Debate Forum Right, 9/27/11

Thoughts on the Society of Freethinkers from a former atheist

By A.J. Wagner

A.J. Wagner

The University of Dayton (UD) has been sucker punched. It’s been set up. Two men, who are no friends to the Catholic and Marianist tradition of the university, have made a phony plea for recognition of their atheist organization that envisions, according to the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a future in which non-theistic students “are partners in the secular movement’s charge against irrationality and dogma.”

They call themselves the Dayton Society of Freethinkers (SOFT) and publicly invite theists as well as non-theists to membership, but they have applied for affiliation with SSA, an organization that requires its members be “free from dogma.” According to the Flyer News, UD’s student newspaper, Nick Haynes and Branden King sought this affiliation during the summer, prior to applying for campus recognition. Haynes said they applied to SSA because they needed help with issues such as “how to handle confrontations with administration.”

Confrontation seems to have been the plan all along, not starting a club for free discussion. I say this because, 1) SOFT has applied to be partners in the secular movement’s charge against faith; 2) because they planned for confrontation with the university administration before applying for recognition; and 3) because, as of Sunday night, SOFT has yet to organize a “discussion of religious issues from a secular point of view” which is their stated reason for existing. The only discussion they seem to seek on their Facebook page, which has existed since August, is a discussion of the confrontation. Their only announcement until last Thursday was, “Look for a story about founding members Nick Haynes and Branden King in the next issue of Flyer News!”

The university has not denied SOFT the ability to exist, only their recognition as an official university student organization. I contacted Reverend James Fitz, Vice President for Mission at the University. He informed me that SOFT has been offered the possibility of continuing these conversations in other venues to participate in balanced discussion about faith and reason. There is nothing to stop the discussion from moving forward except for SOFT to respond to these opportunities or call for an actual discussion. They have done neither.

I came to UD in 1974 as an atheist. I discussed my atheism with friends, faculty and priests without fear of retribution. My ideas were always respected as was my freedom to deny the existence of God. It was with the encouragement of the late Father Cy Middendorf, a Catholic, Marianist priest, that I came to explore faith in a whole new way. By the time I graduated I was hooked on God and the Marianist way of approaching faith and reason.

Today, I am not only a believer, but I am a Lay Marianist. My wife, Joan, is also a Lay Marianist and is the Director of Marianist Strategies at UD. Together, we present Catholic and Marianist values to UD students and help them to create small faith communities. (I do so as a volunteer. I am not an employee of the university.) Because the Marianist Brothers founded and continue to sponsor UD, the Marianist spirit is an integral part of the University’s character.

Marianists do not believe faith and reason are exclusive of one another and UD encourages the exploration of both. With the exception of a few Catholic or Marianist specific positions, UD admits students and hires faculty and staff without regard to their religious, or non-religious, affiliation. Reason is at the core of the curriculum in areas such as art, education, psychology, philosophy, science, business, law and engineering. Yet, students are also exposed, sometimes inside and often outside the classroom, to a faith in God that intersects with each of these subjects in a way that calls forth compassion and service in every profession.

It is no secret that UD is a Catholic and Marianist university. It is well noted in all of their literature and on their website. To attend UD and ask them to give official recognition to an atheist organization that denies the existence of faith is like P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) asking to be recognized by the Cattleman’s Association.

UD never denied me the ability to express myself in 1974 and they are not denying students the ability to discuss atheism today. A first-year student informed me that an open discussion on the existence of God occurred in her philosophy class this past week. However, UD understands that if they give official recognition to SOFT, others may interpret this as an endorsement of atheistic tenets. That would not be true.

The university also would not recognize a racist organization but racism is discussed openly on campus. The university understands the need for students to be exposed to a variety of ideas so that they can become critical thinkers. They do not deny students this experience. Allowing discussion of an issue however, does not equate with endorsement of the idea.

That is an important distinction.

There are non-Catholic religious organizations recognized by the university, but a line must be drawn with SOFT. Reasonable people can disagree as to where that line has been drawn, but it is the university’s prerogative as a private, religious institution to do so where they think best.

In the meantime SOFT is free to exist and is free to discuss if discussion, and not confrontation, is their real objective.

