Should This Atheist Group Be Given Office in a Campus “Spiritual Center”?

One decision all college atheist groups need to make is which category of student organizations they’d like to be included in: Religious? Academic? Other?

Penn State’s Atheist/Agnostic Association (PSAAA) is listed as a Religious group in the campus directory. As a result, they were allowed to sign up for office space in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center in campus.

That makes a whole lot of religious people feel uneasy:

“They have every bit of a right to express how they feel to other people and to exist as an organization,” said Jake Comerford, a member of Newman. “But in a center that struggles to give space to organizations for worship, they would probably be better situated in a place like the HUB.”

Comerford (junior-mechanical engineering) stressed his view was not that PSAAA does not “belong,” but Pasquerilla is in need of space for spiritual and worship services. “PSAAA has its place, and that place should not be in Pasquerilla,” he said.

For Father Matthew Laffey, director of the Catholic Campus Ministry, it is no question PSAAA should not be in Pasquerilla.

“It was always agreed upon by the affiliate staff that we wouldn’t do anything to offend other affiliate staff members,” Laffey said. “I don’t know how you bring something in here that’s diametrically opposed to what is intended to be done here.”

Laffey also stressed PSAAA is “not spiritual.”

“I mean, spiritual is in the name of Pasquerilla Spiritual Center for crying out loud,” Laffey said. “The center is trying to accommodate everyone and in turn creating a less spiritual place.”

The president of the PSAAA, Dan Farbowitz, finds good reason for staying there;

“It’s good for us to have a room so that students of other faiths, or of no faith, can stop by and have a dialogue with us,” Farbowitz (senior-physics, math and philosophy) said.

Isn’t that really the point?

How is an atheist group’s presence an more contentious than a Muslim group next to a Christian group next to a Hindu group?

The more, the merrier. If you want to learn about religion in college, go to a place where many options are available to you and you can learn about all of them.

(You can find out more about the PSAAA’s office space at Forms Most Beautiful.)

This isn’t a legal issue — the atheist group obviously has a right to be there. But the question is: Should they be there?

What do you think?

  • http://headdibs.blogspot.com/2008/11/three-facets-of-foolishness.html James

    Academic, clearly.

  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com Eamon Knight

    The Catholic priest’s answer seems a bit disingenuous: at some level, almost *every* group in there thinks all the others are wrong, where “wrong” ranges from “a minor disagreement in emphasis” to “damned to hell for all eternity” (unless they also exclude all the Xn fundy groups). Why make atheism/theism the one big dividing line?

    However, the same question came up about the Carleton Secular Alliance (Ottawa, Canada), only it was the *atheists* debating whether they should be part of the “spiritual centre” — what, us spiritual? What’s that? I don’t recall what was decided.

  • John

    “It was always agreed upon by the affiliate staff that we wouldn’t do anything to offend other affiliate staff members,” Laffey said.

    Ah, I see, so the very presence of an atheist organization in the same building offends them.

    This reminds me of rec-league soccer: just because someone contacted you and you fell down does not mean a foul was committed – everybody’s running around, trying to kick a ball at opposing goals, and we’re bound to bump around unintentionally.

    Likewise, just because you’re offended does not mean anybody did anything wrong – we’re all running around trying to find the truth, with differing views, and we’re bound to make contact, sometimes painfully. You do not have a right to avoid differing viewpoints from your own.

  • Kyle

    I want to play Devils Advocate.

    Doesn’t this makes the “atheism is a religion” argument tough to refute? I mean we are advocating it as a spiritual position rather than an intellectual one. I think that perhaps sends the wrong message.

    Thoughts?

  • SImon

    This is much simple than that.
    There should never have been an University provided, publicly contributed, spiritual centre to begin with.

    Follow the constitution. Close the place, or at least have the associations within it pay a rent, and the problem goes away…

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com/ IasonOuabache

    Doesn’t this makes the “atheism is a religion” argument tough to refute? I mean we are advocating it as a spiritual position rather than an intellectual one. I think that perhaps sends the wrong message.

    Thoughts?

    Well, putting aside the fact that there are many atheists/agnostics that are actually “spiritual” (for limited definitions of “spiritual”). I agree that atheism and agnosticism aren’t religions (no dogma, no clergy, no holy scripture, etc) but they are religious stances. PSAAA does have something to say about religion and spirituality and they should be given a chance to use this space like any other group that wishes to discuss those topics.

