Campus Atheist Group Gets Denied Recognition at Catholic University

Justin Vacula, the guy who has been blocked from putting up the most inoffensive atheist bus ad in the world, has been trying to get a Secular Student Alliance group started at Marywood University (in Pennsylvania).

Marywood is a private Catholic university. But that shouldn’t really matter here. Many religious schools (like DePaul University, which I attended) promote diversity even if it goes against Catholic doctrine. Marywood even has an official LGBT-supporting student group called the Ally Club.

But the Secular Student Alliance? That group got rejected:

Vacula said that [director of student activities and leadership development Carl] Oliveri and [director of Campus Ministry Catherine] Luxner denied MUSSA club status for various reasons, the most prominent being that… the club’s mission conflicts with “the Catholic identity of Marywood.”

… Vacula argued that regardless of its Catholic identity, Marywood is still an institution of higher learning which should be promoting diversity. “[The administration] should be accepting of a group like this because higher education is about considering ‘big questions,’ encountering foreign ideas, and challenging one’s own beliefs. Being a Catholic campus is all the more reason for a club like this to exist on campus,” said Vacula.

According to Oliveri, there is still an open and active dialogue between Vacula, student activities and Campus Ministry. “I’ll always listen to students, but sometimes you have to make decisions that [they] don’t want to hear and that’s just the way it is,” said Oliveri.

It’s not like Justin wants to start a group that makes Pope effigies every week. He wants to promote open discussions about faith, hear from guest speakers on the topic of religion, and help eradicate the nasty stereotypes people have about the non-religious. Those are values every university ought to promote.

There’s no reason to say no to an atheist group even if it is a religious campus. Several religious schools have already approved the existence of atheist student groups.

One way you can help Justin is to join the Marywood University Secular Student Alliance group on Facebook — even better if you’re an MU student.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Ms. W

    i don’t get why secular people go to these schools. There are so many non-religious options out there.

    • philosopherintraining

      Probably because it’s a decent school. It shouldn’t matter what affiliations the school or its students have. 

      • Wintermute

         Right–it shouldn’t. But obviously from this story, in at least some ways it does.

    • Jack

      I don’t get it either. If there are so many other options, then why even go there? That would be like me going to a biker bar and then getting upset because they won’t play any Beyonce on the juke. If you already know what you’re going to get when you go there, why go there?

    • AshtaraSilunar

       Not everyone has the option of going anywhere they choose.  Scholarships make a religious school more attractive, if the secular one doesn’t offer one.  They can be closer or have a better program in a certain field.  Why do people go anywhere?

      Oh, and there’s the wacky idea that some may not have been atheists before they picked their college.

    • Anonymous

      Probably in part because these schools market themselves to everyone, not just their favored denomination. Brochures for many religiously-affiliated schools downplay their religiosity, or pass over it in vague terms like “wholesome” or “traditional.” Philosophical differences don’t prevent them from taking anybody’s money.

  • Keulan

    I’m surprised that an atheist group is considered against “the Catholic identity of Marywood” yet an LGBT group is not. Catholic dogma isn’t particularly gay-friendly.

    • Erp

       If it is like LGBT groups at many other Catholic universities, it is officially tolerant of those with gay orientation but not with any physical expression of such (more of an anti-bullying than pro-LGBT).  Though actual practice may be much more accepting.

      Scranton has a particularly hardline bishop so the university may looking to avoid more criticism from him. 

  • http://twitter.com/Sand2Stone Will

    I too wondered why an atheist would go to a Catholic school. However, the above comments do provide viable reasons I hadn’t considered.  

    • Anonymous

      You know…..

      My wife is a lot of things, but you know what she wasn’t a year and a half ago?  An atheist.

  • Georgina

    Amazing how the meaning of a word can change so drastically in just 20 years.
    I was taught that Secular = Division of Religion and Government.

    So anyone against secularism was, in fact, a proponent of theocracy. When did it start to mean atheist? And why, for earth’s sake, are Americans against the division of {church/mosque/synagogue/temple/grove} and State? 

