My Atheism

A very American clash at a US Catholic university

A very American clash at a US Catholic university

NICK SHADOWEN recounts a losing battle to establish a secular society at a Duquesne, a Catholic University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His piece appeared in the December, 2012, issue of the Freethinker.


“IT has to be a realistic organization that fits within the Mission,” said a Duquesne University official. That was her explanation to a reporter from the school paper when asked why the Catholic university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had just denied my proposed student club, The Duquesne Secular Society (DSS), in the fall of 2011.

A Philosophy classmate and I founded the DSS to foster discussion on campus about the merits of secularism and its role in society. It was to be a social group for secular students – atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists, etc – who felt disenfranchised by the university, as well as a venue for dialogue betweenstudents of opposing beliefs.

Our constitution stated this mission clearly:

The DSS encourages respectful relations between non-theistic and theistic students and through these relationships hopes to alleviate the various stigmas attached to nonbelievers.

Respect? Alleviate stigmas? Catholics no likey:

The DSS was one of many student clubs that had recently sprung up in Catholic universities throughout the country. A few weeks before the university denied our proposal, USA Today ran an article on the trend, interviewing secular group leaders from Dayton and Notre Dame, groups that would ultimately be rejected.

Nick Haynes, center, leads an off-campus meeting of the The Society of Freethinkers at the University of Dayton, where school administrators have refused to give the group official recognition.

Nick Haynes, center, leads an off-campus meeting of the The Society of Freethinkers at the University of Dayton, where school administrators have refused to give the group official recognition. Photo: Religious News Service

And yet while we at the DSS understood Duquesne was a Catholic University, we did not see anything controversial about promoting critical thinking, rationality, and scientific inquiry on a college campus. This is, after all, the 21st century. And we also knew that among the 230 student groups on campus were a Jewish organization, a Muslim organization, and a LGBT group, groups that hold beliefs directly antithetical to Catholicism. We felt we had a chance.

Far from antagonistic or divisive, the DSS was created to bring students together in honest conversation, unite them in productive debates about religion and its role in modern society. A university, we reasoned, is a place of learning in which serious topics are debated seriously. In the last two decades, I have seen no greater threat to humanity than religious extremism.

Upon our rejection, we were told to wait another year before resubmitting our application. Duquesne prohibited us from meeting on campus and our advertisements were torn down from school bulletin boards. The university then turned a cold shoulder – our calls went unanswered, our emails were ignored, and the administration and student government alike refused to meet in person.

Our organization was met with the same discrimination and viewed with the same stereotypes we meant to eliminate. It became clear our group was more sorely needed than we had imagined. A member of the student government oversight committee even compared the idea of Duquesne allowing a secular group on campus to a church running an abortion clinic. She said this to my face in complete sincerity. I was confused. She and her colleagues had the DSS constitution right in front of them – either they didn’t know how to read or they simply refused to believe that perhaps some students, religious and nonreligious alike, might be interested in discussing their beliefs in an objective forum.

Or maybe the school was simply afraid that Catholic students on campus, once having engaged in dialogue with secularists, might begin to see them as human beings, might begin to understand we are not monsters but honest, kind, and charitable people. But if morality is not predicated upon religion, what then would the Church be needed for?

No, they thought, best to ignore the issue. When pressed by local media, who did not ignore the issue, Duquesne sputtered out vague and frail excuses. Asked by a school reporter why the university allowed groups that contradicted the school’s Catholic identity, such as the Muslim and Jewish clubs, but not a group meant to facilitate discussion of religion in general, Zachary Zeigler, the President of the Student Government Association, replied:

The thing is, those are not religion-oriented. That’s a facet of it, but they’re cultural.

When later interviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Zeigler changed his approach, claiming that the Jewish and Muslim groups, while not in line with the Catholic identity, were still acceptable because:

Both of those student organizations recognize that there is a God. Our committee discussed the fact that this organization does not believe in God, and its positions are against the belief in God.

It seemed we were getting to the core of the matter. Student groups, they said, had to be faith-based. But as I scrolled down the list of accepted organizations, it became clear this wasn’t the case. How did the audio engineering club serve God, specifically? Was the chess club religious in nature? The fraternities certainly weren’t.

Our struggle against the school was not cause for legal action. As a private institution, Duquesne is exempt from anti-discriminatory laws that public institutions must adhere to. And yet the school receives millions of dollars a year in federal funding for its science programs, funding which is predicated on adherence to federal anti-discriminatory laws. These standards, of course, include religious discrimination. But we weren’t a religious group.