A.J. Wagner is a retired judge who is trying to decide what to be when he grows up. Reach DCP freelance writer A.J. Wagner at

A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at

24 Responses to “Debate Forum Right, 9/27/11” Subscribe

  1. Kevin S. September 27, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    So your contention is that giving official recognition of an organization that conflicts with Catholic values implies university endorsement of those principles. But then you completely hand wave the question of whether UD’s recognition of Jewish and Islamic organizations implies an endorsement of Judaism or Islam. You assert that “a line must be drawn with SOFT,” but you don’t specify why that line should be drawn. Maybe if you’d spent less time speculating about the motives of SOFT’s founders, you would have had more space to talk about the underlying issue, assuming you ever intended to do so.

  2. Nick and Branden September 28, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    As the organizers of SOFT, we would like to respond to some of AJ’s points.

    First, we hope that visitors to our Facebook page will forgive us – we have been quite busy over the last month with our full time graduate studies and research and teaching responsibilities, and haven’t been updating the page as much as we probably should.

    Those who read the entire story ( would have seen a little farther down the page that we have decided to forgo our affiliation with the SSA. It was clear to us after our first meeting with the administration that affiliation would be a roadblock to recognition, and as Nick is quoted in the article, “We want first and foremost for SOFT to exist on campus…We’re flexible. … Having this organization exist is more important than our affiliation with SSA.”

    We believe that it is disingenuous and distasteful of AJ to suggest that we are only looking to pick a fight with the administration or that we were prepared for conflict before we started the organization. Indeed, we were so optimistic over the summer that we approached Campus Ministry before our application had been reviewed to ask if a representative would like to serve as a co-adviser. We stand by our statements in Flyer News that our goal is to promote unity and discussion on campus, and AJ’s suggestion otherwise is purely a speculative conclusion that he has reached before taking the time to speak with us.

    In addition, we hosted a preliminary meeting for supporters on Monday night (9/26). There, we updated attendees on our progress and gathered ideas for what kinds of meetings or events the group should hold.

    AJ does make a very good point – not earning recognition from the university does not prevent us from getting together. The administration suggested hosting a speaker or a conversation about secular issues as a concession for rejecting our group. We continue to pursue recognition, however, because we believe that there needs to be a maintained discussion between believers and nonbelievers on campus. No such forum currently exists, and we believe that it would go a long way in promoting understanding between students of different values. In addition, without recognition, we cannot meet on campus or use university channels of communication, which is a significant roadblock.

    We rejoice that in 1974, AJ felt comfortable as an atheist on campus. Unfortunately, we believe that the culture has changed in the last 40 years. All too often, we hear nonbelievers speaking disparagingly about religious students. In addition, religious students sometimes often are uncomfortable with or distrustful of their secular peers. By seeking recognition for our organization, we are looking to bring these students together to understand their differences and see each other in a more humanizing light. Our only agenda is to promote peace and concord at UD.

  3. Branden King September 28, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    Mr. Wagner,

    I want to personally express my happiness for you that your time at UD led you to convert from atheism to faith. If you are happier as a Catholic and a Lay Marianist than you ever were as an atheist, then it is by all means, the best choice for you. The same cannot be said, however, about everyone else who comes to UD as an atheist or as a believer with doubts.

    Our story was picked up by the Friendly Atheist blog ( and a UD alum had this to say:

    “As a 1971 graduate of UD, I also experienced that feeling of isolation. At the time, UD was promotoing itself as the local liberal college that locals could attend without fear of indoctrination. You could substitute philosophy classes for the required religion classes (if you were not Catholic)! Overall, the attitude of the administration was that diversity and differences of opinion were OK in an academic environment – that the church was confident enough that it could stand a few dissenting voices – like Martin Luther.

    But I watched from afar as that seemed to change over the years. It was not without note that increasingly their being a “Marianist Institution” was raised by their publications.

    My feeling of connectedness to UD is very minimal and this is certainly driving it the wrong direction.”

    A more recent graduate had this to say:

    “I graduated from the University of Dayton in 1990. This is where and when I officially became an atheist, and I sure did feel like I was alone in my views. I would have really appreciated a group like this when I attended.”

    I think that these comments show that many people would clearly benefit from a group such as this, and we want to be there as a supportive community. Again, the university is NOT preventing us from speaking about atheism or freethought on campus, for example, if I want to talk with Nick about atheism in Liberty Hall, that would be just dandy. But here lies the problem with the lack of university recognition; if you happen to be an atheist that feels alone on this campus, but you are outside my network or Nick’s network, then you will not have the slightest idea that there exists a group of like-minded people on this campus who are having meetings. This is clearly a disservice to those students, and it’s a disservice to those trying to show that there can be camaraderie between faithful and secular. Our goal was never (and will never) be that of confrontation, but one of cooperation. There is no good to be had in further polarizing such a touchy subject.

