Debate Forum Right, 9/27/11

A.J. Wagner A.J. Wagner

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

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