Duquesne University Refuses to Recognize Campus Atheist Group

Duquesne University is a Catholic school in Pennsylvania.

So is DePaul University, just outside of Chicago. DePaul has a thriving Secular Student Alliance group — the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought — which encourages conversations about religion between religious and non-religious students. They also bring in speakers for the school, question long-held beliefs of everyone, and raise awareness about atheism-related issues for the school population. They’re less interested in “proselytizing atheism” and more interested in educating people about religion and getting them to think critically.

You would think any university would support that sort of organization.

But it looks like Duquesne has a problem with anyone questioning the Catholic faith. Atheist students there recently tried to form an officially recognized group — which would give them access to money for events, free meeting space, etc. — but the student government rejected their application:

… the [Student Government Association] Organization Oversight Committee denied the organization Sunday night. The six to eight senators who made up the group unanimously voted Sunday night not to bring the DSS’s approval to a vote in front of the general SGA Senate, according to SGA President Zach Ziegler.

Zeigler said the DSS was denied mainly because it does not comply with Duquesne’s Mission Statement.

“This organization has a non-faith-based agenda,” Ziegler said. “We never got a real idea what was behind this organization.”

[Duquesne Secular Society founder Nick] Shadowen disagreed.

“I don’t think there’s anything controversial about promoting the ideals of scientific inquiry and critical thinking,” Shadowen said. “This group is not made to divide students but to unite them.”

The Rev. James McCloskey, vice president for Mission and Identity, agreed with Ziegler that the DSS is not a viable student organization for Duquesne.

“They [the DSS] assume positions that are antithetical to belief in God, and belief in God is at the core of our enterprise at Duquesnse,” McCloskey said.

The [DSS'] constitution states that “The DSS’s presence on campus will provide a platform for honest and open debate on the merits of secularism and its role in different areas on human society. The DSS encourages respectful relations between non-theistic … and theistic students and through these relationships hopes to alleviate the various stigmas attached to nonbelievers.”

Promoting respectful relations between people holding different religious beliefs?

An open debate on the merits of secularism?

Trying to do away with the stigmas attached to atheists?

Who knew Catholics were so against those things?

Keep in mind that Duquesne currently recognizes a Muslim group, a Jewish group, and a gay-straight alliance as official groups.

But the atheist group is the one that crosses the line…? Right.

You’ll never believe the argument Ziegler and McCloskey used to suggest an atheist group isn’t even needed:

Ziegler added that the DSS was also denied because Spiritan Campus Ministry already provides discourse between religious and nonreligious students.

McCloskey agreed, but added that campus ministry does not provide nontheistic programs.

“I think the approach of campus ministry is a unique one. It welcomes all students. It encourages dialogue,” McCloskey said. “But there is no specific program for that [atheistic students].”

I’m sure the debates are fascinating: Yahweh: Great God or Greatest God?

Shadowen’s going to appeal the decision. Good for him. Keep this story going. The more attention it gets, the better the atheists look, and the more shameful the school looks. It’s pathetic that Duquesne would deny a group recognition because it dared to tip over some sacred cows.

So now, Duquesne University joins the University of Dayton and the University of Notre Dame as schools where questioning religious beliefs is seen as a bad thing and fostering positive discussion between people of faith and no faith isn’t worth supporting.

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

    DePaul Alliance for Free Thought  has a rather unfortunate acronym.

    • Andrew T

      Hi Hugh, I’m the President of DAFT. We chose the acronym intentionally, because of our status as a nonreligious group on a Catholic campus. It’s a nice little dose of irony that reflects our irreverent membership as well as putting those we interact with at ease, because we’re not looking to be dicks.

      • Anonymous

        Cool :-)

        I didn’t think the word was well known on this side of the pond.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      How long before Pope Bennie shuts De Paul’s group down?

      (Don’t tell him.)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    They [the DSS] assume positions that are antithetical to
    belief in God,…

    Like intellectual integrity, and careful, thorough, and intrepid thinking, perhaps?

    and belief in God is at the core of our enterprise at
    Duquesnse,” McCloskey said.

    And after all, we wouldn’t want to undermine our enterprise.

    There’s only one word for the Student Government Association’s stance on this:

    Cowardice.

