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Duquesne University Discriminates Against Atheists

By November 25, 2011

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Atheists at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, are being denied the ability to create a secular student group. The excuses being offered by Duquesne officials might sound more credible if it weren't for the fact that Duquesne has already recognized Jewish, Muslim, and even gay student groups. It's only atheists who are being excluded because the goals of a secular group, promoting understanding and tolerance of secularism and atheists, is contrary to the school's mission.

One easy way to recognize the existence of bigotry towards atheists in any organization is when that organization refuses to treat atheists like other are treated. That's exactly what we have here with Duquesne -- unambiguous bigotry that had led to blatant discrimination. In the end, then, that's what the Duquesne mission has become: preserving power and privilege against dirty little atheists.

"I know Duquesne is a Catholic school," said Nick Shadowen, 21, a senior philosophy major who grew up in Harrisburg. "I did not think that meant my opinions, my lack of belief in God, would be censored. They advertise the fact that they are a diverse and international university with all kinds of people studying and working there."

Duquesne's student government oversight committee this month rejected Shadowen's request for the school to give formal recognition to the atheist group, and university officials backed that decision. ...Without university recognition, the group cannot meet on campus, gets no funding and has no right to advertise or even make announcements on bulletin boards around the school, Shadowen said.

Source: TribLive

It's important to remember that while Duquesne is a "Catholic" school, it's not a "religious" school in the sense of serving an exclusively religious mission. It doesn't exist to create priests, monks, nuns, and other religious professionals. Duquesne has a law school, a business school, a nursing school, a pharmacy school, a music school -- all the diverse educational programs that you'd expect to find in a modern university.

What's more, many of these programs are considered leading programs in the entire nation. Duquesne isn't a small little school that is only known among Catholics and really only serves a Catholic community. Instead, it's a nationally-recognized university with nationally-recognized programs and which serves a diverse community of students of many different religious identities -- and many students with no religion or theistic belief at all.

But while Duquesne is happy to take the money of secular and atheist students, Duquesne is completely uninterested in helping them educate other students about what secularism and atheism are, who atheists are, and why atheists think the way they do. In other words, Duquesne University appears to oppose tolerance for atheists because such tolerance is contrary to the university's mission:

"This group does not fall in line with the university mission statement, which says Duquesne serves students through serving God," said Zachary Zeigler, 20, of Zelienople, a junior at the school and president of the Student Government Association, which certifies the school's 230 student organizations. "To allow them classroom space and money would be contrary to the mission of the university." ...

"All students are certainly welcome here. But formally recognizing a student group whose main purpose is opposition to belief in God is not aligned with our mission. The purpose of those other groups is not in direct opposition to belief in God," Fare said. ...

"We support the decision of Duquesne University, in fidelity to its Catholic mission, to take such a position," said Rev. Ronald Lengwin, a spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

One thing that we should keep in mind is that student groups exist for the students, not for the school -- and that's the case in any university. Thus the primary concern which any university should have when it comes to approving student groups is: would this group serve any genuine needs and/or interests of our students -- and if so, how?

That standard is one which helps promote a diverse student body; insisting that student groups only serve a mission written and interpreted by a board of directors only promotes conformity and thus a very narrow, limited student body. That sort of goal would be consistent with any organization with bigotry at its heart.

It's worth noting that the excuses for rejecting a secular student group have been disingenuous:

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

But Ziegler said the organizations such as the MSA [Muslim Student Alliance] and the JSO [Jewish Student Organization] are allowed student organizations because they are not solely about religion.

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

Source: The Duquesne Duke

So a secular student group would be wrong because it wouldn't have a faith-based agenda... does that mean that every accepted student group at Duquesne has a faith-based agenda? I wonder what the faith-based agenda of their football team is. What about their literary student group, debate squad, and film club?

Does every one of the 300-some student groups have a "faith-based agenda"? That's not really believable. So SGA President Zach Ziegler really isn't telling the truth when he suggests that having a faith-based agenda is even remotely necessary for a student group to be recognized.

What I think is far more likely the reason behind this is fear. Jewish and Muslim student groups are acceptable because it's virtually certain that they won't cause anyone to convert to Judaism or Islam -- even if they actively proselytized every day, it's unlikely they would attract converts.

A secular group, though, runs the risk of causing people to become atheists simply by existing and simply by explaining that you can be a moral, decent human being without religion or gods. Atheists don't need to actively proselytize and promote atheism; merely dispelling the hate-mongering, lies, and myths spread by religious theists will reveal secular atheism as a legitimate option.

That alone will cause some people abandon religion because there are plenty of people out there who hold on to religion and theism because they have been convinced that they are the only ways to be moral. They may have lots of doubts, but the lies about atheism keep them in line -- and once the lies are eliminated, the reasons for holding on to religion are also eliminated for them.

Let's take a look at what the goals of the secular student group would be:

The 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."

Ziegler said these types of goals do not fall in line with the qualifications for student organizations at Duquesne, which receive University funding.

So, it's contrary to Duquesne University's mission to debate the merits of secularism... does that mean Duquesne promotes theocarcy? It's contrary to Duquesne University's mission encourage respectful relations between theists and non-theists... so Duquesne promotes hatred of atheists? It's contrary to Duquesne University's mission alleviate stigmas attached to nonbelievers... so Duquesne promotes the stigmatization of atheists?

