Secular Struggles at a Religious University

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Growing up in a nonaffiliated family, religion was never a major part of my world. So when my mother suggested I should consider applying to a private Catholic university, I laughed.

However, college tours soon changed my mind with promises of a tight knit community, smaller class sizes and a chance to become more than a number. With University of San Diego’s top study abroad program and generous financial aid, attending my glory years at a religious institution turned into reality.

When I stepped onto campus, USD proved to me just how loud religion could be. While attendance wasn’t required at religious events, invites to youth groups and University Mass clogged my college email. Crosses decorated every building on-campus and every neck of my classmates. The discussions in my theology classes felt like foreign language courses, while other gen ed philosophy and English lectures referenced Catholic teachings or Gospel passages I didn’t understand.

Although each college student’s experience is different, USD theology professor Dr. Evelyn Kirkley discussed why secular students may feel disconnected from their campus community. “The most common issue secular students face is the perception that they will not be accepted by other students, faculty or university administration,” Kirkley said. “[Also] secular students occasionally experience proselytizing from other students which can be uncomfortable.”

Like many secular students, I don’t wear my atheism around my neck, easily hiding my minority identity in chats about class assignments or weekend plans. When more serious discussions arise, the dialogue shifts if I decide to participate and disclose my atheism.

An awkward silence falls as they attempt to place me in the guest room of their religious palace. While I am not banned from the premises, they often install a secure gate around their Catholicism, just in case I decide to sneak in and attack their beliefs.

Pew Research Center reports that “nones” are on the rise. This emerging group includes atheists, agnostics and others who do not identify with any religion in particular. Their rising popularity holds true on college campuses as 35 percent of Millennials now identify as “nones.”

According to the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, a 2007 research study concluded many religious college students hold negative stereotypes of nonreligious peers, such as “judgmental cads” or “cynical critics.”

In class discussions about politics or ethics, I hesitate before countering a religious response with an atheist standpoint. Although I want to share my own experiences, sometimes the irritated glares or offended whispers just aren’t worth the fight. Usually it’s easier to drop my head and fidget with my own silver necklace hanging around my neck, a tree in a sea of crosses.

Coming out as unreligious may pose a significant threat to the student. “We’ve heard from students at universities, like Brigham Young, where simply coming out publicly as an atheist could have severe disciplinary consequences,” SSA Executive Director August Brunsman said.

Fortunately, USD is inclusive of all beliefs or lack thereof in the academic setting. Instead, coming out as an atheist poses a threat to my social life. Usually I don’t share my religious identity until I deem the situation safe and feel secure in the relationship. However, because these hidden beliefs are a huge part of my identity, this secular safeguarding makes it harder to form these intimate relationships, creating a pretty painful paradox.

Ultimately, the university must consider its own role as a place of learning to foster an inclusive educational environment for all students. “Religious universities should remember that they are not just religious, they are also universities,” Brunsman said. “Universities should be places where people of diverse identities fearlessly exchange ideas. These universities try to recruit students of all stripes with statements about how much they embrace diversity and celebrate intellectual freedom.”

In my own experience, USD does recruit nonreligious applicants. Exhibit A: Me. Professors respond positively to this diversity, encouraging everyone to voice their freedom of religious opinion.

However, I think the university faculty and administrators have to remember that students need guidance in learning how to deal with peers who may threaten their beliefs. We are all in college to learn about the world, and a lot of this classroom learning is separate from the curriculum.

Arthur Wawrzyczek, former leader of the SSA group at DePaul, points out that religious affiliated institutions need “nones” to be whole. “In the end, we’re all striving for the same thing: a better world. No one single group of people can succeed in attaining such a goal without the support of others,” Wawrzyczek said.

On a religious campus, there should still be religious students. With over 70 percent of the U.S. citizens claiming Christian identity, it’s crucial that these affiliated voices find a community where they can grow. However, denying “nones” the same experience as “wholes” stagnates growth of both groups. Instead, secular and nonsecular peers should work as a united front to strengthen personal development and individuality.

To foster a comfortable community on any campus, an alliance between these groups must be found. Whether this entails establishing an official on-campus group or SSA affiliated club is up to the individual. “Even if you’re not allowed to start a formal group, simply being visible and engaging with the rest of your university community as secular student lets people know that there’s no reason to be afraid of us,” Brunsman said. Turns out staying silent about your “none” identity only perpetuates the fear of the unaffiliated. We can only overcome this fear by doing the one thing we fear doing: Talking about it.

Secular students struggling to be heard at religiously affiliated university need to speak up. “It may sound cheesy, but honest conversation is the best way for secular and non-secular students to understand and learn from one another,” Kirkley said. “[For religious students] conversations with secular friends is a wonderful way to deepen one’s religious affiliation.”

“Nones” aren’t contagious; religious students shouldn’t shy away from these discussions for fear of losing their religion. In reality, dialogues with difference of opinion often strengthen one’s own religious or nonreligious, argument.

By contributing to the campus conversation, secular students can share their experience without sacrificing friendship with religious peers. All religion is powerful, and even the lack of beliefs deserves to be heard on sacred grounds.

Sara is a senior at University of San Diego, majoring in Communication Studies and majorly unprepared for post-grad life. When she's not writing, she enjoys poorly playing ukulele, thrift shopping with Macklemore and drinking iced coffee out of teacups.

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