Religious Schools May Stop Atheist Groups, but They Can’t Stop Atheist Students

Kimberly Winston of the Religion News Service shines an important spotlight on religiously-affiliated colleges who refuse to give recognition to campus atheist groups.

Take, for example, the University of Dayton (in Ohio), a private Roman Catholic school:

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 unbelievers 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 them again in September. Without university approval, the group cannot meet on campus, tap a student activities fund, participate in campus events or use campus media.

Notre Dame and Baylor University have also rejected atheist groups this year — students at those schools are finding alternative/”underground” ways to get together.

Before you start calling for lawsuits, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Aren’t these private, religious schools? Don’t they have a right to decide which campus groups get official recognition? Didn’t the atheist students on campus choose to attend these schools? After all that, should we really be upset about this?

A resounding “Yes!” to all of the above.

The same schools, by the way, allow Muslim groups and Jewish groups and LGBT groups to form — so why do they specifically choose to ban atheist groups?

Their reason: Muslim and Jewish groups believe in some sort of higher power… and while they don’t condone homosexuality, they believe they can still support LGBT students (In other words, “love the sinner but hate the sin”).

Why do atheist students attend these schools? A variety of reasons. It’s close to home, the professors are good, you got a scholarship, your parents pay for college and they wanted you to go there, they have a program in your field, etc. I went to a state school for college, but I went to DePaul — a Catholic institution — for grad school because they had a program that allowed me to get my teaching certificate at night, allowing me to work during the day.

Keep in mind that some private religious schools have had no problem with Secular Student Alliance groups:

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 [president of DePaul University’s Alliance for Free Thought Andrew] Tripp.

Also keep in mind that most SSA groups aren’t interesting in proselytizing about atheism. They want to hold debates, spark discussions about religion, be able to have conversations without censoring themselves, and do community service.

Who knew those goals went against the universities’ missions?

It’s kind of like the Boy Scouts of America. They’re a private organization, but they actively discriminate against gays and atheists in their ranks. Just because they can do that doesn’t make it right — and it doesn’t mean we can’t speak out against it.

(Some atheists have good reasons for wanting to be a part of the BSA — they do some awesome things… you know, aside from the outright bigotry.)

All we’re asking these colleges to do is provide atheists with the same opportunities they provide all the other students: A safe place for them to meet, promotional help for events when necessary, and access to money reserved for “official” campus groups.

Stifling serious conversations about a very important issue should be the antithesis of what goes on at any college. And I would argue that atheist groups nationwide have been better than groups of any other faith in sparking those discussions and getting people to think critically about faith.

We need to keep the pressure on these campuses.

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.

  • Anonymous

    ” the group cannot meet on campus” Ok, but good luck stopping a group of friends from hanging out together, eating pizza and discussing whatever topics come to mind.

    • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

      I don’t think they want to. They just don’t want their school associated with such vile godless discussions.

    • Erp

      It means they cannot reserve a room.

      Hemant is wrong in that Notre Dame and possibly others don’t allow student LGBT groups either.  Notre Dame does have an administration run LGBT group which toes the church line (orientation is one thing, actually having sex is another) but not a student group.
      http://corecouncil.nd.edu/)

  • Erik

    When a private religious organization invokes their right to discriminate we say it’s wrong.
    When we force public schools to take down religious signs, they claim it’s wrong and we invoke the constitution.
    We can’t claim that the law fails when we don’t like what it says, and then fall back on the law when religious groups claim we are treating them unfairly. It’s contradictory.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not even a religious organization. It’s a school/university.

      IMO only churches  – literally houses of worship – should get some leeway in what they do. Everyone else needs to follow the law. Allowing educational institutions to set their own rules and do just about anything they want isn’t good for society. It’s what led to the rise of the religious right in the first place and gives them immense power

      • Erik

        IMO not even churches should have this right. They operate as a business and should be treated as such. I doubt that if we removed their right to ban atheists from the pulpit, there would be a flood of qualified atheists clamoring for the positions.

        More importantly, if a religious leader is found out as an atheist, they shouldn’t be fired if they are continuing to perform their job well (including leading worship and giving meaningful sermons). If they’re trying to sneak anti-theistic info into their sermon, or otherwise failing at their job, then you can fire them, but not for their beliefs.

