Years Later, Secular Student Group Recognized On A Religious Campus: Here's How It Happened

This long-overdue affirmation of secular students' place within an otherwise predominantly religious institution owes largely to precisely the kind of interfaith dialogue and collaboration that encourages mutual respect and solidarity between atheists and the religious, rather than scorn or derision.
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This piece was co-authored with Andreas Rekdal, who works for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He graduated from Concordia College in December 2012 with a B.A. in political science and philosophy, where he was a founding member of Concordia's Secular Student Community.

In my first ever piece for The Huffington Post Religion, published in 2010, I wrote about Moorhead, Minn.-based Concordia College's refusal to recognize "Secular Students of Concordia," a student organization centered around nontheistic values. In that piece I argued that, in order to be truly inclusive, interfaith dialogue and collaboration must also include -- and defend -- those without faith, who are often marginalized and discriminated against in the United States.

Last week, the same college gave official recognition to the "Secular Student Community" -- an organization similar in name and still centered around nontheistic values, but with a different vision.

This long-overdue affirmation of secular students' place within an otherwise predominantly religious institution owes largely to precisely the kind of interfaith dialogue and collaboration called for in my 2010 piece -- the kind of approach that encourages mutual respect and solidarity between atheists and the religious, rather than scorn or derision.

* * *

The debate about giving Concordia's nonreligious population official recognition and a voice on campus first began in November 2009, when a group of students applied to form Secular Students of Concordia. The group's stated goal was to be "a secular alternative to the religious and faith based clubs at Concordia." Their application was rejected by the school on the grounds that "the organization [was] not in compliance with ELCA [the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America] and the College Standards."

Looking at the organization's constitution, a few aspects appear problematic with regard to the college's nondiscrimination policies and religious affiliation. First, it required that all active members affiliate themselves with one or more national secular organizations. Second, if the group were disbanded, its remaining funds were to be donated either to "an on-campus initiative promoting or strongly supporting secular values" or to the self-described "aggressive, in-your-face" American Atheists, a national organization widely known for its confrontational tactics and anti-religious activism. The latter was particularly problematic because funding for campus organizations usually comes from the college itself. By approving the Secular Students of Concordia, the college could have potentially placed itself in a position of being forced to make a donation to American Atheists -- a perhaps less-than-tempting prospect for a college that finds itself at the crossroads of its increasingly religiously diverse student body and its explicitly Christian heritage.

In January 2011 the group's founder, Bjørn Kvernstuen, appealed the college's decision and reapplied for recognition with a redrafted constitution. In the appeal, Kvernstuen argued that the organization was in fact not at odds with the ELCA, and that the organization would play a crucial role in promoting openness and diversity on campus. The redrafted constitution appeared free of the problems contained in the first, but nonetheless, the college rejected this application as well.

* * *

Ironically, the resistance met by the Secular Students of Concordia coincided with a campus-wide push for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. A group of students began forming an Interfaith Youth Core-affiliated "Better Together" interfaith campaign, and the college was in the process of creating a "Forum on Faith and Life" -- a campus office concerned with matters of interfaith cooperation and community service. Moreover, the following academic year kicked off with an appeal for interfaith dialogue in a September 2012 campus-wide lecture by IFYC founder Eboo Patel.

Interpreting the choice of Patel as the convocation speaker as an invitation for religious minorities to become part of the larger discussion on interfaith, another group of students (including Andreas Rekdal, who co-authored this piece) submitted an intent form for a Secular Student Community in October 2012. This organization was meant to be a place of belonging for Concordia's many nonreligious students, centered around constructive dialogue about secular morality. Furthermore, the group wished to spark a campus-wide conversation about inclusivity -- to raise awareness about the college's many nonreligious students, and to advocate on their behalf.

Six months later, to the surprise of many, the group finally gained official recognition from the college. What had changed in the just over two years since the group was first rejected, and the less than two years since its last appeal, that allowed for this?

Significantly, nonreligious students had become active participants in campus-wide interfaith efforts. In fact, atheists, agnostics and Humanists were significantly overrepresented in Concordia's Better Together interfaith campaign, which was led by the school's most outspoken atheist, Kristi Del Vecchio. These students saw the value of interfaith dialogue for all people -- particularly for religious minorities such as atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious -- and decided to become active proponents of interfaith dialogue on campus.