Those are the logical conclusions of Zach Ziegler's position.

As a point of contrast, look at how Duquesne dealt with having a gay/straight alliance student group:

Doesn't a gay straight alliance go against Catholic teachings?
While the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual activity is wrong, Catholic teaching also places utmost importance on the inherent dignity of all human beings. Opposing another's actions or viewpoints does not negate the responsibility to treat each other with respect and dignity. Paragraph #2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

Doesn't a gay straight alliance go against Duquesne's mission?
No. Duquesne University's policies and philosophy are founded on the Spiritan tradition and are consistent with Catholic teachings, which command respect, compassion and sensitivity towards all human beings, including homosexuals.

Do other Catholic colleges and universities have gay student or university organizations?
Approximately 50 Catholic colleges and universities have similar organizations. A sampling includes:

Notre Dame ...
University of Dayton

So having a gay/straight student group is OK because it's mission to educate people about gays, dispel false myths about gays, and thereby promote more respect for and tolerance of gays. That sounds a lot like the basic goals of the proposed secular student group which was denied recognition.

We thus have a solid example Duquesne accepting a student group that might plausibly be contrary to the school's Catholic identity, but which is nevertheless accepted because it's focused on principles that are consistent with that Catholic identity -- specifically, education, discussion, and tolerance. This completely undermines all the excuses used to deny recognition to the secular student group.

A lot of Catholic universities were listed as having permitted gay/straight student groups, but I only included the two -- Notre Dame and University of Dayton -- because they are also two which have denied recognition to a secular student group. It's thus becoming common for Catholic institutions to discriminate against atheists in a blatant manner. This leads to me wonder just how afraid they are of atheists and atheism.

November 25, 2011 at 1:07 pm
(1) P Smith says:

If atheism is wrongly labelled a religion, then it is discrimination to deny status to an atheist group when jews, muslims and others are allowed to have religious groups.

If atheism is properly labelled a philosophical and/or social group, then it is discrimination to deny status to an atheist group when gays, political groups, or even uncontroversial groups (e.g. drama clubs) are or would be given status.

Think back to 2005: A school district in Utah banned all student groups because it could not selectively ban a gay group. The atheist and secular students at Duquesne should force their hand. Sue to have an atheist group or have all student groups banned (except for the catholic groups, which would never face discrimination at a catholic university). The DU officials would be put in a difficult situation, and would likely not be able to justify banning jewish, muslim and other groups.

Sure, it risks angering other non-catholics, but it may also bring them onside because they’ll all be in the same boat.


November 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm
(2) ChuckA says:

After Googling for some more related info, I rather happily discovered that my Chicago based Catholic “Alma Mater”, DePaul University…(I graduated, as an openly agnostic/”but not quite ready for primetime atheism”, in 1963)…has an openly active secular/atheist student alliance:

Though I’ve long lived in a nearby Northwest Chicago suburb, it’s been decades since I actually visited the old northside campus; and now, knowing the above, I’ll certainly feel just a wee bit safer if I decide to take a walking (sans electronic megaphone?) tour…?

December 3, 2011 at 8:37 am
(3) C Woods says:

Having lived close to both Duquesne University and Zelienople (where the SGA president lives) I am not surprised at this development. Although that area has been dubbed the “rust belt,” it is definitely in the “Bible belt” —full of religious bigots of many faiths.

Every time I read about this kind of discrimination, it convinces me, once again, that I made the right choice in giving up religion and its small mindedness..

December 3, 2011 at 9:48 am
(4) Tom Price says:

If this sort of ban on humanist students occurred in Britain, I am sure that most people would regard it as a regression to the Middle Ages.

December 4, 2011 at 5:39 pm
(5) Borsia says:

If the school is allowing other religions and non-religious groups they have no excuse for discrimination against atheists or secularists.
I agree with P. Smith that they should force the issue.
If the school still refuses to allow the group because it is against their “mission” any funding coming from public sources IE government grants or subsidy should be cut.
I would urge all atheist and secular students to look for another school that puts education first.

December 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm
(6) Peter Klim says:

I don’t understand why anyone who feels excluded at a cat’lick school would want to stay there? Why associate with bigots and hateful a-holes? Get the f**k out of there! Take your tuition and your selves and go to a REAL school where you’re treated as you should be! Disconnect from any cat’lick influence. You’ll feel better for the rest of your life!

June 14, 2012 at 10:39 am
(7) Thomas Varney says:

What Mr. Klim fails to understand is why an atheist would want to attend Duquesne. Simply put, it is one of the top educational facilities in America. Religious (or lack thereof) issues aside, it still does provide a good education for the majors it provides. I am considering attending Duquesne for name recognition alone. And if you want to disconnect yourself from any Catholic influence whatsoever, do yourself a favor and drop the toaster in the flooded bathtub now, because there is almost no place where there isn’t some of it. Lastly, you discredit the college’s educational credibility on account of religion. Remember, Duquesne, while a Catholic college, is still a college. I love how religious bigots are insulting, phobic morons while atheistic bigots like Mr. Klim here represent what we nonbelievers shouldn’t be in the public eye: condescending narcissists.

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