  4. Ashish Sharma September 29, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    I’m an Agnostic, was born a Hindu. And I’m also a member of Freethought Dayton. So clearly, I’m not a Christian by any means any way you look at it.

    I am however, LOGICAL. What I don’t understand is – what is the purpose of this group? If I’m an agnostic on-campus and I am able to freely air the fact that I’m an agnostic, I can wear a t-shirt saying I’m agnostic and I can use social media and other ways and means to find other agnostics/atheists/freethinkers on campus, then regardless of whether the University allows for it or not, WHAT is the point of having an “organization”? What is this undying obsession to gain official recognition? Do atheists/agnostics like me feel so insecure or marginalized that we need a University’s approval to feel validated and equally important as other organizations?

    I frankly don’t care! I would have an objection and would fight a fight if people tried to suppress what I say. I want UD to allow for me to be a freethinking agnostic and to be able to publicly say it. What I do not understand is the need for formal recognition by this organization.

    The last paragraph in Branden King’s reply alludes specifically to the problem he sees if not officially recognized by the University. The problem he mentions is – others on campus will not know such a group of freethinkers exists on campus so they can’t connect. Are you SERIOUS? Branden – the 1980s called…they want you there so you can organize the old fashioned way. If I were an agnostic on-campus, I would use social media (think rallies!) to get people together among other means. Use what is democratically and freely available and I don’t see what a University can do about it!? You’re telling me you’re unable to get, say, 200 secularists oncampus together without the University’s blessing? You’re THAT dependent on their approval? In a democratic society? Its like saying Gandhi should really have sent a letter to the British asking for Indians’ right to peaceful protest before he just unilaterally organized the Non Violent Movement to organize peacefully. Taking matters into your own hands isn’t always a confrontational approach. It is an independent one. You feel marginalized? Then go ahead and marginalize the University instead of idolizing their approval so that “others know about your organization”. That’s a lame excuse to ask to get their approval. And yes this is coming from an agnostic. I do not subscribe to God, Christianity or any such thing. But I don’t rely on others to officially recognize my position either. They gain respect for me because my viewpoints don’t care about what they think and my viewpoints respect their opposing view.

  5. Anonymous UD Faculty member September 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    This was a distressing and depressing article to read. I don’t have a strong opinion on whether the University was correct to not recognize SOFT or not, and I can certainly see both sides of the argument. What’s upsetting is that someone who purports to represent and volunteer for this University, and represent the Marianist tradition I’ve come to respect during my time on the faculty, believes that it is appropriate for to publicly accuse two UD students of dishonesty and bad faith regarding their motives with no substantive evidence whatsoever. If I did such a thing, I’d expect to be reprimanded, and rightfully so. The accusations directed toward these students should be withdrawn immediately, and an apology extended to them for the accusation of dishonesty. Shame on you, Mr. Wagner. Your volunteer work may well benefit this University greatly, but with this article you’ve done real harm to your own reputation and to the Marianists you represent. The Marianists I’ve come to know and respect as part of the UD community don’t treat our students this way.

    Again,This has nothing to do with your decision to write in defense of the University’s policy decision–I welcome further debate on this issue as I try to decide where I stand on this decision. Your unfounded accusations don’t contribute to a serious and thoughtful discussion in any way.

    Branden and Nick respond graciously and I hope you’ll take this as an invitation to engage them seriously, rather than insult their characters. You may be the avowed Christian in this conversation, Mr. Wagner, but it is your interlocutors who seem to have taken the lesson about “turning the other cheek” seriously.

    If Mr. Wagner will not apologize for and withdraw his attack on these students’ character, I hope others involved in this process in the Administration, such as Brother Fitz, will publicly disavow these baseless accusations.

  6. A.J. Wagner September 30, 2011 at 4:17 am #

    I am pleased that Nick and Branden are continuing their conversations with the administration. I am also pleased to see that they had their first meeting. I hope the discussion continues on and off campus and that respect is given to their point of view.

