Final Thoughts on my Catholic College Education

I recently graduated with degrees in psychology and philosophy from King's College, a Catholic liberal arts college, and was generally satisfied with my education. I will offer a short summary of my experience at King's and provide some criticism and positive thoughts.

When I arrived at King's, I was a theist who recently completed CCD classes and was confirmed by the Catholic Church. My religious beliefs were not really questioned and I never decided to question my own beliefs. I attended King's College mainly because it was local and because the college provided a good deal of financial aid. While I was a theist upon going to college, the idea of a 'Catholic College' did not influence my decision. In my first year of college, I didn't really try very hard and simply drifted through. I hardly attended any events, didn't bother to make many friends on campus, and kept with my old group of friends. I gained about two or three friends, but that was about it. The 'Catholic component' of King's was almost completely optional for students save the forced abstaining from meat in dining locations on Fridays and the references to God in speeches made by college officials at college events. I didn't attend any Catholic events in my first year and didn't attend any sort of mass either.

During my second year of college, I became more involved in the college community. I started attending various events on campus and started to engage with religious thought toward the end of my fourth semester. Some friends of mine challenged my religious beliefs and I had no adequate answer to provide, so I was compelled to research and see whether or not my beliefs were warranted. I also was challenged by one of my philosophy classes and an on-campus event I attended dealing with atheism. I came to the conclusion that beliefs about the supernatural were very important, so I was going to investigate and determine whether or not my beliefs should be maintained. After this event, I purchased a copy of The God Delusion and started to watch debates online, read some more books, and eventually deconverted.

After my second year of college and before my third year, I began working with the Secular Student Alliance to start an college club for secular students. I created a Facebook page for the groups with over 75 members and had a decent list of interested students. It was very difficult to get a faculty member to be the advisor for this club because many feared backlash from the community and threats to their jobs. I finally found one person who was willing to sign on (perhaps because he had tenure). I went through all of the steps required to start a campus group, but was ultimately denied after several months and several appeals. A quorum of officials at King's voted 'no' on my club citing that King's College hosting a secular club was against the mission statement of the college. I appealed this, but got nowhere. Simply because I wanted this club to exist, I started to get extreme backlash from students. I had people yelling in my face, starting hate groups on Facebook, and intruding on my Facebook profile. This, of course, was quite disappointing. I became quite a pariah on campus and without even knowing me, people sent very nasty messages to me.

In December of 2009, I objected to a county courthouse religious display and received more hate from students including physical threats of violence, hate mail, and other nonsense from students and residents of Luzerne County. It was and is very evident that religion could be very harmful...and I finally experienced this firsthand. Despite all of my attempts to 'reach out' to the community including this blog and media interviews, people still were hate-filled.

I started to notice huge structural problems at my school. King's is a Catholic school and a liberal arts school, but both of these worlds cannot peacefully coexist. The liberal arts aspect of the education stresses critical thinking, need for evidence, and thoughtfully examining all sides of issues before taking a stance, but the Catholic component of King's embraced belief without good evidence (faith) and praised this in the area of religion, but, of course, not any others. Why make an exception for religion when every other area of your life is backed by sufficient argument, evidence, and reason? Although Catholics talk about reasoned faith, faith is anything but this. If there were good reason to believe in any supernatural claims, faith simply would never have to enter into the picture.

The academic freedom of many non-theistic teachers was also greatly reduced because of a chilling effect; if teachers publicly spoke out against Catholic ideas, they'd face consequences and may have their jobs or chances of receiving tenure threatened.

During my third year, I asked for help establishing a secular club from the diversity coordinator (who no longer works at King's College), but she offered no help whatsoever. I was quite frustrated with this and openly noted a huge problem here...King's is supposed to welcome all sorts of people and more specifically, the office of diversity is supposed to help minorities who wish to gain recognition at the college and want some sort of help, but this simply was not the case. Diversity at King's, unfortunately, was mainly about ethnicity and skin color, but not diversity of ideas. Inter-faith discussions or even faith discussions (save some events) were not about critical examination and tough questions, but rather encouraged a 'believe what you want to believe and let people say whatever they want and you shouldn't question them' attitude. Some students objected to me questioning the people at these events even though they said 'ask any questions' and my questions were quite mild! For shame! Thankfully, the diversity office now has a new coordinator who is making steps in the right direction, although I don't envision a secular club any time soon.

Whenever someone clearly lost an argument with me, the trump card of 'this is a Catholic College' was the main non-sequiter. People constantly levied this objection to so many of my pursuits and used this as a last line of defense instead of actually considering my points. When my secular club was refused, I went 'at war' with the campus Knights of Columbus group who blatantly violated college rules because they only allowed Catholic males aged 18 and up who were in 'good standing with the church.' I objected to their existence, but these objections were only met with 'this is a Catholic College' and hateful responses from some members. One officer of the female version of the Knights of Columbus, in quite a futile attempt, tried to respond to my objections and wondered how I am even a student at King's (as if they should kick me out or something?).