    • Anonymous

      For a moment I was under the mistaken assumption that their core business is education

  • Karen Lo

    Go COURAGEOUS Atheists on campus!

  • benjdm

    Promoting respectful relations between people holding different religious beliefs?
    An open debate on the merits of secularism?
    Trying to do away with the stigmas attached to atheists?
    Who knew Catholics were so against those things?

    Ummm….everyone who has paid attention at any point in the last 1500-2000 years?

  • ShellyD99

    It reminds me of something I once read:  philosophy is about questions that can’t be answered. Religion is about answers that can’t be questioned.

  • Noah Boggs

    why havent one of these groups sued these catholic schools yet?  i know they are private institutions by i assume they all receive federal funding of some sort.  and federal funding is predicated on federal anti-discrimination laws….

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Exactly.Maybe that’s why De Paul allows their group.

  • Rick Evans

    I’ve wondered if I were the only one that wonders why anybody is surprised whenever X catholic/evangelical/mormon/whatever-religion school refuses to allow, assist or even recognize an atheist/humanist group?

    To push a metaphor: it’s like it’s like trying to start a bacon-eating club at a vegan university.

    • Gus Snarp

      This is really a reply to some other posts as well, but I’m going to stick to making it once, and it is most related to your comment.

      I have had similar thoughts about this, but reading this particular post I had a different thought, namely that student groups are about students, not about the school or its administration, government, or mission statement. If a college or university wants to have a large and diverse student body (and most Catholic Universities, as well as the big Mormon school, BYU, do want a large and diverse student body purely for business reasons), then you need to let that diverse student body form the groups it wants to form to support the needs of different kinds of students. This is simply a matter of granting recognition, which comes with some (usually very small) stipend, the right to meet on campus, and the right to take part in student group recruiting on campus. It really shouldn’t matter if they’re at odds with the religion at the core of the University, as long as the University is accepting students of a variety of faiths (or none), then they ought to let those students associate officially. Now evangelical colleges may be another story, because the ones I think of, Liberty University, Bob Jones, etc., have no interest in diversity, or in being complete laughing stocks for their religious policies. So if Duquesne wants a reputation like Liberty, then by all means let them continue this policy. But if they want to be a respectable institution with a diverse student body, they should just let the group form.

  • Michael Campbell

    They’re private, Catholic universities.  If you want to be an atheist and form an atheist/free-thinking group, go elsewhere.  I don’t get it.  We ask them to not preach religion in our public schools.  Why can’t they ask us to not preach atheism in their private universities?

    I don’t get it.

    • Sdorst52

      I had a similar thought – until I found out that they recognize a Jewish and a Muslim group. Also, many Catholic theologians have created arguments for the existence of God, so addressing the question of whether there is a God is a solid tradition in the Catholic church. As the group is not about “preaching” the non-existence of God, but about a discussion of whether or not God exists, it seems to be well within the bounds of traditional Catholic discourse.

      Of course, as they are a private school, they can make their own rules. This just seems to be a pretty arbitrary and nonsensical rule. (Of course, religion itself is nonsensical and arbitrary, so I guess this is not really very surprising.)

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

      As I said above, they gave up the right to discriminate in this way when they started accepting Federal funds. 

    • Reginald Selkirk

      If you are saying we should not be allowed to criticize them for their actions, then there is a lot you don’t get. They may have a right to disallow atheist groups, but this does not preclude them from criticism.

      There is a distinction between what is legal and what is moral. This is the crux of the current furor over Joe Paterno. He may have fulfilled his minimal legal obligation by reporting an incident to his superior in the administration, but by not following up to see that any action was taken, nor going outside the university to report the incident to police, he allowed a child-raping monster to continue his child-raping activity for years more.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I see WithinThisMind is still with us. Just a reminder, have you found that “Copious amounts of evidence to the contrary” yet? While you are still coming here proclaiming dishonesty, insulting people and their children, I am STILL waiting on the proof which cannot be deemed “anecdotal, self-reporting, and naturally biased arguments”.

  • http://profiles.google.com/elronxenu Nick Andrew

    I suspect the number of students who change from theistic to atheistic positions is far greater than the number of students who convert from Catholicism to Muslim, for example. The Muslims probably won’t pick up any new converts. Improved critical thinking and consideration of religious questions tends to change peoples’ minds toward atheism, regardless if that was the explicit goal.