    As for apologizing, I am not sure why it is necessary. I did not call Nick and Branden a name or accuse them of something they did not do. Again, they applied for admission to an organization opposed to religion, they planned for confrontation (by their own admission), and they had not conducted a meeting (until this past Monday).

    In addition, the administration was, and continues to be, willing to talk about how to use existing campus venues to promote the discussion they seek. Instead of continuing to work with the administration Brenden and Nick chose to go to the Flyer News picking a very public fight. This was an act of confrontation not discussion.

    Branden and Nick have something to teach people of faith. I believe, even though they do not, that God is within them. They are good people who seem to be sincere in their beliefs. They were wrong, however, in their confrontational approach to the administration at UD. I have seen or heard nothing that changes my opinion of that and I do not believe that saying so is unchristian.

    • Branden King September 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

      Mr. Wagner,

      The reason that we went to the SSA was my choice, and mine alone. Kevin (my friend who hatched up the idea with me) had graduated, and at that point, it was more or less just me trying to get the group started after being initially shut down.

      As we stated, we spoke to campus ministry FIRST. Nick, at this point, was not yet a major player, as he was pretty busy with classes this summer. I saw that the SSA was a resource for freethought groups, that they provided logistical support and that they had a group-starting packet (which I found to be immensely helpful). I will admit that I did not even consider that the university might take issue with this affiliation, however, the administration certainly did see it as a problem. They voiced this to us in our next meeting, and we addressed it by forgoing the affiliation.

      As for the article in FlyerNews, this was by no means a “sucker punch” as described in the article. When they denied us in the last meeting in August, we scheduled a meeting for a month or two later. We told them that between this meeting and the next, our plan of action was to garner public support and we explicitly mentioned that we were going to contact FN. I’m sorry if this was interpreted as an act of confrontation, but because the administration will not allow us to distribute flyers, brochures, or set up tables on campus, this was our most viable option.

    • Anonymous UD Faculty member October 1, 2011 at 12:52 am #

      As for apologizing, I am not sure why it is necessary. I did not call Nick and Branden a name or accuse them of something they did not do. Again, they applied for admission to an organization opposed to religion, they planned for confrontation (by their own admission), and they had not conducted a meeting (until this past Monday).

      Your accusation of their bad faith and dishonesty relies on interpreting the evidence in the least flattering light. There are alternative explanations available.

      You essentially have two pieces of highly circumstantial evidence for this interpretation:

      1. They had not actual met until Monday.
      2. They contacted the national SSA organization for advice and affiliation when planning the club over the summer.

      #1 isn’t really evidence at all. Students are busy and the Semester is young, and not being recognized, while not precluding holding a meeting, makes it more difficult (no tabling, flyers, etc). But even setting that aside, I’m sure lots of other student clubs have not met yet. This isn’t meaningful evidence of anything.

      #2 is open to many plausible interpretations. There are many reasons they might have sought to partner with the national organization. One would be to simply get advice and support–I was once an advisor to a political campus group at another university, and I advised them to go to the national organization. The College Republicans and Democrats, as well, typically work with a national organization.

      But even if they were seeking advice regarding the specific issue of a possible confrontation with the administration, your charges are still unfair. You subtly but meaningfully watered down your claim–in your initial article you clearly implied that they intentionally sought out confrontation; that they did it not to establish a club but to make the administration look bad. In your recent comment, you changed your claim to “planned for confrontation”. That is very, very different. You provoke something you want to happen. You plan for things you wish to avoid, but be prepared for if necessary–I am not seeking out a flat tire when I place a spare tire in my car. The charitable interpretation here is that they hoped their organization would be recognized, but prepared for the eventuality that the administration might put up roadblocks. That’s not a sucker punch, that’s careful planning.

      I don’t know why you immediately jumped to the conclusion that painted these students in the worst, most duplicitous light, and I’m even more baffled as to why you’d publicly make that charge in such a definite matter. There’s a far more charitable, equally plausible alternative, and you apparently didn’t even consider it. If you have such a low opinion of the students at the University of Dayton, I don’t know why you waste your time volunteering for the university.

      Based on Branden’s comment here, in which he explains his actions in his own terms your interpretation was not correct. You now have two choices: you can withdraw the unsupported attack on Branden’s character in your article and apologize, or you can accuse him of lying in this comment. I certainly hope you’ll choose the former.

  7. Ben Tomkins September 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    I had tried to contact UD three times regarding this issue last week, and I was met with silence. I don’t really understand that, but whatever. I’ve never seen a press release or official statement from UD other than some short, fairly uninformative quotations.

