Atheists & religious students cross paths on campus

Illustration by Sarah Bradbury

By Audrey Barrett

Lewis & Clark has one of the most atheistic student bodies in the United States. The Princeton Review recently ranked LC as the 14th least religious college in the US, and in 2014 Huffington Post put LC at number two on a list of least religious colleges. Many LC students strongly identify with the atheistic culture on campus.

“I went on a tour and the guide said we were the ‘godless campus,’ which was funny, and also what I was looking for,” Lia Bernhard ’19 said.

Atheists find LC’s “godless campus” appealing. Nate Whitley ’21 considered going to a Christian college. Back home in Medford, Oregon, most of his friends were religious.

“I decided not to go to a Christian college because I wanted to have a less structured thinking process,” Whitley said. “For me, I think it’s more interesting to use methods like science, or art even, to discover my world, rather than read about it or be told what the answers are.”

While organized religion creates a sense of community through regular gatherings, LC’s atheist culture is characterized by the social environment. Atheists may not necessarily have meetings every Sunday, but their presence opens up the conversation about students’ beliefs.

“Liberal arts have always attracted people who like to ask questions,” Bernhard said. “It makes it easier for me to voice my opinions (about religion) in class because I have a sense that people are either open minded about my views or that they’ll agree.”

However, according to Mark Duntley, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, LC’s atheist culture can alienate religious students.

“People who are strongly religious come here every year, and it’s sometimes challenging,” Duntley said. “But oftentimes they’ve grown a lot in their own understanding too, since not everyone around them has the same thinking.”

The college was founded on the principles of the Presbyterian Church that saw education as a means for human improvement and a way to help students open their minds by developing themselves academically, emotionally and spiritually.

“I’ve seen people be really rude and nasty in a way that they would never do to a person of color or a lesbian, because they see religion as a personal choice as opposed to an identity,” Duntley said. He told a story of something that happened after he gave a short prayer at convocation this year. One religious student who was missing home approached him afterwards. She told him when she quietly said “Amen” along with Duntley, her roommate scoffed, “You weren’t really praying, were you?”

“That was her first experience of sharing who she was with someone who was not religious, and who was very hostile, and that made her feel self conscious about it,” Duntley said, adding that student decided to keep her religion to herself from then on.

“To be a caring atheist culture, the first thing you should do, instead of criticizing or ridiculing religious people, is be open and curious about it and not making preconceived assumptions,” Duntley said. “You can be a bigot against religion, just as you can be a bigoted religious person.”

However, many atheist students, like Bernhard,  are more accepting of other people’s beliefs.

“Religion or spirituality gives a sense of community and comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Bernhard said. “I will fight for your right to practice your religion.”

Duntley, too, recognizes the importance of an inclusive campus. “I can support anyone, I can be spiritual and not religious,” he said.   

“I think the main goal for everyone here is acceptance,” Bernhard said.

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