Everyone recognizes that freedom of religion in America is an integral part of our society but freedom from religion – that’s trickier. The ACLU, seeing a murky legal battle, sat on their hands while the Pittsburgh Diocese rushed to the school’s defense.

Why would a non-Catholic attend a Catholic school? I heard this question a lot.

Duquesne doesn’t advertise itself as a religious institution – it advertises itself as a university, a welcoming bastion of diversity and education, a platform for competing ideas and the blossoming of new horizons. Moreover, only about half the students at the university are Catholic. They chose Duquesne for a variety of reasons – scholarship money, a specific academic program, close to home, right size, athletic program, the list goes on.

I personally attended on a hefty athletic scholarship, and even then only after being repeatedly promised that the school, apart from its chapel, was just like any other university.

As the administration continued to snub us, group members became incensed. They felt tricked and betrayed – they had paid $30,000 a year to an institution that valued its religious identity over its education commitment. They realized they were taking out loans to attend Duquesne Church, not Duquesne University.

The law moves at a snail’s pace and will for some time continue to turn a blind eye to the hypocrisy of religion. Churches are tax-exempt.

Religious students can legally set up religious groups on secular campuses while secular students cannot legally set up secular groups on religious campuses.

The DSS struggle is indicative of a larger narrative in American society. We aren’t victims – the Church has done far worse to non-believers. Ours was just another skirmish in a greater cultural war. Even today, countless polls show that atheists, who make up around two percent of the population (15 percent claim “no religion”) are the least trusted and most hated minority in America.

Compare this to the 45 percent of UK citizens who answered “no religion” in the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey.

In June of this summer, not even a year since their crackdown on intellectual expression, Duquesne found themselves again in the media for their religious hypocrisy. The New York Times reported that the university administration was preventing adjunct faculty members to unionize, claiming the university’s affiliation with the Catholic Church makes them exempt from the National Labor Relations Board. They’re special, see.

Looking back now, I see my proposed student organization was doomed from the start. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Like any under-represented group, atheists need to abandon the high road and get down in the mud, to be unafraid to declarethat having an imaginary friend does not allow you to deny workers equal pay or to turn a blind eye to pedophilia or sit back and pass around a hat, collecting tax-exempt money while a family down the street struggles to put food on the table.

The Church in America remains safe and cozy in its legal fortress, secure in its walls of medieval tradition and hypocrisy. Asking them politely to join us in the modern age has repeatedly failed. Let Sam Harris fight the good fight with public debates and bestselling books – ours is an everyday battle, challenging a stereotype here and pointing out a hypocrisy there, tearing down their walls with our hands, brick by brick. And there is no brick too small.

When my friends and I founded the DSS, I expected apathy from the student body and a mixed reaction from faculty. And that’s what we got. But what I didn’t expect was disapproval from fellow atheistic students. Many told me I was wrong – it’s the school’s legal right to discriminate against your group, they said, you’re wasting your time. I was stunned by their assumption that legality presumes morality. It is like telling homosexual couples they are morally wrong for wanting to marry, simply because the law prohibits them from doing so. The law generally changes in response to society, not before it.

Atheists tend to be more rational than most people, less prone to fanatic or illogical behavior. But if my experience at Duquesne has taught me anything, it’s that it takes some irrational action to get things done. It requires people who are angry and idealistic and crazy enough to work towards goals they know they might never achieve. Atheists cannot simply sit back, confident in the justness of their cause, and wait for another Scopes Monkey trial to show the world just how immature and dangerous religion can be. This is street warfare. We need to stick it to them where and when we can.

The DSS and I lost our battle and I can tell you it certainly wasn’t fun being treated like a second class citizen on campus, but Duquesne would be mistaken to think no one was watching and they would be mistaken to think their blatant hypocrisy didn’t cause some of their own faithful to have second

And that is what New Atheism is about – tearing down the Church walls, brick by brick. And when the foundations have been shattered, and the walls have crumbled, then finally, from the rubble and debris, mankind will have taken the first step towards a new age of Enlightenment.

3 responses to “A very American clash at a US Catholic university”

  1. Lucy1 says:

    Brave and sensible. Good luck with future battles.

  2. Vanity Unfair says:

    I don’t even pretend to understand the differences in UK and USA constitutional and discrimination law so I shall steer well clear of that line.
    Surely all the University administrators have to do is send a couple of their best philosophers along to one of the Secular Society meetings and, purely by deploying logic, rhetoric and fact, convince these deluded students of their grotesque error. This will result in the voluntary winding-up of the society and the return to a peaceful campus. And, let’s face it, no decent university is going to be without a few top-notch philosophers. Is it? (Philosophy: love of truth.)