    I would love to see a developed, in-depth response on this issue from the UD administration and from SOFT in the interest of hearing both sides clearly. It sounds like both SOFT and UD are earnest, sincere, and respectfully disagreeing, and I can think of no better way that demonstrating faith in knowledge and faith in community, and the value of SOFT’s message regarding open dialogue than for both SOFT and UD to give us two well-written opinions that disagree respectfully and intelligently.

    Additionally, I’ve spent a fair amount of time around negotiating committees, and going to the press is not necessarily an act of agression. There is a big difference between using media to garner public support to further your cause and dragging dirt into a public forum to make a fight ugly. Faith in knowledge and faith in community should indicate a willingness to engage in respectful public disagreement over the value of ideas, and faith in the larger community that it is intelligent enough to think critically about those ideas.

    • Ben Tomkins September 30, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

      Also, I don’t feel that preparing to handle the possibility of resistance in a respectful and proper way indicates that these gentlemen were looking for a fight. On the contrary, based on what I’ve read and their behavior on this forum, it appears that the advice they got regarding how to handle adversity has been well given and well received.

  8. Ashish Sharma September 30, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    OK I really don’t get why nobody is asking this but…

    Where does the law stand on this issue? Can UD legally bar SOFT as a recognized organization within UD or would that be an illegal act? And please don’t answer this question based on your subjective opinion. I’m looking for a legal opinion. I need someone who practices law to answer that if possible.

    Both parties are governed by Federal, Local and State laws and not to mention the US Constitution. Does UD’s denying the application constitute violation of laws at ANY of those levels? Is there a case precedent to this? If so, what did the law say?

    And why aren’t we pursuing sending a non-threatening (hope you’re happy Mr Wagner) legal opinion to the University on behalf of SOFT, clearly outlining where the law stands in this case according to whichever law firm drafts that letter? What’s the point of all this beating about the bush about what he thinks/ she thinks. Students wanted an organization (I still dont understand why), UD denied the organization (they haven’t officially published why). So why are we seeking opinions when we can use something much more black and white to point us to the solution?

    • Ben Tomkins September 30, 2011 at 8:04 pm #
      Ben Tomkins

      A private school can do pretty much anything it wants. It could just as well be Bob Jones University and outlaw students holding hands.

      My biggest issue with simply sending letters is that UD appears to be unresponsive beyond saying “We’re Catholic and we just aren’t doing this.” Pretty lame if you ask me. If they would contribute anything substantive, or indeed simply choose to respond at all, to valid inquiries and criticisms from students, alumni, and even their own faculty, about apparent inconsistencies and unreasonable bias concerning their decision, perhaps they wouldn’t come off looking so bad.

      I guess they just want everyone to ignore the fact that they aren’t talking and hope this will all just go away. However, until they actually address these issues clearly and substantively, their silence will only serve to endict them of the charges I laid out in my article.

    • Anonymous UD Faculty member September 30, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

      Can UD legally bar SOFT as a recognized organization within UD or would that be an illegal act?

      Absolutely. Private school. Their rules.

    • A.J. Wagner October 2, 2011 at 3:45 pm #


      I am a retired judge and a practicing attorney. I believe the University, as a private, religious institution, can refuse recognition to any group so long as there is no violation of a federal funding rule. I know of no such rule.


  9. A.J. Wagner October 2, 2011 at 3:55 pm #


    You have impressed me by your responses. You seem sincere and willing to take responsibility. I accept your explanation of warning the administration about the article in the Flyer News. For that reason I apologize for the “sucker punched” comment. I still believe the action was confrontational but, as with my original argument, I want to get past the confrontational argument and get to the discussion.

    As I said, I think the discussion of atheism has value for people of faith. You and Nick have something important to share. I hope you take advantage of the administration’s offers for dialogue and keep pressing forward with SOFT as an unrecognized campus organization. It may not be everything you want, but your respect for their position and their respect for yours can result in something of interest and value for everyone on campus.


  10. Frank Wall October 3, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    Thoughts on the Society of Freethinkers from a former Catholic.

    I am also a member of Freethought Dayton and I would like to state that I fully support Brandon and Nick in their quest to form a freethinkers group at UD. In addition, I want to clarify that the following is my opinion and my opinion alone and does not reflect the official stance of Freethought Dayton as a group. The same holds true for any other Freethought Dayton commenters here.

