Why Won’t the University of Notre Dame Allow an Atheist Group to Form on Campus?

Why Won’t the University of Notre Dame Allow an Atheist Group to Form on Campus?

According to Notre Dame, all official student organizations must adhere to the University’s mission:

“A club’s purpose ‘must be consistent with the University’s mission… No organization, or member of any organization on behalf of the organization, may encourage or participate in any activity which contravenes the mission of the University or the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.”

It’s a private university. They have a right to do that. But I cant understand their logic.

If groups have to follow the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, is it weird that they allow a Jewish Club on campus? What about the Muslim Student Association?

Why do other private, religiously-affiliated schools allow atheist groups on their campus? (DePaul University, near where I live, has a fantastic group.)

And if they allow groups like those — and I think they should — they why did Notre Dame reject an atheist group from forming on campus?

The Student Activities Office (SAO) denied the club official recognition last year, citing a contradiction between Notre Dame’s mission and the intended purpose of the club.

In the club’s current proposed constitution, the mission is specified as “to provide a forum for students to discuss philosophical, scientific, religious and political topics free from [in]tolerance.”

The constitution said the club would create this venue by holding regular discussions, inviting guest speakers to campus to participate in academic conferences and forums.

[Senior Stephen] Love said official recognition is important because it would provide funding to make this program a reality.

“We want to form an official club so we actually have official meeting rooms and we’d get some University funding so we could bring in guest speakers to come in and spur debate,” he said.

Love said this dialogue would be open to the religious as well as nonreligious students on campus.

“We technically have a secular agenda, but we want people from all different faiths to come and discuss,” he said. “That’s how you advance your ideas, by having them challenged.”

Unless the Church refuses to have its beliefs challenged — and I doubt they would ever admit that — I don’t see why this goes against the school’s mission.

So the school created another hurdle for the atheists:

For this proposed club, the approval of Campus Ministry is necessary to be considered a club,” the letter stated. “Upon review of the materials submitted, Campus Ministry indicated they would not approve this club.”

Love said he disagreed with the department designation.

“I don’t know where they got that, that Campus Ministry is the appropriate department,” he said.

But the Campus Ministry was perfectly fine with the Muslim group?! Someone explain that to me…

Even without the school’s approval, though, Love and other students have been holding meetings regardless. The group is pretty strong, actually!

“We’ve been meeting underground this whole time,” he said. “When it started it was just a couple of friends and I, but within two or three weeks, just by word of mouth, it went from five to 10 then 30 to 40, and we haven’t even made an active effort besides one small advertisement in The Observer … Now we have 40 or 50 on the email list.”

With an established “unofficial” membership, would-be club vice president Love and president Brian Robillard reapplied for club status last month. The new application has received approval from the Philosophy Department and is awaiting SAO review.

That is awesome. There’s no reason they should be denied approval. Notre Dame is probably just too worried that an atheist group might gain some traction and get too many people to think critically. Can’t have that in a college setting, can we?

To the Atheist, Agnostic and Questioning Students: If you need a speaker this year, let me know. I’m not that far away and I’ll come for free :)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • oambitiousone

    Hemant–your offer to be their speaker (gratis) was the antidote to the bitter taste of ND’s bias. Awesome.

     

  • deityfree

    I suspect possible reasons to be:
    Fear of a negative reaction from the community, both social and economic
    Fear of the potential erosion of traditional religious indoctrination

    • Parse

      Don’t forget: Fear of a negative reaction from the alumni association.   At my college, it only took a single threat of canceled donations to spur the administration into acting.  Undergraduate students’ complaints went mostly ignored, unless they were related to a donating alumnus.

    • Bob Becker

      You hit the key word:  fear. 

  • Anonymous

    Football to beat their brains out, yes. But open discussion, no. Ultimately, they cannot take it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

    What do you expect out of a university named after a French cathedral that calls themselves the “Fighting Irish”.

    • Nordog

      Ah, you do know what “Notre Dame” means, don’t you?

      • Anonymous

        “Our Lady”, meaning Mary.  It’s the name of many churches and universities, not just the famous Gothic, flying-buttressed cathedral in Paris.

    • Anonymous

       I don’t like that “fighting Irish” nickname, and I really hate the logo of a leprechaun with his fists up. Talk about ethnic stereotyping! I sometimes hear people complaining about sports teams that calls themselves Indians, Redskins etc or use demeaning images of Native Americans, and I certainly understand how that is offensive, but it’s funny how no-one ever picks up on the “fighting Irish” thing.

  • Erp

    I fully agree with deityfree that they probably fear negative reaction from the community and in particular from the increasingly conservative hierarchy of the church they are associated with.

    Also a difference between an “Atheist, Agnostic and Questioning Students”  and a Muslim or Jewish group is in the latter two the Jewish and Muslim members were likely never Catholic.  In a questioning group at a Catholic university, a fair number of the members are going to be officially ‘Catholic’.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    I understand this. Catholicism in its modern forms has very little objection to Judaism and only a bit more to Islam. Atheism is a much more severe disagreement with Catholic beliefs. 

