Atheists organize at religious colleges

November 4, 2011

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Late one night over pizza, Univer­sity of Dayton students Branden
King and Nick Haynes discovered neither of them believed in God. Surely,
they thought, they couldn't be the only nonbelievers at the Roman
Catholic college.

Last year, King and Haynes and a couple of other
like-minded students applied to the administration to form the Society
of Freethinkers, a student club based on matters of unbelief.

The
university rejected their application—and rejected it again this past
September. Without university approval, the group cannot meet on campus,
tap a student activities fund, participate in campus events or use
campus media. For now, the group meets at a cafe off campus, relying on
word of mouth to draw members, up to about 15 now. And they are
appealing the rejection.

"A religious campus can be a lonely place
for someone who doesn't subscribe to faith," said King, now 23 and a
graduate student in biology. "We want to reach out to these people."

The
Dayton students are not alone. The Secular Student Alliance, a national
organization of nontheistic students with 320 campus chapters, reports
that at least two other religious universities—Notre Dame and
Baylor—have rejected clubs for atheist, agnostic, humanist and other
nontheistic students. Students at Duquesne University, a Catholic
school, say they have little hope of approval on their first application
this year.

All the schools say they rejected the clubs because
they conflict with their Christian mission—which perplexes some
students, who note that Duquesne, Dayton and Notre Dame gave approval to
Muslim and Jewish student clubs. Dayton and Duquesne have also approved
of gay student groups.

"The only difference between us and them
is our club's agenda does not assume the existence of the
Judeo-Christian God," said Stephen Love, 21, a Notre Dame student whose
application was rejected twice. "I think those clubs should be allowed,
but if they are going to use that line of reasoning to reject us, they
should be consistent."

James Fitz, Dayton's vice president, said
the school can support a gay student club without condoning the members'
sexual orientation. Approving non-Catholic religious clubs is also
acceptable, because faith in God is involved.

"As a Marianist university we aspire 'to educate for formation in faith,'" he wrote in an e-mail, quoting Marianist principles.

Many
students say their peers are supportive of their nontheistic clubs.
Others have asked why, if they do not believe in God, they chose a
religious school in the first place.

Haynes and King came to
Dayton after attending Catholic high schools. Andrew Tripp, president of
DePaul University's Alliance for Free Thought, liked DePaul's urban
setting and its service to Chicago's poor. Brandi Stepp said that as an
atheist she worried about choosing DePaul but was drawn by the
reputation of the theater department.

"I thought I might have to
keep my mouth shut about a lot of things," she said. "I was really
interested in finding a community of like-minded people. I saw the SSA
ad, showed up and had a great time."

Not all religious schools
reject nontheist clubs. California Lutheran Uni­versity has an active
group that regularly cooperates with religious groups on campus, and
DePaul has a thriving group that meets with administration support.

"Once
they realized we were not going to march on the president's office
demanding the de-Catholization of the university they were very amenable
to our goals," said Tripp. Suzanne Kil­gannon, director of DePaul's
Office of Student Involvement, said the club's goal of open inquiry into
matters of faith—and nonfaith—conforms to the school's Catholic
mission.

"We looked at it as: we are the marketplace of ideas, so
how could we not have an organization like this?" she said. "Because it
is important to study all sides of the subject—regardless of the
subject—we felt like this club belonged here."

Other religious
schools have arrived at the same conclusion. There are sanctioned
Secular Student Alliance chapters at Southern Methodist University,
Luther College, Presbyterian College and Iowa's Central College. Jesse
Galef, SSA's communications director, said some religious universities
misunderstand the purpose of nontheist clubs. It isn't to promote
atheism, he said, but to provide "a safe place" for students exploring
nonbelief.

"Secular student groups promote discussion, and
community and compassion," Galef said. "If the University of Dayton and
other schools value these things, they need to stop refusing secular
students the same rights religious students have."

Galef has heard
from Baylor students who said they felt threatened with expulsion
because of their lack of faith. The Baylor Atheist/Agnostic Society
continues to meet, organizing through a private Facebook page with 69
members. No one in the group would agree to be interviewed.

Nick
Shadowen, a philosophy major who proposed a secular society at Du­quesne
and is currently awaiting the ad­ministration's decision, sees a gap
between religious and nonreligious students.

"A lot of students
come from small, conservative towns centered around church where there
is not a lot of discussion about atheists, and so they are sort of
forced to keep their opinion to themselves," he said. "This group is a
chance to show the rest of the student body we are just like everyone
else." —RNS