Dyanne Vaught didn't lose her faith in God at college. Instead, she found a name for what she already believed: secular humanism.
"I sort of always knew that that was my philosophy on life, but I didn't really know what to call it," said Vaught, who will begin her sophomore year at College of Charleston in the fall.
In May, Vaught won the Silverman Secular Humanist Scholarship, an annually renewable $1,700 award. The scholarship is unique among the state's three largest universities: Financial aid representatives at the University of South Carolina and Clemson University said they offer no similar awards.
People who don't believe in a deity are still a minority in the United States, but the Pew Research Center's 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey shows the number of people unaffiliated with any religion is growing -- especially among young adults.
In the survey, one in four Americans ages 18 to 29 said they were unaffiliated. The "unaffiliated" category, which accounts for 16.1 percent of the overall adult population, includes atheists (1.6 percent of the adult population), agnostics (2.4 percent) and people who describe their religion as "nothing in particular" (12.1 percent).
So what's the difference between an atheist and a secular humanist? For Herb Silverman, the College of Charleston math professor who established the scholarship, it's about ethics. "An atheist says, 'This is what I don't believe,' " Silverman said, speaking on the phone from an American Humanist Association conference in San Jose, Ca. "A secular humanist says, 'This is what I do believe.' "
According to the AHA's most recent manifesto, those beliefs include the social nature of humans and the idea that happiness can be found by working to benefit society.
For Vaught, it's a way of thinking. "It's about being rational in everything that you do," Vaught said.
Vaught, who grew up in Lexington, said she had early doubts about her parents' conservative Baptist church.
"It never really sat very well with me -- the closed-mindedness, I guess," Vaught said. "I'm kind of reluctant to say that because they are still people who are close to me.
"Then I realized that there's not much logic behind a lot of things that are taught, so I wanted something more logical than that."
Coming to College of Charleston to study economics, she found what she describes as a more liberal-minded environment. A friend from high school, Matthew Lorenz, invited her to an Atheist-Humanist Alliance meeting.
"It's not really a support group, but it's a friendly environment for people to discuss without a lot of judgment going on," said Lorenz, who is president of the student organization.
Vaught learned about the scholarship through the group's electronic mailing list.
Silverman said the religious climate at College of Charleston has become more accepting since he was the Atheist-Humanist Alliance's first faculty adviser in 1998. He said non-believers are working to gain acceptance, not to proselytize.