Nonbelievers find niche at California Lutheran

November 4, 2011

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Evan Clark chose to attend California Lutheran University even though
he wasn't sure how he might fit in as an atheist at a religious school.
But when Clark, now 23, and a handful of other students sought to
establish a nonbelievers' club, they were approved by both student
government and the administration, despite the school's affiliation with
the Evangelical Lu­theran Church of America.

"The mission
statement of the university is to further faith and reason," Clark said.
"They are very open to communicating about religion, to not saying 'it
is my way or the highway.' So we fit right in with that mission—that we
are going to talk about matters of faith so you will be stronger in your
beliefs."

The Cal Lutheran chapter of the Secular Student
Alliance started in 2009. It is now one of the most active clubs on the
campus in Thousand Oaks, California, joining other groups for events
based on both faith and nonbelief.

With a Catholic group, club
members visited a Catholic church. They celebrated a Jewish holiday with
a Jewish group. They have visited a Sikh gurdwara and a Mormon temple
and discussed Wiccan and Unitarian Universalist beliefs with members of
those faiths.

"What I appreciate most about the group is its
willingness to explore what makes believers tick," said William Bersley,
one of the group's faculty advisers. "This aspect of tolerant inquiry
into faith and compassionate service seems to belie the more monstrous
caricatures of atheists."

Not everyone is so impressed. Cam­pus
pastor Scott Maxwell-Doherty said when the SSA was allowed to use the
chapel to host an atheist speaker, some religious students felt a line
had been crossed. "We said we've got to work at this together," he said
of the decision to approve the group. "Because if you are going to go
out there in the world, you have to understand the bandwidth."

Clark has heard from students at other religious schools where officials have not embraced nontheistic student clubs.

"They
are losing out on an opportunity for positive dialogue with people who
have different views," he said. "It blows my mind that some campuses
would not allow this. If we did this with a Muslim group or a Jewish
group, it would be blatantly wrong, but with nonbelievers it is OK? That
is sad."  —RNS