MANASSAS, Va. – As Christian affiliation and Church attendance among young people continue to decline, Catholic colleges have a unique opportunity to evangelize students on campus and ensure that the Catholic faith is fostered in every student.
Yet several Catholic colleges have official student organizations dedicated to atheism or “freethinking,” despite the dangers that such groups might present to students’ faith.
Dr. Douglas Flippen, professor and chairman of philosophy at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., told The Cardinal Newman Society that such clubs conflict with a college’s Catholic identity.
“Any Catholic college or university which admits atheists among its members who have no interest in gaining a Catholic vision of reality, and then allows them to form communities of atheists within the larger community, has simply abandoned the common good peculiar to itself,” Flippen said.
He explained that “any community of persons is united by the common good they act to attain.” In a Catholic college’s case, the community is united by its shared faith. To recognize organized groups of those “whose vision of reality differs markedly from the Catholic vision” may result in a tendency to “disrupt and undermine the community by acting for contrary goals or goods.”
One instance of this discord can be seen at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill., which has an officially recognized atheist student organization that has hosted events contradicting the faith.
DePaul Alliance for Free Thought (DAFT) “is the official organization for atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and non-religious students at DePaul University,” according to the group’s Twitter account. Their mission is to “[p]romote a rational worldview by providing evidence against belief in gods, psychics, pseudosciences, and all other supernatural occurrences with arguments based on scientific evidence, logic, and reason.”
Last November, DAFT hosted Dr. Richard Carrier at an event titled “Did Jesus Exist?” to speak about his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.
“Come join @DAFTDePaul as we welcome Dr. Carrier, to ask if Jesus ever existed,” reads a tweet about the event.
Carrier’s book purportedly defends the notion that “Jesus did not exist” and posits that he “was originally conceived of as a celestial being known only through private revelations and hidden messages in scripture; then stories placing this being in earth history were crafted to communicate the claims of the gospel allegorically.” The description concludes: “For anyone intent on defending a historical Jesus, this is the book to challenge.”
According to a USA Today piece on atheist college groups, Suzanne Kilgannon, then-director of DePaul’s Office of Student Involvement, defended DAFT’s status as an official organization by claiming that “the club’s goal of open inquiry into matters of faith—and non-faith—conforms to the school’s Catholic mission.”
“We looked at it as we are the marketplace of ideas, so how could we not have an organization like this?” Kilgannon reportedly stated. “Because it is important to study all sides of the subject—regardless of the subject—we felt this club belonged here.”
Catholic Answers apologist Trent Horn told The Cardinal Newman Society that groups such as this present a contradiction that should not be ignored.
“Catholic colleges exist to promote the harmony between faith and reason,” said Horn. “They also exist to show how the Catholic faith undergirds, to some degree, every academic subject.” An official atheist student organization “contradict[s] the college’s mission because university funds and resources would be used to promote the idea that faith and reason ultimately contradict one another.”
Furthermore, atheism is particularly problematic for Catholic colleges because “it denies the fundamental tenet upon which the Catholic university is built; the existence of God and man’s ability to know God exists,” said Horn.
Horn cited Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, in which Cardinal Newman contends: “Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unraveling the web of university teaching.”
Georgetown University has an officially recognized student chapter of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), an organization that has chapters in colleges across the country. Georgetown SSA takes as its mission the belief “that students should fully understand arguments against the existence of higher powers, whether they choose to accept them or not,” according to its profile.
An article from Georgetown’s student newspaper The Hoya covered a talk hosted by Georgetown SSA on “the role of religion in government,” featuring Reverend Barry Lynn, Esq. Lynn reportedly criticized the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling—which exempted closely-held businesses with religious-based policies from the Obama administration’s “HHS mandate,”—by claiming that there was no reference to the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act “ever covering corporations except the Church.”
Loyola University Chicago’s SSA chapter “serves as a representative group of the diverse students on campus that identify as atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secular humanist, or any other secular ideology or philosophy,” according to its Facebook page. Part of its stated purpose is to “inspir[e] innovation through ideas and a constructive critique of universally accepted ideals and goals of Catholic, Jesuit institutions.”
Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., also has an official SSA chapter, Dominican University Secular Student Alliance (DUSSA). According to its profile, DUSSA is billed as a community for “atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, naturalists and other freethinkers” and works to organize “debates that educate Dominican University and surrounding community,” “foster acceptance of freethinkers” and “advocate for the separation between church and state.”
Many more Catholic colleges have had to routinely deny recognition of atheist student organizations, even amid protestations and cries for academic freedom.
In 2011, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and the University of Dayton denied requests to recognize atheist clubs on campus. Father Shaun Lowery of the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales defended the University of Dayton’s decision and explained that “Catholic institutions of higher learning are not just about the exchange of ideas, but also about the work of forming human conscience and character in the Catholic tradition.”
Also in 2011, the University of Notre Dame denied a student group’s request to officially establish an “Atheist, Agnostic and Questioning Students Club” on campus. The Student Activities Office explained that student organizations could not “encourage or participate in any activity which contravenes the mission of the University or the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.” The group argued that their club should be established under the same grounds as a Muslim or Jewish club on campus.
However, atheism differs from other religions, Horn explained. A Catholic school may represent clubs for Jewish or Muslim students, which would “allow for dialogue and common ground in the worship of the God of Abraham.” An atheist organization would not foster dialogue of this kind, and would instead contradict the University’s mission and compromise its Catholic identity, as atheism is “united in the belief that there is no God.”
Catholic colleges are not a case of special privileges, Horn noted. Private organizations would be expected to do the same. “A private university that promoted feminist ideals should not be expected to support clubs that fundamentally contradict those ideals,” for example, a club opposed to women’s suffrage, said Horn. Even “a private atheistic college would be justified in not permitting religious groups to use their funds or meeting spaces since their religious goals would be antithetical to the school’s atheistic ideologies.”
“The Catholic university is not just a university with crucifixes on its walls,” Horn urged. “The Catholic university exists so that through academic inquiry students can come to a better understanding of not just the world, but also the God who created it.”
Published with permission