    • Erp

      Agreed, the Muslim and Jewish groups are perceived as being for students raised Muslim or Jewish (and their existence at a Catholic university attracts Muslims and Jews and allows them exposure to the one true religion).  A humanist/atheist/agnostic group is perceived as gaining members from the other religions including Catholicism (they probably can’t imagine that some students were raised by humanist/atheist/agnostic parents).

      BTW the Duquesne Gay/Straight alliance only exists because it agrees to adhere to Catholic teachings (e.g., no sex outside of a marriage that the Catholic church would recognize as a marriage) and it has close administrative oversight so it doesn’t deviate from Catholic teachings.

    • Gus Snarp

      That at least makes sense: in spite of the fact that atheists don’t really try that hard to “convert” people, we’re much more of a threat to Catholicism than other religions are. But if they really want to prevent students from becoming atheists, not allowing a secular student group isn’t the answer, they need to eliminate the biology department, the physics department, the philosophy department (particularly courses in logic), heck, pretty much everything except theology. It’s not secular student groups that make students leave Catholicism, it’s learning.

  • Jamilalist

    Jamila Bey
    Duquesne University 1994-1999

    I am saddened and not in the least surprised. Duquesne helped turn me (and dozens of its other grads) into agnostics and atheists.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Thank you for what you are doing for the “movement”.

      How did Duquesne contribute to  your deconversion?

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

      Me too. BA 1980, MA 1982. Non-theist 2011.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    From the second page of the Duquesne Duke article:

    The DSS can appeal the SGA’s vote, but only after one year.

    That’s astounding and ridiculous.

    “Can we have an atheist club on campus?”
    “No.”
    “Why not?”
    “You can’t ask us that for a whole year, and then we’ll just say no again. Nyah nyah nyaahhh!”

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

      They figure approximately 25% of the troublemakers will have graduated by then.

  • Anonymous

    “This organization has a non-faith-based agenda”

    Like the football team, the archaeology society, the literary club, the debate squad, film club, etc.  With around 300 student organisations on campus what proportion have specifically faith based agendas?

  • TychaBrahe

    I am seriously amazed by these people.  It’s like the people who write in to advice columns saying that they were perfectly happy to marry their spouse of another faith but now that they’re having kids they want to raise those kids in their faith, because it’s really important to them.  Um, no, it’s obviously not, because one of the tenets of your faith is that you marry a member of that faith, which is a belief of every religion I know (except that Muslim men are allowed to marry Jewish or Christian women, if they agree to keep a Muslim home).  

    Seriously, if you are interested in skepticism or atheism, why the heck did you go to a Catholic university?  And if the reason was for a scholarship or to please your parents who were funding your education, then that’s the trade-off you agreed to.  No one is saying that you cannot meet with other atheists and discuss your beliefs.  You’re not going to be stoned or dragged from your dorm.  You are simply going to have to go without support or funding from the university.  And I believe that a *private* university has the right to see that its funds, which come from its students and its donors, go to support organizations that it agrees with.

    How would you like it if you, as an atheist, contributed money to the Foundation Beyond Belief and then found out that they were giving money to a group that demanded conversion to their religious beliefs before it would help you?  Would you be outraged that your money was being used this way?  Well how do you think you would feel as a Catholic donor to a Catholic school if you found out that part of your donations were going to support the activities of a group that opposes your religion and its tenets?

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

      “Seriously, if you are interested in skepticism or atheism, why the heck did you go to a Catholic university? ”

      Law school, business school, music school, pharmacy school, nursing school–Duquesne has all of these, very highly regarded in their (entirely secular) fields. This “private” university accepts millions in Federal money every year, not to mention Federal loan guarantees. As for Catholic donors being upset by groups opposed to their religion, remember that DU has a Muslim group already. Under Islam, Catholics are apostates. A university is no place for selective indignation or intellectual discrimination. DU’s position is morally indefensible.

      • Bill

        The music school is actually pretty third-rate, although they are rolling in bequests and such.

        • Anonymous

          Not sure why you’d think that.  It’s not Juilliard, but a substantial number of the instructors play with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and that is *not* a third-rate organization.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        Under Islam, Catholics are apostates.

        What? An apostate is someone who has forsaken his religion. I thought they were infidels.