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    GO JUSTIN!

    It’s just a matter of time. I had the privilege to meet Justin Vacula, and he is very smart and passionate, yet cool-headed, patient, and classy. He also has the tenacity of a bulldog.  All that comes across in person, and even in the newspaper article printed above.  Hopefully, the usual twenty steps toward school approval can be shortened, but still it’s just a matter of time.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/10/16/starting-a-college-atheist-club-in-20-steps/

    • Mack

      Classy? Just as classy as it would have been if I had rented a plane and flew around with a pro-Christian banner above the Reason Rally. But that didn’t happen did it? No. Why not? Because Christians aren’t desperately seeking approval of their fellow man are they? Nope.

      • Anonymous

        “But that didn’t happen did it? No. Why not?”

        Because god never intended for man to fly….or he would have gave him wings?

        The convenience store was out of Red-Bull?

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        Jack, your reply doesn’t make any sense at all. Comparing Justin’s very respectful, patient, and reasonable responses to every roadblock and transparent rationalization that the university administration has put up to some intrusive and unwelcome heckling that some hypothetical Christians might have done but didn’t do says nothing about his classiness or lack thereof, and nothing about Christians’ classiness or lack thereof.

        Wanting to have the support and companionship of like-minded people is “desperately seeking approval”?? Really?? If that’s so, then I see millions of Christians doing that every Sunday.

        What too many Christians do is to take the attitude that other people should be desperately seeking their approval.  Sorry, but the eagerness of so many Christians to pass harsh judgment and give summary condemnation of atheists and even other Christians just doesn’t make Christians in general very inspiring as role models.

        • FSq

          Richard said:

          “What too many Christians do is to take the attitude that other people should be desperately seeking their approval.  Sorry, but the eagerness of so many Christians to pass harsh judgment and give summary condemnation of atheists and even other Christians just doesn’t make Christians in general very inspiring as role models.”

          – I know we are off topic, but I agree with this. They try to jostle the conversation that we always have to be going, “we are JUST like you…” BS. That is inverted arrogance. What we SHOULD be saying is “you religious folks are almost like us, but you have a bit of extra crazy and have questionable morals – i.e. ‘carrot or stick’. ”

          The christian mentality is hugely arrogant, so far so that it is almost never thought about nor discussed. But the reality is just as you said, they truly feel the rest of the population should be seeking their approval or wink-wink nudge-nudge. Sorry, I do not want nor need their attaboys. If anything, they need to bend over backwards to begin showing they will give up their centuries long preferred treatment and allow others to live without micromanagement of their sex lives or uterii. Until that happens, christians take a very low place in my hierarchy of decency and ratings of people.

          It has been my experience that christians are amongst the least trustworthy people on the planet.

    • http://www.justinvacula.com Justin Vacula

      Step 13 at the moment, I suppose :p

  • T-Rex

    Umm, it’s a Catholic school. Play by their rules or find another school. I’m so tired of people getting all butt hurt when they know damn well what they are getting into before they even join a school/club/organization. Why does every club/school/organization have to be all inclusive these days? Rediculous. And I’m as anti-theist as they come. Get over it.

    • Wintermute

       So, by that logic, would you support the expulsion of students who have premarital sex, or use birth control, or are gay? Because those people aren’t playing by the rules, and why should a Catholic university have to be inclusive of views it disagrees with? More broadly, what if a Jewish student wants to go there–should he be told not to apply until he accepts Jesus?

      • FSq

        The problem here is that the Uni is private. Going there is voluntary, and you enter that school knowing full well its credo and intent.

        I have to side with the Uni on this one. It is a private campus and we should not force it to do anything it does not wish to do. 

