The invisible minority: atheism at UP

By The Beacon | February 26, 2014 8:58pm
Junior Hayley Patin shares her experiences as an atheist on a Catholic campus. Photo by David DiLoreto

Kathryn Walters |

There’s an invisible minority on campus. It’s impossible to tell who they are based on the color of their skin, the shape of their facial features or the clothes they wear. They pass unnoticed by others. It’s only when the topic of religion comes up in conversation that they become visible.

These members of UP’s community are atheists, and their experiences of life at a religious university greatly differ from the majority of UP’s students, who tend to come from Catholic and Christian backgrounds. According to UP’s Institutional Research website, 47 percent of this year’s freshman class of 2013 identified as Catholic, up from 40 percent in 2010. About 75 percent identified themselves as having a religious affiliation.

UP's religious affiliations not a deterrent

While she grew up Catholic, junior Hayley Patin now identifies as atheist, but doesn’t think badly of others who are religious.

“People with faith, they talk about feeling a presence in their lives, feeling protected and safe,” Patin says. “I think that’s wonderful and everything, but that’s just something that I didn’t have in my personal life so it’s just that lack of feeling like there’s something else to that.”

It’s no secret that UP takes pride in being Oregon’s Catholic university, and for all who visit campus, signs of UP’s religious affiliation are everywhere. The Chapel of Christ the Teacher is a focal point in the Academic Quad, some professors and administrators wear clerical collars and crucifixes hang in nearly every classroom.

However, freshman Christian Kim, an atheist, wasn’t deterred from coming to UP because of its Catholic influences.

“Religion overall is not that big of a factor (at UP),” Kim says. “I feel like it’s not that strong, but it’s not like its presence doesn’t exist at all. It’s still there but I don’t think anyone would find it offensive.”

Junior Sarah Woodward’s family was taken by surprise when, as an atheist, she decided to attend UP.

“There’s still kind of a joke in my house that I’m going to a Catholic school,” she says. “The first day of freshman year when I moved in, my parents bought (me) this plastic toaster insert that had the Virgin Mary on it.”

Peers show acceptance or resistance

As a minority, many atheists are unsure of how their lack of religious views will be received by the majority of students who identify as Christian or Catholic.

Sophomore Patrick Garrison doesn’t feel rejected by others because of his atheism.

“At first I was a little worried that people might try to convert me or might be a little apprehensive of me because I’m an atheist. One of my big concerns was that Mass was required, which it isn’t,” he says. “But a lot of those apprehensions, none of it has ever happened.”

For the most part, Woodward feels accepted at UP, but also experienced some resistance to her atheist views during her freshman year.

“I’ve definitely had some interesting experiences of people making it their mission to save me and things like that or saying I’m going to go to hell because I’m not baptized,” Woodward says. “I mean, that’s not true of everyone but that’s the small minority of people.”

Theology classes both frustrate and instruct

Regardless of religious affiliation, all students at UP are required to take three theology classes during their time on The Bluff. For atheists, learning about religion from a Christian perspective has its benefits and challenges.

Patin greatly enjoys learning about religion from an academic perspective.

“It’s actually been kind of nice going to a school that has the theology requirements and everything, because I feel like it’s helped me open up my own experience and help me be a bit more informed about the world,” Patin says.

While she liked her introductory theology class about world religions, Woodward didn’t enjoy her Biblical Traditions and Culture class, which focused heavily on studying the Bible.

“It’s boring for the people who have read the Bible their whole lives and have studied it throughout their lives, and it’s frustrating to be in the same classroom if you haven’t studied the Bible,” Woodward says. “It’s just weird to have everyone at all different levels in the same class.”

Understanding religion

Kim came to have a greater respect for religion after meeting people who found religion important in their own lives.

“People like Brother Tom (Giumenta), he’s such an amazingly friendly person, and for people like him, I feel that’s religion affecting someone in a profoundly spiritual and positive way,” Kim says. “I’ve also attended Hall Mass a few times just out of curiosity and that sense of community is definitely something I can appreciate.”

However, experiencing UP as an atheist can have the opposite effect.

“It (religion) just strikes me as really weird, and I know in context it makes sense, but just hearing that and not being familiar with that is really strange,” Garrison says. “As I’ve seen more of it, it still doesn’t make sense.”

Desire for community

While she doesn’t feel excluded as an atheist, Patin wishes there were more opportunities on campus for students of alternative or no religious views.

“I kind of wish there was a cool atheist or agnostic club because the other religions get to do cool stuff all the time,” Patin says.

As an atheist, Woodward thinks some people of faith make certain assumptions about atheists, which she finds upsetting.

“I think the biggest thing is that if people assume that if you’re not religious, you don’t have good morals, which bothers me,” Woodward says. “Just because I’m not religious doesn’t mean I’m not going to help out people and I don’t have good morals.”

ASUP focuses on diversity, including religion

In light of the Chiles Center cultural insensitivity incident earlier in the semester, ASUP has taken a more aggressive stance on issues of diversity and inclusion. A few weeks ago, ASUP Senate passed Resolution 14-02, which splits the current awareness committee into two new standing committees: service/leadership and diversity. According to ASUP President Quin Chadwick, University President Fr. Bill Beauchamp has approved the resolution.

This will allow ASUP to more easily promote the topic of diversity in its meetings.

“Personally I felt like diversity needs to be brought up in Senate more. We don’t talk about it enough,” freshman senator Samantha Delucchi said, who wrote Resolution 14-02.

ASUP has also expanded its understanding of diversity to include not just race, but other issues like sexual orientation and religion.

Sophomore senator Temo Ledua, a member of the former diversity sub-committee and member of the new standing diversity committee, would like to encourage a dialogue about diverse religious views, including atheism, so atheists feel included and religious students can be more informed.

“This is a Catholic institution, but we want to make sure everyone feels welcome here regardless of their religion,” Ledua said.