  • Winston

    Atheism, agnosticism, as I (and many in my college group) construe it, is notspiritual. It’s not even a specific ideology.

    But the PSAAA should have a space. Because nontheists of all sorts do contemplate the same sorts of questions that religious people do: what’s the meaning of life? is there one? How much are we obligated to give to charity? etc. etc. Nontheists just have different ways of answering than do theists.

    That’s my reasoning – and why I’m ok with our group being listed under religious/spiritual organizations on campus.

  • Richard

    I don’t think we have enough information to say.

    Is it a group that’s devoted to promoting rationalism via science education and discussion of naturalistic worldviews? (Like the JREF) If so, they really aren’t a religious organization.

    Is it an organization that’s intended to provide a community for people interested in personal development outside of religion, and a starting point for possible charitable work? (Akin to a humanist group) If so, then they’re a ‘religious’ organization, in a common-use sense of the word, and definitely have a case for being located in this building.

    Realistically, I’d expect that it’s probably a combination of the two, with an emphasis on the latter. But this is a problem with calling our groups ‘atheist’ when simple non-belief isn’t intended to be the greatest common factor.

  • http://jewmanist.com Rose

    IMHO, I don’t think so. Atheism is the absence of religion. It just confuses the theists. :) I’d say it files under philosophy perhaps. Its really a tricky subject; I can see it going both ways. But I don’t like to enforce the notion that atheism is just another “religion”.

  • another Mike

    The Biology Building, Philosphy Lounge, Anthropology Museum —– anything but The Spiritual Center!

  • Kitecraft

    Hello.
    I think that this clearly falls under a ‘religious’ category.
    Thier name specifically includes “Atheist”, and that term is used almost exlusivley when referring to religious or theistic belief.
    The whole point of the group seems to be focus upon all the same things as every other group. And, for a lot of the same reasons.
    It’s not carpenters getting together to discuss carpentry. It’s not english majors trying to claim H.P. Lovecraft was actually a poor author. It’s about religion.

    Now, other then the obvious superficial reasons, it wouldn’t make sense to have Atheism groups with the local book clubs, math clubs, chess clubs, or other smart clubs.
    It really is about religion.

    I think that one of the hard parts of listing Atheism under the religious category is that Atheism is not itself a religion. And that’s the line that the religious want to draw in this case. Which of course introduces a problem for both the religious, and the Atheist.
    The religious can now point to this and say “A-Ha, you ARE a religion cause you listed under religion!! BAM! owned” And this will be really hard for me to counter if someone throws this at me. Because I’m quite sure that the people who like to claim Atheism is a religion, and can use something like this as a case-in-point, well, it’s just going to make them puff out thier chest even more, and deaden thier ears and brain yet more too. Because only thier religion is the right religion.

    But, at the same time, for those that are claiming Atheism is a religion, it should make it harder for them to deny that it belongs along side them in thier buildings, sharing thier pulpit to the masses. (but, logic isn’t thier strong suit to begin with)
    If you can abide a group of people:
    A: Whom you believe are destined for an eternity in hell
    B: Whom pradoxically believe (and you KNOW they believe) that you are the one going to burn in hell fire forever
    C: whom you KNOW believe unequivocally that that YOUR belief is an affront thier entire life
    D: and whom your belief says they are the ones in fact committing atrocious acts of blasphemy

    Well then you really should be able to accept someone who just simply doesn’t believe anything at all bad about you, but just doesn’t believe the same bad things about any one else. And wishes you didn’t either.

    Sorry for rambling.
    But thanks for reading.
    Kitecraft

  • http://gaytheistagenda.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    If they’d focus on their own religious/spiritual education and growth they would likely never even notice their non-religious neighbors. Unfortunately some people aren’t built that way, and instead feel the need to be all into what everyone else is, and have the vapors over it.

  • http://www.meetup.com/beltwayatheists Shelley Mountjoy

    I don’t think they should be under the religious umbrella… but regardless, they have every right to space that any other student organization does.

  • Erp

    I notice there are some followup letters and here (plus followup).

