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ISSUE 118 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 4/8/2005

Religious tolerance extends to atheists, agnostics

By Megan Sutherland
Staff Writer

Friday, April 8, 2005

St. Olaf identifies itself as a school dedicated to providing students with an education “committed to the liberal arts, rooted in the Christian gospel, and incorporating a global perspective.” Being associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, St. Olaf obviously draws a lot of students from varying Christian sects, particularly Lutherans. However, as St. Olaf has become more well-known, there has been an increase in the diversity of religious opinions in the student body. According to Pastor Bruce Benson, the presence of religious skeptics on campus is welcomed and is seen as a positive addition. He points out that St. Olaf isn’t a “Christian” campus, but rather is “a liberal arts college where the Christian message, faith and community are specifically invited and welcomed.” He believes that having an array of opinions assists both believers and non-believers “in seeking truth and integrity and living with justice,” which is ultimately the goal St. Olaf hopes its students will achieve. But how exactly does it feel to be an agnostic or atheist at a generally “Christian” school? For the most part, agnostics and atheists at St. Olaf have encountered little friction from Christian friends or acquaintances. Tom Loome ’05 points out that while he himself is an agnostic, he believes that “students with traditional religious beliefs have some of the most looked-down-upon views at this ‘Christian’ college.” Loome says he has never felt intimidated over his lack of religious beliefs, saying that “religion was not a factor” in his decision to attend St. Olaf, nor has it become an issue since his initial attendence. Erica Leatherman ‘06, transferred to St. Olaf after her freshman year at Denison University in Ohio, wanting to be closer to home. While she is an agnostic, Leatherman wasn’t concerned about attending a Lutheran school. “I went to an Episcopal school since 4th grade … so I was used to it,” Leatherman said. While she has encountered one isolated incident of someone trying to convert her, people have, for the most part, been receptive and open to her beliefs. Another agnostic student, Stephanie Polt ‘06, did not initially want to attend a “religious” school but says she hasn’t felt alienated or uncomfortable at St. Olaf. Polt transferred to St. Olaf from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has found the religious makeup of St. Olaf quite similar to her previous school. Polt points out that while some people can be judgmental and “wrongly assume that because you are without religious beliefs, you are without ethics,” most people are interested in hearing different points of view. Like Loome and Leatherman, Polt says she has never felt as though she couldn’t offer her opinions when discussing religion. Recently, Loome and friend Dan Sinykin ’05 started a club on campus called Agnostics Against Secular Fundamentalism. Sinykin emphasizes that while there are a lot of Christian organizations around campus, there have not been, until recently, any forums for those who questioned or denied the existence of God. Sinykin feels it is important for these students to have a voice around campus. Sinykin, too, says he does not feel intimidated attending a religiously affiliated college. “The job of the agnostic is Socratic – we must question those who do have answers to discover the holes [in their arguments] or where [their arguments] might succeed,” Sinykin said. Loome and Sinykin’s club has more than 60 members thus far, and they are open to increasing that number through an agnostic potluck dinner and other activities around campus. While Pastor Benson emphasizes that the college is not interested in exchanging its religious affiliation for a secular one, the ability for non-Christians and Christians to converse is important to students’ personal and intellectual development. He puts the issue in perspective, asserting that “We are in this together [and] we might as well talk to each other ... I would say such conversation pleases God.”

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