There is a huge problem when a college won't allow a secular club but will allow a Catholic-only club. This made me feel like an outsider in the community, but I wouldn't be silenced, marginalized, or rendered invisible like other atheist students who are and were afraid to speak up and be seen.

I find it interesting that my college experience at a Catholic school seemed to lead me to deconvert. My success at King's was in spite of its Catholic identity both personally and academically. My education played a major role, toward the end of my undergraduate career, in strengthening my non-belief. I attended many events involving Christianity during my last two years of college and found no good reasons to accept the claims of the religious. I met some really horrible apologists and students in classes who were Catholic, but never examined the arguments against their beliefs. I constantly heard nonsense from students saying 'you can't disprove God' time and time again. Students claimed that faith was a valid pathway to knowledge although they couldn't give reasons for their beliefs. The entire college campus failed to accept my debate challenge that was put forth in September of 2010. For all of the emphasis on Christianity at the campus, few were willing to defend their faith as 1 Peter 3:15 suggested and there appeared to be a profound lack of people who actually really thought about their beliefs and answered objections to atheists like myself.

I look at my experiences at King's and am quite happy with the person I am now and am relieved to be free of religious belief. A great deal of my work in the past two years or so, represented on this blog, was very intellectually fulfilling. I had great experiences as an atheist that I never would have had as a theist even if I wasn't a 'practicing Catholic.' In just two years, I accomplished a great deal and made a huge impact on my community. I was very well-known at King's and hopefully influenced others to think about their beliefs. Hopefully I encouraged many people to no be afraid to criticize religion. Hopefully I made some faculty and staff very happy because I was a voice for those who are forced to be silent until they get tenure. I know that there are many atheist students and staff at King's College who are afraid to speak up or can't speak up because of their jobs or for social reasons, but I was a voice for those who could not have one. Those who were forced to be silent really inspired me to speak up and do something because they could not.

I didn't buy a brick at King's College that would bear my name in Monarch Court, a central area in the college, but I know that my work and actions will remain known at King's College. I was, without a doubt, the most influential atheist activist (and perhaps one of the only ones) and profoundly influenced the thoughts of many on campus. Even if people aren't going to reflect about their beliefs or even if people think I'm a stupid jackass, I made a difference...and that's all that I really can hope to do. My efforts are not pointless just because I failed to deconvert many people, as some atheists may think. Some atheists may also think that my efforts were pointless because many people won't really think about the issues, but the seeds were planted and fellow atheists have benefited. Even if my work or the work of other atheists fails to deconvert anyone, we're building a strong community and are finally being recognized. While the 'race' is slow and steady, the 'atheist movement' is growing bigger and bigger and the 'community' is very strong. Recent young atheist activists such as Jessica Ahlquist and Damon Folwer are making waves and also inspiring others to speak up.

While I've mainly focused on the negative/hate mail I've received, I've also received tons of support. I've been 'promoted' to a board member and co-organizer of my local group of atheists, have been featured in a book about controversy in Northeastern Pennsylvania and have also accompanied the author on a book tour, and have received a distinguished award for philosophy from King's College. I've learned a tremendous amount of information in so many areas of life and am much more educated because I am an atheist. Might I have been inspired to really think about my beliefs and be more educated if I were still a theist? Probably not. While many theists, of course, are quite intelligent and educated, I don't think that I'd be as well-versed as I am today if I were still a theist. If my beliefs were never challenged, this blog would never have existed, I wouldn't have had many great experiences in the past two years, and my life would probably be quite boring.

I emerged as an atheist from my Catholic College and have come to the conclusion that belief in any gods is unsubstantiated. As a theist, I didn't have my reasons for belief, but now have reasons for my disbelief as an atheist and can and have dictated such reasons. I'm now open to change any and all of my given beliefs about any matter provided that new information is presented, but I'm still waiting for a stellar apologist to come forth and convince me that any gods exist. Despite its Catholic identity, King's led me away from my faith and I'm very happy about that. Many students will probably persist in their belief, but hopefully they will really consider their beliefs and come to the conclusion that they had no good reasons to believe. I don't know about others, but life is much more fulfilling as an atheist than it is as a theist.

My professors at King's College greatly influenced me...and they know who they are. I've spent countless hours in the offices of some staff and faculty at King's College and have tremendously benefited. Classes, also, were very thought-provoking and challenging.

This post could have been much longer and more detailed, but I'll keep it at this and, as always, welcome comments and questions.