        Now, whether they should or shouldn’t is another matter, but forcing it to do so seems rather frightening, and against constitutional law.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Jade-Brown/640358790 Tiffany Jade Brown

    For all of you asking “why would you go to a religious school if you’re an atheist,” you should consider the fact that not everyone who leaves college as an atheist starts off as one. When I began attending the Christian college I go to, I wasn’t an atheist. That was three years ago. And now I am. And switching schools would have been a nightmare both for the reason of transferring credits and the fact that my husband (who is also an atheist) goes there as well.

    I’m sad to say it, but there is no way in hell an atheist organization could be started at my school. We briefly had an LGBT support group (which I was a part of) but we could not meet on campus, nor could we post flyers or be recognized as an official school group. We have even had trouble getting a College Democrats group started on campus when the College Republican group has existed for years.

    Everyone I associate with knows I’m an atheist. I’m very open about it. I even wrote an article about being an atheist on campus for our school paper. And I know several other atheists on campus. Honestly, academically, our school is probably the best in our state. It just sucks that the “Christian” label has to be attached to it. And I do wish I could start a group. I really do. Instead, I’ve resigned myself to hanging in there for one more year until my husband and I go to grad school at a school that actually has a Secular Student Alliance.

    • Rwlawoffice

       Just because you changes your beliefs, do you expect the University to change theirs?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Jade-Brown/640358790 Tiffany Jade Brown

         Hey,  why don’t you try reading my post again, huh? I clearly stated that I did not expect my school to allow an atheist club. I’m sorry that your love for Jesus is getting in the way of your reading comprehension.

        • Rwlawoffice

           Actually I read your post carefully including the part that says “And I wish I could start a group. I really do”

          That statement prompted my question.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Jade-Brown/640358790 Tiffany Jade Brown

            So wishing that there could be a possibility to start a group on campus (even though I know it’s not going to happen) equates me wanting the school to change their beliefs? That’s what I would call a stretch.

            • Rwlawoffice

               I simply asked a question.  I didn’t accuse you of anything. 

              • FSq

                You are such a disingenuous asswipe. You know full well what the intent of your statement was, and now to try and cry “I just asked a question” is so falsely indignant it curdles the bile in the pancreas.

                • Rwlawoffice

                  I know what my intent was but thank you for once again making a false assumption.  By the way bile is produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder, not the pancreas.

              • Parse

                I’m reading your post carefully, including the part that says, “do you expect the University to change theirs?”  I fail to see how any reasonable person could NOT interpret that as you accusing her of something, namely expecting the University to change their beliefs.  

                Also, JAQing off is a filthy habit, and should only be done behind closed doors.

            • FSq

              Tiffany,

              Forget trying to reason and argue with RWLAW, he has repeatedly shown an inability to see beyond his nose, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out HOW he could have done well on the LSATS.

        • FSq

          YOU GO GIRL!!!! That….WAS>>>>>AWESOME!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Nemenyi Adam Burt

    When Justin attended King’s College (another Catholic university) for undergrad degree, I composed this response to “Why on Earth would an atheist want to attend a Catholic College?” for his blog:

    http://www.justinvacula.com/2010/03/atheist-catholic-college-adam-burt.html

    Also, I’d point out in this case (and it’s also relevant to the undergrad case): The mission statement is pretty clear and largely supports the idea of this club. Diversity should be appreciated. Moreover, universities, ESPECIALLY graduate schools, should promote critical thinking, challenging major issues, and entertaining foreign ideas/beliefs.

    I think, in large, the University is branding and misunderstanding what atheists represent. They, I’d suspect, are anticipating this club to “attack” or “mock” their beliefs, when in reality all they want to do is challenge, discuss, and criticize in a respectful way. It’s a clear example of people thinking a criticism of a belief/idea is the same as a criticism of the person.

  • FSq

    On this one, I actually have to side with the Univeristy. It is, in fact, a private university. I have a very hard time trying to implement a program that goes agains the private university’s credo. 

    Something about that does not set well. It also opens up the genie bottle to restrict any other private entity.

    While it may well be they SHOULD allow such an organization, they by no means should be forced to allow it.


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