    PSAA and others have also disputed the article’s accuracy stating that only two people have complained and many “have responded positively to the group’s presence”. “Smith [who appears to be in charge of the building] said the two complaints he did receive were verbal complaints from the director of Catholic Campus Ministry, Father Matthew Laffey, and the minister for the Christian Student Fellowship (CSF), William “Buzz” Roberts.” Apparently the reporter who belonged to the Newman Catholic Student Association exaggerated the complaints and failed to report a conflict of interest and has been suspended from reporting.

  • llewelly

    To most atheists, ‘spiritual’ is either a neuro-chemical phenomena, or not a real phenomena. And atheism is not a religion. So I have mixed feelings about an atheist group having office space in in ‘Spiritual Center’. (I don’t think a taxpayer-funded university should have such a center.) But our society does not have a category for groups who meet to talk about religion, or spiritualism, but are not themselves religious, and are only spiritual in a neuro-chemical sense. It’s a presumption of nonexistence – policies function as if atheists are presumed not to exist.

    Atheists are left with an uncomfortable choice – give up both the opportunity for dialogue with believers, and the equitable use of state-funded office space, or to engage in the semantic strategy suggested by Kitecraft; argue that it fits in the building because it’s about religion.

    However, although the choice looks uncomfortable to my standpoint – I don’t see a major disaster resulting from either choice.

  • Erp

    Several issues here

    1. Church/State – Should Penn State have a center which houses religious groups? I would say yes on the grounds of free exercise since Penn State is a residential university which may limit student’s activities to practice their religions if they have to go off-campus. It is a tricky problem.

    2. Should the PSAAA belong within the religious community? I note that group they officially join is “Center for Ethics & Religious Affairs” which is a bit more inclusive sounding. Certainly they can and probably should be involved in discussing ethics and relationships between religions.

    They do have to agree to a code of ethics which doesn’t seem too bad.

    On the practical side being in the same building means they can ask questions directly of adherents of other faiths and also borrow (and lend) books and it is easier to organize joint events.

    I’m a Stanford alum which has a similar setup. Perhaps, Hemant when he comes to Stanford next Thursday might find out more. The event for which he is coming, “Atheism and Faith in Conversation”, is 7:30pm in bldg. 420 (Jordan Hall, front of the main quad), room 040 (in the basement). We don’t expect fireworks.

  • http://thishumanist.wordpress.com Clare

    In the UK we are moving towards the category ‘Religion and Belief’ so it might help to present it in these terms. At Edinburgh University in Scotland, the Humanist Society has developed a really good relationship with the chaplaincy and there has been some really good interaction and friendship between the societies. I think it really helps for religious societies to meet every day atheists so that they don’t assume that all atheists are scary or hostile to religion and religious people.

  • David D.G.

    Kitecraft wrote:

    If you can abide a group of people:
    A: Whom you believe are destined for an eternity in hell
    B: Whom pradoxically believe (and you KNOW they believe) that you are the one going to burn in hell fire forever
    C: whom you KNOW believe unequivocally that that YOUR belief is an affront thier entire life
    D: and whom your belief says they are the ones in fact committing atrocious acts of blasphemy

    Well then you really should be able to accept someone who just simply doesn’t believe anything at all bad about you, but just doesn’t believe the same bad things about any one else. And wishes you didn’t either.

    I like this. A lot. I hope I get the chance to make use of it myself someday.

    ~David D.G.

  • Frank

    As far as the church/state issue is concerned, I absolutely agree that there should not be such a spiritual center at a public university. I attend the University of Delaware, which has no such center, and in five years here I have yet to hear a single person complain about not being able to find a church. This is America, we have churches everywhere.

    As far as whether the atheist group should be in the spiritual center, I definitely think that given the choice, we atheists should be putting our offices just about anywhere but a church/spiritual center. However, most student groups don’t have offices at all. This atheist group was probably choosing between having an office in this spiritual center and not having an office at all. Given those options, I think they made the right choice. Having an office can be very useful.

  • drew

    Yes they should be there. Of course atheism is not a faith; but the point is to meet people where they are asking questions on the subjects of faith and religion. Since it is during youth and adolescence that people’s opinion of religion is finalised, it is vital that atheist and humanist groups be high profile where the visability is the highest.

  • Peggy Pianalto

    As an atheist, I would feel very uncomfortable being in such a place.


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