      • Matt Keefer

        The university’s Catholic roots don’t determine it outright. I was recently accepted into DuQuesne’s MA program in philosophy, a school for which DuQuesne is regarded highly in the world of academic philosophy. My GPA was average, my letters were okay; it was my writing sample that carried me through. In case you were curious, said writing sample was about continental philosophy (think: Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger) and how it enables us to think the lived experience of sexual perversion (for which I cited Bataille). The whole project was carried out from a standpoint of absolute atheism (the existential variety, which is a far cry from the incessant regurgitations of enlightenment-era critiques that one finds in Dawkins, Hitchens, or indignant blogs like this). Neither my objectionable subject-matter nor my commitment to do philosophy after the death of God prevented me from getting accepted to the university. I would like to offer this fact before you all go crying out about how DuQuesne is an opponent of progress, reason, or thinking. 

        I can’t speak for DuQuesne on this one, but the “free thought” movement has always seemed to be a bit ridiculous to me. The university’s philosophy program, for instance, is known first and foremost for its stature in the world of continental philosophy – a world which takes almost all of its cues from Nietzsche, perhaps the most completely atheist man to ever live. The university is officially catholic, sure, but to represent them as some monolithic institution of unreason is quite unreasonable. 

  • Gus Snarp

    Here are some student groups Duquesne might want to closely monitor to see if their activities adhere to the University Mission: 
    http://www.duq.edu/greek-life/

    Oh wait, I suppose drunken frat boy behavior is fine, as long as you go to confession in the morning.

  • Gus Snarp

    I really wish I had discovered the atheist blogoshpere, and with it SSA, before I graduated. I honestly never realized there was anything like this out there, and to this day there is no secular student group at my public alma mater, in spite of there being a fairly influential skeptical group in town. If I was a still a student, I would start an SSA chapter. I wonder if I can think of anyone who’s still in school to take that on for me.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Keep in mind that Duquesne currently recognizes a Muslim group, a Jewish group, and a gay-straight alliance as official groups.
    But the atheist group is the one that crosses the line…? Right.

    This is the same as at Notre Dame.

  • Rosaline Lawrence

    I smell a lawsuit…someone should urge these kids on take a stand for all freethinkers at religious universities

  • SJH

    I don’t know anything about this school nor have I even heard of it but lets think about this with an open mind and without judgement for a second:

    If an organization believes that certain actions are harmful to its members, is it within the rights of that organization to refrain from allowing such an activity?

    Is it within the rights of an organization to attempt to retain the culture with which the organization was founded?

    Do you really believe that the leadership are so evil at this school that they are preventing an action because they want to stifle an opponent? This sound like self-righteous judgment. Is it more likely that they are concerned for the student body and want to prevent behavior that they believe might be harmful.

    Also, many comments suggest that the school wants to stifle skeptical and free thought. Again, this sounds light judgement. I’d be willing to bet that the school is not against critical thinking or skepticism and probably encourages it. The Catholic church, contrary to popular prejudices, has been a bastion of scientific thought and critical thinking throughout history.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      “retain the culture” = oppose critical thinking

      Do the campus Muslim, Jewish, and gay groups retain
      Duquesne’s culture?

      Executing heretics was very open-minded.

  • Alexis

    A couple of miles up Forbes Avenue, both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh have active student groups where these people would be welcome. Of course this is not as good or as convenient as meeting on their own campus. Pittsburgh also has several community groups such as Center for Inquiry and Pittsburgh Free Thinkers.

  • Alexis

    Duquesne is the same school that sold off their NPR affiliated radio station, rather than broadcast programs that were sponsored in part by Planned Parenthood.

  • piratesmvp04

    I am pleased to see that Duquesne at least still has some standard. However, this does make them look hypocritical in some ways in that they oppose a non-Christian atheist group but they still support non-Christian Muslim, homosexual, etc groups. We are a Catholic school and we must maintain our Catholic identity. Who says we are “required” to support all ideologies? We’re a private school, so we can do what we want. And, I certainly hope Duquesne does not go the way of Vanderbilt, Syracuse, etc. by being so accepting of other beliefs that they eventually become Christian in name only. I trust with Fr. Hogan at the helm, things will be in check for now; but we can still hope for improvement.

    Duquesne Alumni
    Class of 2011


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