An Atheist Group at a Lutheran Campus

It’s hard enough to begin an atheist group at a secular school, but it’s even harder when you go a “religious” campus. The hoops you have to jump through and the stigma from other students and administrators can be overwhelming.

But when such a group exists, it’s amazing how many students flock to it.

There’s a positive article about the Secular Student Alliance at California Lutheran University in the Chronicle of Higher Education. (The article may only be available for a few more days).

The gist of it? It’s a great place to talk openly about your religious views, no matter what your personal story is:

Most of the early members identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, or some combination thereof. But over time, the group has attracted members who are wrestling with religion, and some who continue to be religious and just enjoy being a part of the club.

Having a group like the Secular Student Alliance is important because it can help students sort out who they are…

One group member, Skyler, made the transition from being an “easygoing Lutheran” to being an “easygoing secular humanist” since beginning college. At first, he says, he was nervous about being active in the Secular Student Alliance, since not all of his friends knew he had moved away from his childhood religion. But he says the club has given him moral support.

How wonderful to have an oasis like that when you’re stranded in a desert full of religion?

Just as atheist groups tend to be stronger in Bible Belt states, I would imagine that groups even at religious-in-name-only schools would have higher, more loyal attendance than groups at secular universities. Groups like this are unique and a haven for so many students coming from religious backgrounds.

The students who began the group at Cal Lutheran, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, see it as tied to the university’s mission, which “encourages critical inquiry into matters of both faith and reason.”

The club at Cal Lutheran was formed by a small group of friends who shared similar views and were looking for a sense of community. “When we got started, I think it was very much to create a community for nonreligious students,” says Evan Clark, a senior and one of the group’s founders, whose experience in student government helped him navigate setting up an official club.

“I think we’re blessed to be on such an open-minded campus,” says Mr. Clark, laughing at himself for using the word “blessed.” But, he says, there is a flip side: “We also had a lot of fear to be anything other than how we were when we started out.”

The existence of the CLU group also says a lot about the school itself: This is a place where questions are encouraged and “heretical” ideas are allowed to be discussed. Shouldn’t every religious school be like that? They should be, but so few are.

  • Claudia

    The existence of the CLU group also says a lot about the school itself: This is a place where questions are encouraged and “heretical” ideas are allowed to be discussed. Shouldn’t every religious school be like that? They should be, but so few are.

    From the article:

    One group member, Skyler, made the transition from being an “easygoing Lutheran” to being an “easygoing secular humanist” since beginning college.

    Gee, I wonder why more religious schools aren’t accepting of safe spaced in which to question one’s faith…

  • http://sassyseminarian.blogspot.com Julie

    Ah, one of the many reasons I’m proud to be an ELCA Lutheran. ELCA colleges have excellent academic ratings, and there’s no reason that people who want a good education shouldn’t feel welcome at their own school, regardless of what they do or don’t believe. Fabulous!

  • Hugh Kramer

    It’s hard to fault Cal Lutheran’s policy of acceptance. Though the article doesn’t mention it, the photo it uses was from the Secular Student Alliance SoCal leadership Summit held on campus Feb. 18-20. I was there (in the photo, I’m the guy holding up the leftmost edge of the banner) reporting on it for Examiner.com and you can read my article about the event at http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/secular-students-gather-at-cal-lutheran-university.

    For a religious school to host an event like this is extraordinary. When CLU says they’re open to different viewpoints, they not only talk the talk, they walk the walk.

  • abb3w

    The “Brown Phenomenon” seems potentially plausible, but with evidence still at the anecdata level.

  • Brian

    I attend an ELCA college which is becoming more-and-more ‘Lutheran in name only’. Critical religion classes are required, but church attendance is not. A few professors have expressed concern about this, but others point out that while less than 50% of the campus is Lutheran, 70-80% remains Christian (often of a very liberal variety).
    Regardless, the secular group on campus had no problems starting up, and all of its activities have been welcomed by the college community.

  • Blacksheep

    For a religious school to host an event like this is extraordinary. When CLU says they’re open to different viewpoints, they not only talk the talk, they walk the walk.

    It is extraordinary! There’s no better way to learn about one’s own faith than to respectfully confront and deal with other points of view.

    The funny thing is, posters on The Friendly Atheist immediately label those expressing dissenting opinions as trolls. And anyone engaging in a dialogue with those with differing opinions are admonished to “not feed the trolls.”

    I never understood that.

    “You disagree? well, then you’re a troll!”
    (Image of bratty 5 year old stomping off).

  • Jeff

    As a former student of CLU, I am so proud to see things like this. This is one of the biggest reasons I love CLU. Openness, inclusiveness, being welcoming to all faiths (or lack thereof) isn’t just flowery language on paper – they actually put it into practice. Over the course of a few years and several philosophy and religion classes, I came to be a non-believer (never really was religious to being with, though). Those were some of the toughest, most stimulating courses I’d ever taken.

