What do you believe in? New Secular Students Alliance facilitates dialogue for critique and exploration of religious beliefs

January 29th, 2014

Thanks to the John Carroll Secular Students Alliance, students of both religious and non-religious backgrounds are now represented at John Carroll University.


Recently established as a student organization, JCU Secular Students plans to recognize students with nontheistic backgrounds. Currently about 30 members strong, the group is continuing to grow by the day. Sophomore Tyler Potts, president of the organization, is hopeful about the Alliance’s future.


“I think that in America, we’re sort of used to having a Christian privilege in a way,” said Potts. “We are so used to everything being Christian in this country and at this school, which is a Catholic university.”


Potts has been working hand-in-hand with administration this past semester to officially establish his organization. Although it took longer than he would have liked, Potts never thought the delay was intentional.


“I never felt like they were discriminating against me,” said Potts.


Potts grew up in an evangelical Christian home and, over time, moved towards a nontheist view.


“They knew that I leaned towards non-religious, but I don’t think they realized how involved I was with the free thought movement and secularism that I really was. Every day my parents try to convert me. They think I’m like the spawn of Satan,” said Potts.


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, humanism is “a system of values and beliefs that is based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion.”


“Humanism is kind of like this belief that you have a spiritual regard for humanity,” said Potts. “For a humanist, they would say that humankind is God in and of itself, which is kind of hard for some people to understand. It’s this thing that we should all work together with this ‘Kumbaya’ mentality. They’re not overtly religious, but spiritual people.”


Not all students are equally as enthusiastic about the group’s creation.


Anna Lawler, sophomore Christian Life Community leader and treasurer of the Catholic group Alpha Omega, responded to the organization’s establishment.


“In a not-so-nice way, I hope that it’s not popular,” said Lawler. “I’m fine with it being around, as long as they respect that there are other people with different values, just like we are respecting that they have their different values.”


Potts is familiar with this kind of criticism, and calls for inclusiveness amongst students of different backgrounds.


“I’ve heard some older gentlemen say that the alumni wouldn’t like [the group], that they really don’t like the [JCU LGBTQ group] Allies. But I told them, I think times are changing, and our generation’s a little bit different,” said Potts.


Simran Kahai, associate professor in the economics department, is the temporary group advisor. The Alliance intends to extend its group by holding weekly meetings, hosting informational events and joining in dialogue between religious and non-religious groups across campus.


Potts felt like there was always a lack of an outlet for people without faith.


“I feel like when I do service sometimes, it’s very religiously oriented, if not overtly said so,” said Potts. “One of the group’s goals is to do service and that you don’t necessarily need God to help other people—not that were trying to put God down or anything like that.”


Sophomore Lutheran student Joshua Krach said he supports the group as a campus organization.


“I think that they have every right to be here as a student organization. If I went to a public school, I would expect to be allowed to form a Christian organization,” said Krach.


Lawler concurred with Krach’s view.


“As a Jesuit institution, we certainly take into account tolerance and understanding. Having a group on campus like this could be a good thing, because people who are lost, or who don’t believe in God at the time or are never going to, they have a place to belong,” said Lawler.


“I don’t think it’s going to be like a disease or anything,” said sophomore Catholic student Brie Taylor. “It’s not gonna catch on and everyone’s going to be atheists.”


Potts embraces interfaith dialogue and has many friends of different faith backgrounds.


“I certainly love debating, I don’t necessarily consider them arguments, though,” he said. “We’re hashing something out that’s important, and I like to walk away and shake the other person’s hand.”


“I think it’s really cool somebody made a group that represents that belief,” says sophomore Catholic student Mark Smitheisler. “The Pope has really set the bar high for Christian dialogue with atheists and the irreligious, so I think it’s great that JCU opened the doors to that group.”


Similar to Jesuit ideals, secular humanists place a special focus on service.


“For humanists, they look at human suffering the same way Jesuits do, as something that really needs to be rectified,” said Potts.


Lawler said that even with her Catholic standpoint, she doesn’t wish to change anyone’s secular views.


“I’m not a Christian who believes it’s my job to convert people,” she said. “That’s what God does. My job is just to help God by expressing what I love about him and what I love about my life and sharing my love for God with others, but not in a way that says that ‘this’ is the right way, because there’s really no way to determine what the right way is. I’ve never been in the converting business.”


Despite the controversy amongst the student population, JCU’s administration has been very supportive of Potts’ efforts to create the Secular Students Alliance.


Edward Hahnenberg, Chair in Catholic Systematic Theology at JCU, hopes that the Secular Students Alliance will be received in a positive light.


“The John Carroll mission statement explicitly states that it welcomes the acceptance and participation of people of all faith, so I see it as an extension of the mission of the University,” said Hahnenberg. “And I think it flows out of the Jesuit commitment. I guess you could say that my welcoming or comfort of secular groups on campus flows out of the Jesuits’ deep commitment to recognize backgrounds of other faiths, and those that don’t recognize God.”