    So if they don’t mean “contravenes” but rather “severely contravenes” then this sort of thing makes more sense.

    (I also agree with the commentator Erp above about how many of the self-identified atheists were probably labeled Catholic or were some form of Catholic previously which makes this more awkward than the Jewish or Muslim groups.) 

  • June

    At least they’re not like BYU where you’d get kicked out of school if you were an open atheist.

  • http://twitter.com/Luvrte66 Beth Riches

    I’m a resident of South Bend. I find this somewhat puzzling, because the university has been open to rather controversial events such as a Hitchens debate, a Sam Harris debate (which I attended), “The Vagina Monologues,” and an LGBT film festival. Then there’s the daddy of them all, President Obama giving the commencement speech in 2009. For many of these things, the big brouhaha came from two sources: alumni and the diocese. The president of Notre Dame, Father Jenkins, stood by all his decisions to allow these events to take place. I can also tell you that donations have not suffered. Their latest donation push got them over $5 billion in just over 4 years, or something like that. 

    A supposed negative reaction from the community is not a factor. Catholic residents get their undies in a bundle over stuff like this, but Notre Dame is the biggest employer in the county, so there is never going to be a huge backlash against the university, or some sort of boycott against sporting events. Just not going to happen. Home football games bring in over $6 million per weekend to the community. 

    I’m going to guess that the main push against the group is coming from the diocese. However, Father Jenkins has stood up to them before. I hope he will do so this time. 

    Give me a heads-up if you come down to speak. I’ll do my best to get tickets to see you! 

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • Billy

    Christians, Jews, and Muslims have the same religious heritage in Abraham. I cannot see them allowing a Buddhist group.

    • Erp

      They do have weekly zen practice mentioned at the Campus Ministry site

      http://campusministry.nd.edu/ecumenical-interfaith/buddhist-resources/

      Though no Buddhist student group that I can see.  The four non-Catholic religious groups are Jewish, Muslim, Southern Baptist, and Orthodox.  (I must admit a bit of concern about a group that calls itself Militia of the Immaculata)

    • Lynn David

      Notre Dame has had Monastic Interreligious Dialogues which have included Buddhist groups

  • Abcdeh

    A friend of mine suggested, “I was thinking that, in order to get their foot in the door at ND,  the student atheist group should consider changing their name to something like “Student Alliance for Science and Reason”;    “Student Theological Debate Society”;   or  “Students for Theological Diversity”.      These ideas might seem like selling out,  but once the club obtains funding, it can invite whoever they want to speak; and everyone will quickly understand that this is essentially an atheist group.    I think that for groups like this, which are clearly the victims of discrimination,  it might be better to play the game and win acceptance gradually.”

  • Abcdeh

    A friend of mine suggested, “I was thinking that, in order to get their foot in the door at ND,  the student atheist group should consider changing their name to something like “Student Alliance for Science and Reason”;    “Student Theological Debate Society”;   or  “Students for Theological Diversity”.      These ideas might seem like selling out,  but once the club obtains funding, it can invite whoever they want to speak; and everyone will quickly understand that this is essentially an atheist group.    I think that for groups like this, which are clearly the victims of discrimination,  it might be better to play the game and win acceptance gradually.”

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    These stories about religious colleges resisting accepting an atheist club seem to be forming a general pattern:

    1. Club applies to college Administration for acceptance.
    2. Silence for several weeks.
    3. Club inquires about application.
    4. Admin. says the deadline has passed for this semester.
    5. Club resubmits application early.
    6. More silence.
    7. Club inquires much sooner this time.
    8. Admin. says they are “reviewing” the application and the club’s statement of purpose.
    9. Club inquires every day.
    10. Admin. issues a terse denial of acceptance without explanation.
    11. Club demands explanation.
    12. Silence.
    13. College newspaper reports the club was denied acceptance without explanation.
    14. Admin. issues a lame, transparent, self-contradicting rationalization for the denial.
    15. Second college newspaper article makes Admin. look like hypocrites and bigots.
    16. Story begins to leak out to local newspapers and the blogosphere.
    17. Admin. sheepishly grants club acceptance.
    18. Club becomes popular, successful, brings college status with sought-after speakers.
    19. Admin. pretends they were supportive of the club all along.
    20. Repeat the entire process at college just down the road.

  • Jeffrey Handy

    All they are doing is calling attention to a matter that would not otherwise get any. If they had done the right thing by the tuition-paying students, they’d have simply approved it and no one would be the wiser. Because they rejected it, they will now be scrutinized on both sides of the argument. It was a shortsighted decision.

  • Bro

    Oh well then. Looks like that’s one college I’m not applying to…

  • Mark (a christian name)

    what better way than to spread Christianity by allowing those without purpose, direction or spiritual guidance than to let them hear the word..


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