    Chapel services are not mandatory, but they often have intriguing topics of discussion on faith and reason. Two religion classes are required, but only as part of the general curriculum and you can choose from a wide variety of philosophical and religious topics around the world.

    The funny thing is that since this round of publicity started, a number of alumni have revealed themselves to be complete fundies and are proclaiming the downfall of the University and saying they’ll stop contributing donations. I’d think they’d have been happier at a school that requires everyone to sign some sort of faith statement. Well, I’d be happy to make up the difference for them in dollars.

  • CanadianNihilist

    good for them.

  • http://theehtheist.blogspot.com The “Eh”theist

    I would expect no less from the church that brought us Davey and Goliath. :)

  • SS

    This is a compelling counter-argument to the tired claim that no religious denominations encourage the critical examination of their respective faith. I’ve yet to see a comparable program sponsored by atheists offer the same breadth of critical discussion, although I would happily admit to be wrong. As a Lutheran, this is an example of a why there is (IMO) immense value in liberal-leaning religious communities, which do exist in great numbers.

    I hope this challenges some members of this community to not broadly paint all religious individuals in the same brush, lest any chances of truthful dialogue become more remote.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    The funny thing is, posters on The Friendly Atheist immediately label those expressing dissenting opinions as trolls. And anyone engaging in a dialogue with those with differing opinions are admonished to “not feed the trolls.”

    We do get trolls here occasionally, Blacksheep. I don’t think anyone would call someone a troll if they had a legitimate interest in conversation, but there are certainly people who make inflammatory or passive-aggressive remarks, many times with no intention of returning or addressing responses. We also have a few regulars who consistently try to derail threads so they can expound on their favorite subjects. Note: I don’t personally consider Robert W. a troll, but I question if he’s sincerely interested in our perspective, especially since he tends to try to bring threads (no matter the original subject) around to his pet topics, ie: abortion. And he seems to often have “amnesia” about certain subjects, even though many of us have patiently explained our perspective to him several times on multiple different threads. On the plus side, he is always civil and polite.

    I don’t consider mere disagreement to be trolling. Off the top of my head, you and Nordog and Andrew make frequent comments, and I don’t think anyone has accused you of being trolls. At least, I hope they haven’t. In my opinion, anyone with a genuine interest in other people’s perspectives is welcome here.

  • Samuel

    It infuriates me when, even after instances such as this Lutheran school’s tolerance policy are detailed, religious individuals are still labeled, in generalizing statements, as being unwilling to examine their faith critically. As a Christian myself, I have gone through several reflective periods of doubt, as religious questions are inherently weighty and deal with the very essence of my being. It’s difficult to not ponder that and *not* feel overwhelmed by feelings of being admonished for what I believe, in addition to feelings of doubt that come from myself.

    Religious classes have, for me, been the most rigorous when it comes to matters of faith.

  • http://featherlessbiped.blogspot.com Rachel

    CLU’s ASB, of which SSA chapter co-founder Evan Clark is now president, is considering striking the word “Christian” from its constitution. There was a major feature on the proposed change in the local newspaper this weekend:

    http://www.vcstar.com/news/2011/feb/26/student-seeks-to-remake-clu-identity/

  • Blacksheep

    I don’t consider mere disagreement to be trolling. Off the top of my head, you and Nordog and Andrew make frequent comments, and I don’t think anyone has accused you of being trolls. At least, I hope they haven’t. In my opinion, anyone with a genuine interest in other people’s perspectives is welcome here.

    Thanks Anna. It happened several times when I first started posting and conversing here, but it hasn’t since. As far as my reason for being here, I have a genuine interest in this dialogue. I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s become quite meaningful to me.

  • Steve

    I’ve yet to see a comparable program sponsored by atheists offer the same breadth of critical discussion, although I would happily admit to be wrong

    For the simple reason that aside from some get-togethers and conferences, atheists are barely organized. There are no atheist organizations with tens of thousands of members and there aren’t any atheist universities.

    Religious organizations are just organized and have tons of money. That’s why they can do these things. In a more general sense, believers simply have more that ties them together.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Thanks Anna. It happened several times when I first started posting and conversing here, but it hasn’t since. As far as my reason for being here, I have a genuine interest in this dialogue. I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s become quite meaningful to me.

    Well, I hope you feel welcome! Friendly Atheist is a nice place. I know the tone has gotten a bit “darker” over the years, but I think the blog still attracts people of all stripes who are willing to engage with others of varying beliefs. I enjoy the posts here, but the comments section is my favorite part. This is one of the few blogs I follow on a regular basis, and pretty much the only one I comment on.

  • cbc

    At my Lutheran college, the campus was so non-conservative that the pro-life flyers on campus were torn down. (and this was in the Midwest, no California) it seems intolerance of ideas takes both sides. (I am pro-choice but was offended by the stifling)


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