma and acceptance. Respondents coped with stigma by redefining friend groups, controlling information, and positing themselves as moral people without believing in God.