    Mr. Wagner, I’m not sure what to make of your editorial. I mean, it’s bizarre. You seem to misunderstand the entire situation.

    You accuse Brandon and Nick of lying about their true motives. You state that their one and only motive was confrontation rather than the obvious motive of trying to form a group. You use fighting terms to frame what you perceive to be an insult to UD (“The University of Dayton (UD) has been sucker punched”), which is completely unnecessary and inflammatory. In your list of reasons why you believe that confrontation is SOFT’s only goal, you mischaracterize the sequence of events and even the events themselves. You later go on to say that it would be no more appropriate for UD to allow an official student atheist group than it would be for them to allow a racist student group. Your message there is clear: atheists are on the same level as racists. That is a blatantly biased point of view and as an atheist I think it is sad and hurtful.

    As for the reasons you give for coming to the conclusion that SOFT wanted nothing but confrontation, well let’s take a look at those:

    “1)SOFT has applied to be partners in the secular movement’s charge against faith”
    They went to the Secular Student Alliance for advice and assistance because that’s what the SSA does. And the SSA has dealt with many cases where the groups they were advocating for were met with considerable resistance from the administration. SOFT went into this not looking for confrontation, but expecting resistance and, what a surprise, that’s exactly what they got, and for completely bogus reasons (more on that later). They did not enlist the SSA to attack faith, but to assist them on getting their group started.

    “2) because they planned for confrontation with the university administration before applying for recognition”
    Again, there is no evidence whatsoever that they planned for confrontation. This is merely a baseless assertion on your part. You say that they admitted to this, but no where in the Dayton paper or the Flyer News have they made this statement. How did you come to the conclusion that they admitted it when they never did?

    “3) because, as of Sunday night, SOFT has yet to organize a “discussion of religious issues from a secular point of view” which is their stated reason for existing.”
    They’ve now held a meeting so you can scratch off that bit of “evidence” for their setting UD up for a “sucker punch” because they want nothing but confrontation from your list.

    And please Mr. Wagner, explain to me how recognizing an atheist group by UD is any different from their official recognition of a Muslim group and a Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgendered group? These two groups also hold beliefs “in direct contrast to what we [UD] believe” (Quote from Director of Student Life, Amy Lopez-Matthews regarding SOFT). To allow these groups to exist while not allowing SOFT to exist as an official student organization shows a blatant inconsistency. If UD’s reasoning really is as Lopez-Matthews says, then she’s implying that the Muslim and LGBT groups should not exist either. I know that’s not what Branden and Nick want. They simply want to have a campus recognized group with all the rights and perks that go along with that: being able to advertise for their group on campus, being able to use campus buildings for free for their meetings, and whatever other benefits an officially recognized group receives.

    Mr. Wagner, your post is yet another example of a situation where non-believers speak up for themselves, and the religious hear nothing but yelling.

    Perhaps you can apply some empathy and realize that you really do owe Brandon and Nick an apology.

  11. Anonymous UD Faculty member October 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    Mr. Wagner, I appreciate your willingness to apologize.

    On to the issue itself, the more I think about this the more I am troubled by it. I wouldn’t really have a problem at all if the University decided that as a matter of its Catholic identity, it wouldn’t allow or recognize clubs that dealt with religious issues that were not Catholic, or not Christian. That’s not the policy I would pursue, but it’s a reasonable one that wouldn’t really bother me.

    But that’s not what UD has done. They’ve gone down the path of ecumenicalism and pluralism. There have been groups from non-Christian religions on campus. In that environment, denying this group is singling out athiests and non-believers in a way that I find very troubling. It’s suggesting that they are somehow ‘beyond the pale’ of official toleration, while others who adhere to a belief system that denies the essential truth of some Catholic beliefs, such as Muslims and members of the Jewish faith, are not. This is an ugly message to send to a group of your students, and I find it very troubling that the administration is comfortable with this message. (And if this is not the message they’re trying to send, they really should explain themselves–and as Ben’s efforts haven’t produced a substantive response, they seem unconcerned about the need to clarify the message they’re sending).

    AJ Wagner seems to see things this way too, as his article is free of any call to revoke official recognition for Muslim or Jewish groups. So my question to Mr. Wagner is this (since UD’s administration won’t give an answer): what principle is being used to discriminate between groups that deny the truth of some Catholic/Marianist teachings? What is it about Atheist/secular/’freethinker’ groups that’s threatening to that identity in a ways that Muslim and Jewish groups are not?