    • http://www.facebook.com/JayVenator Jason Venator

      “Invoke their right to discriminate” is contradictory. 

      • Erik

        And yet they have it

      • 59 norris

        Some discrimination is allowed.  The word is does not describe an action that is universally inappropriate, though it does carry a connotation of something not to be allowed under any circumstance whatsoever.  That connotation is not real.

        The question is, what types of discrimination are appropriate and licit and which ones are inappropriate and to be condemned?

    • Johann

      Let’s transplant this reasoning to a different yet similar context and see how it holds up:

      “When a private religious organization invokes their right to discriminate we say it’s wrong.
      When we force public schools to integrate, they claim it’s wrong and we invoke the constitution.
      We can’t claim that the law fails when we don’t like what it says, and
      then fall back on the law when religious groups claim we are treating
      them unfairly. It’s contradictory.”

      Or let’s try another:

      “”When a private religious organization invokes their right to discriminate we say it’s wrong.
      When we force justices of the peace to marry homosexual couples, they claim it’s wrong and we invoke the constitution.
      We can’t claim that the law fails when we don’t like what it says, and
      then fall back on the law when religious groups claim we are treating
      them unfairly. It’s contradictory.”

      These could be hypocritical, though not particularly contradictory even then, if the status quo of the law were your only motivation and standard for judgment – “The law lets them do something we don’t like? Change it! The law forbids them to do something we don’t like? All hail the law!”. If we only cared about the letter of the law and had no considerations outside of that, this attitude would indeed be hypocritical.

      Of course, for that to apply even in that hypothetical situation someone would also have to be advocating a change in the law to punish or prevent discrimiation by religious groups. All I’m seeing so far is talk about social pressure.

      • Erik

        I guess there’s a point. When the law is on our side, there’s no reason we shouldn’t take advantage of it. Especially when a lot of these laws have already been thoroughly discussed and criticized before they were put in place, such as the separation of religion and state.
        We certainly can’t fall back on only the law though. We need to train ourselves to know WHY separation is important when we enter these debates. Hemant usually does a good job of doing so in his blog.

  • Brit

    As long as a private school doesn’t receive any sort of federal funding, they can do whatever they want; including discriminate against different groups of people. It’s not a good thing for them to do, but I feel like it’s really just their business.

    However, I would figure that most private schools do get some sort of federal money, and therefore, they shouldn’t discriminate.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-OLeary/1313741338 Mark O’Leary

      These schools absolutely DO receive federal funding. Hardly any schools do not. (Bob Jones “University” is a notable example.) If, for example, ANY student even receives federally guaranteed student loans, that qualifies as federal money. I smell a lawsuit.

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

    Why do atheist students attend these schools? A variety of reasons. It’s close to home, the professors are good, you got a scholarship, your parents pay for college and they wanted you to go there, they have a program in your field, etc.

    Another important one- some people were not atheists when they choose the school. 

  • C.K.

    This is a matter of ethics rather than legality or constitutionality, as Hemant notes. Being that Atheists are fundamentally different from the other creeds that the University of Dayton does condone, in that they revolve around the rejection (or lack of affirmation) of the absolute center of the religion it endorses, it’s quite understandable that they would not recognize a secular group, if not unfortunate for free thought in the back seat.

    Majority Lutherans, conversely, often tend to be religious pluralists to an even greater degree than most Catholics (which, by official Vatican fairly, are fairly tolerant as a whole in the northern hemisphere these days) and so they will generally be more inclined to recognize secular expression as another, more covert relationship with God.

  • Astro

    I was part of the BSA and I am an Eagle Scout. It was a great experience but I did have to keep my atheism hidden (atleast from the leaders).

  • AiliaBlue

    BSA is publickly funded, just rather sneakily. They basically get major discounts on government land, among other things. Check out the Penn and Teller Bullshit episode for more, mostly because that’s a lot of typing.

    • AiliaBlue

      PS I was involved as a Venture Scout, my brother is an Eagle Scout, and my dad was Assistant Scoutmaster, I worked at a Scout camp over summers, and I’ve been to Philmont, as far as my credentials about this go.

  • rationality

    Duquesne University, a private Catholic University, just officially denied the proposed Duquesne Secular Society today…


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