Recognizing nonreligious students' desire to be part of the discussion on faith at Concordia, administrators and faculty began to reach out in support. The chairperson of Concordia's Religion department called administrators to ask why the Secular Student Community's application process was taking so long. Concordia's Campus Ministries invited Del Vecchio to speak during interfaith chapel week. Using the opportunity to clear the air about stereotypes surrounding atheism and emphasizing the common ground she sees between herself and her religious peers, Kristi helped spark a renewed discussion around the role of seculars within the institution.

Additionally, after an ongoing dialogue spanning more than a year with both the burgeoning secular student group and the established interfaith group at Concordia, I was invited to speak on campus (in the hall where chapel services are held) about my book "Faitheist" and the importance of religious-nonreligious cooperation. In my remarks, I spoke of the need to support secular students. I was pleased that the audience included people from all across campus -- students, staff, faculty; atheists, agnostics and people of many different faiths. During the Q&A following my speech, atheist students came forward and expressed their love for their school and their desire to be supported by it, and religious students stepped up to voice their admiration and appreciation for their nonreligious peers. I was thrilled by the growing support I saw for secular students at Concordia. Additionally, I had a meeting with members of the Concordia faculty and administration, where I urged them to support all Concordia students, religious and nonreligious, in their needs for education, dialogue and community.

As a Minnesota native and brother of a Concordia alum, I am thrilled that the school has decided to do just that. As an alum of another Lutheran college in Minnesota, I celebrate that Concorida recognizes that it can be both a school in the Lutheran tradition and an institution that values diversity and helps students of all beliefs and backgrounds engage that diversity honestly and constructively. And as an atheist and interfaith activist, I am inspired by a story that demonstrates what can happen when people of all faiths and the nonreligious work together and support one another.

I join Andreas Rekdal, my co-author, in applauding Concordia College's administration for this decision. But I also applaud Rekdal, Del Vecchio and the many other atheist, agnostic and nonreligious students at Concordia who had the courage and patience to step out and put a face on nonreligiosity at Concordia -- to facilitate conversations, build bridges with religious believers, and create a welcoming community for the nonreligious on their campus. And I applaud their religious allies in Concordia's interfaith student group, Religion department, and all across campus, who understand that efforts to advance religious pluralism must include, and support, the nonreligious as well as the religious.

Concordia's students, faculty and administration have clearly shown that, in a world fixated on culture wars and disagreements, there is another way forward for atheists and the religious -- one defined by mutual respect and support, rather than condescension or dismissal. I hope that religious and nonreligious people alike will look to them when considering how to treat their friends and neighbors with different beliefs, and recognize that by working together we can build a more compassionate and inclusive world for all.

Update [4/21/2013]: After some additional reflection, we feel it is important to offer a point of clarification. The purpose of this piece was to illustrate the huge difference a shift in approach can make for nonreligious students who feel like they are not being heard in a religious setting. That being said, this change in campus policy would never have occurred had it not been for the willingness -- and proactive interest -- of religious students and faculty members to listen, reach out and advocate for their nonreligious peers.

Among students, Better Together co-president Sarah Funkhouser and Campus Ministry Commissioner Anastasia Young, both devout Christians, worked tirelessly and passionately publicly and behind the scenes to make the secular student organization a reality -- as did a number of other religious students involved in Better Together, many of whom were as committed to making secular students heard as the secular students themselves. Likewise, faculty members such as director of the Forum on Faith and Life, Jacqueline Bussie, and the president of the college, William Craft, have been invaluable allies in the process. We thank them, and everyone else who played a role in making this possible -- however small or big.

Though there are a significant number of secular students involved in Concordia's interfaith programs -- perhaps more so than in many other interfaith programs -- the interfaith student leadership at Concordia as a whole reflects the diversity of the student body itself, and the participation and contributions of Better Together's religious members should not be overlooked.

This piece was not written to describe a victory of secular students over the school or over their peers, but rather a victory for all of Concordia made possible by interfaith cooperation. It was conceived of, advocated for, and realized by people of many different faiths and beliefs working together as partners in mutual respect. To suggest anything else would understate the importance of the contributions made by each individual and group's contributions, and the importance of interfaith cooperation at Concordia and for our world today.

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