    I’m reminded of the Christian philosopher John Locke’s famous “Letter Concerning Toleration”. Written in 1688, it was one of the first pleas for the political toleration of religious diversity. Many of his arguments became influential in the American political tradition, and left their stamp on our founding moment. But Locke, like the UD administration, was leery of extending this toleration to non-believers. He feared that they were simply too dangerous to be tolerated, as they feared no divine retribution, they would simply be too amoral to be tolerated. Today, we know that such fears are unfounded; indeed, it’s been shown in numerous studies that non-believers are roughly as “moral” as followers of religious traditions in their behavior. I’m assuming it isn’t a replication of Locke’s fear that keeps the administration from placing this particular non-Catholic group in a special category, but I wish they’d explain what makes atheist groups uniquely threatening.

    • Ben Tomkins October 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

      Inherent in religion is a permissiveness of incongruous thinking. They don’t have a good response to your question and they won’t. As the belief in god gives one license to cease inquiring of the unknown, so to does the subsequent morality give one license to accept one’s duplicitousness with calm. It is the thinking of an institution which requires blind faith from its paritioners under the guise of a higher authority of humans whom “have done the thinking for you.”

      I submit to your that this is the single most dehumanizing element of religion, and it is born of the belief that man is created weak, sick, ignorant, and without the grace of divine intervention unable to improve his lot in life. The athiest offends the religious man not because he denies god, but because he accepts upon himself the power and responsibility of his own destiny which the religious man demands he ascribe to the diety. This decision to become the shepherd and renounce the life of the lamb is precisely the thing that kills the god and his cult, because once man declares he is born strong and capable he no longer needs the church to guide him.

    • Anonymous UD Faculty member October 6, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      Inherent in religion is a permissiveness of incongruous thinking….As the belief in god gives one license to cease inquiring of the unknown, so to does the subsequent morality give one license to accept one’s duplicitousness with calm. It is the thinking of an institution which requires blind faith from its paritioners under the guise of a higher authority of humans whom “have done the thinking for you.”

      I understand where you’re coming from, Ben, but I can’t agree with you. I’ve known many true intellectuals, in the deepest sense of the word, who maintain a religious identity but don’t allow it to short circuit their intellectual curiosity or critical thinking in this way. Even if religious identity has these tendencies, they aren’t determinant.

    • Ben Tomkins October 7, 2011 at 3:51 am #
      Ben Tomkins

      Anon UD – of course, well taken. I find it very difficult to frame the context of an argument on a message board, and one must be guarded to direct a pointed criticism without being overly general. Please allow me to clarify.

      I believe that institution of religion asks this of their followers, although many, many religious believers chose to take religion a personal rather than an institutional charge. I believe there is a naturalness to introspective and personal understanding of god, and at the point where one is seeking to understand rather than to obey, I personally believe far more good comes than harm.

      In that sense I think a belief in god is ultimately a belief in the finest parts of the human being and one’s own experience. Earnestly seeking to understand a life is perhaps the highest, most humble calling we may ask of ourselves. However, when one begins to forget that, as an example, Kali is a meditation rather than a physical being, the enlightenment quickly devolves into human sacrifice.

      As I said, my comments are directed toward the institution of religion, and particularly large, central bodies. There are two kinds of sincere, devout followers of religion in my estimation – those who seek to understand themselves and the world, and those who seek direction and satisfaction in the mindless posturing of the herd at the behest of a dogmatic shepherd. I hope that makes my meaning clear.



  12. Nick October 4, 2011 at 1:18 am #

    We love seeing this discussion! In general, it has been thoughtful, honest, and respectful. Don’t you think that UD students would benefit from a place where these discussions are held regularly?

  13. A.J. Wagner October 5, 2011 at 4:26 am #


    You are asking me to answer policy questions for the University. I am a volunteer and supporter of the University, I am not an administrator who can answer the questions posed. I believe the University can draw the line where and how it wishes. I may have drawn the line elsewhere in either direction but where I would draw it does not matter.

    Nick, as I have said, I believe the university does benefit from the conversation with others who don’t agree with or think like the majority. I implore you to take advantage of social media and the venues that have been offered to you. It might not be perfect, but it’s a start and you may slowly win the administration over with your respectful discussion. It’s worth a shot.

    Ben, religion certainly has its faults, but your broad brush ignores the huge variations in religion, religious people and spiritual people who believe in God but don’t practice a specific religion. As for me, I believe God requires me to be responsible, strong, inquisitive of the unknown and caring. I carry way too much guilt to accept the charge that I don’t care about my own duplicities or my many other sins. I need the church to teach, encourage and re-energize me. You may call that weakness, but I don’t know anyone who can navigate life without the help of others.

    I am not threatened or offended by your atheism. I agree that atheists are just as likely to behave in a moral manner as those who claim to be theists. As you all have pointed out, I am subject to fault and error and am in need of more work toward loving more fully.

    I wish all of you gentlemen peace and good health.


    • Ben Tomkins October 5, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

      Hi AJ, I first want to make sure that I am clear, in that I am not attacking you or any individual personally. My mother and many of my friends are religious, and their religious beliefs help them to be better people and lead happier, more fulfilling lives. I also happen to think that these people closest to me are sincere and honest, and religion works for them. I do not, and have never thought, that the simple fact that one believes in god or a particular religion indicates that there is something “wrong” with how they think, or that they are leading a lesser life than someone who doesn’t believe. My experience so far has taught me that life has an interesting way of kicking people in the but who think they are intellectually superior in a world that is so dimly understood by even the wisest of us.

      From what I’ve read here, you seem like a perfectly decent, cordial, and introspective person. I think my paragraphs below will make the meaning of my previous comments clear.

      As with so many things, when religious belief, or for that matter, the lack thereof, fosters a strong desire to deal fairly and compassionately with others, motivates one to good works, better oneself, etc., I think it celebrates the most basic aspects of what it means to be a human being. Yes, we all need help and the shoulder of others to make it in our world. Religion has in many ways been a beautiful expression of the reality that we are creatures of metaphor, and that gift allows us to see our world not as a place of pain and waste but as a wonderful and spiritual field of which we are a part.

      However, with the glory of the Hermetic comes the threat of the Mosaic, and with that concretization comes irrationality, pain, suffering, and incongruity. This is wellspring of duplicitous thought,as one can easily use a spiritual experience as a license declare one’s moral sovreignty over others. A well-engendered religious belief should not insist on historicity, as once it does that it lose the message and value of its spiritual teachings. It’s a fine line, but when crossed we quickly see things like gay and lesbian couples denies marriage rights on no grounds other than “the Bible says so”.

      So I am clear: Many, many people who have faith express it as a powerful tool for personal growth, guidance, and betterment of the world around them, and generally treat their faith as a lense through which they view a contemporary and progressive world. However, there are still many who would use it as a cudgel as they scramble for moral and metaphysical high ground, and they use the ideas, beliefs, and even lives of others as steps to the summit. This must be loudly and catagorically opposed.

      The charges I am making against UD are precisely of this category – an inconsistent and wilfully dismissive set of policies concerning their religious beliefs which are markedly duplicitous and smack of a superficial callousness to the word “athiest.” I feel that the attempt to understand this group has been lost by UD at the word rather than the intention.

      Finally, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Personally, I think you are right in that the relatively harmless nature of your comments has blown up into something that distracts from the discussion of the much more interesting topic of religious and non-religious debate. If my marriage counselling has taught me anything, it’s that people far to often get lost in the perception of slight instead of dealing with the real problem in a forgiving and empathetic way:)



  14. A.J. Wagner October 7, 2011 at 2:03 am #


    Thanks for the clarification. I will stick by my friends at UD as I know them to be quite thoughtful and not dismissive. Their offers to SOFT to present and be a part of other venues is a sincere effort to accommodate an expression of atheistic views. It seems that to give full recognition to SOFT is a step to far for them. I know they are often criticized for not being “Catholic” because of their recognition of other religious groups and their recognition of an LGBT group. Perhaps they are being pragmatic here as opposed to living up to ideals. I don’t know that for certain, but I know they tend to lean, in most cases, toward inclusion as opposed to exclusion. I am glad I don’t have to make this decision.

    Your charges against some religious would ring true with Jesus who was quite critical of some who proclaimed righteousness. He was known to call more than a few people out for their abuse of religion and religious laws to harm others.

    It’s been good working with you. I hope we get the chance again someday although I believe we will most often be found on the same side of debatable issues.


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