MSU may be a public, and therefore secular, university, but that does not guarantee that atheists are accepted among the student population. “People have a negative perception of us and judge us based on what they think atheists are like,” comparative cultures and politics sophomore Cameron Lucke said. He considers himself an atheist.
MSU has a variety of religious groups on campus, from the His House Christian Fellowship to the Muslim Students’ Association. Unfortunately, atheists and other secular students do not have such well-established support networks.
This strong religious campus fosters certain societal norms. “Everyone just assumes you have a god and push[es] it on you,” Lucke said. It can be difficult for students to find alternative points of view.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI), while not a self-proclaimed atheist group, aims to create a community for secular students like Lucke, who are looking for a student group with a more diverse set of world views.
During zoology junior Julia Smith’s freshman year, “it seemed like every single person I met was religious,” Smith said. “I thought that in college there would be a wider variety of viewpoints. And it seemed like the only people I met were Christians.” She is one of the club’s four board members.
MSU’s CFI chapter belongs to a much larger, nonprofit organization, which promotes what Smith calls ‘skeptical thinking.’ Their purpose, according to their website, is to “contribute to the public understanding and appreciation of science and reason, and their applications to human conduct.”
Within Michigan, there are five other colleges and universities which have student CFI chapters: Kendall College, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Ferris State University, and Aquinas College.
MSU’s partnership with CFI started last year. Before 2008, the group was known as MSU Freethinkers Alliance. The Freethinkers Alliance began in the fall semester of 2002, and aimed to create a community of rationalist and secular thinkers.
Despite the name change, the group continues to promote this goal. “I think it’s important to work on fostering a community because non-religious or secular people tend to do their own thing and not want to band together,” Smith said. “There’s no need to hang out alone when we can all make friends and realize ‘there’s a bigger community than myself.’”
The group changed its name to associate itself more closely with the larger organization. “[Now] we can pool our resources, do joint events, joint speakers,” Smith said. Thanks to this partnership, the student group was able to host speaker Richard Dawkins, the renowned and controversial atheist.
Despite their atheist tendencies, the group has not experienced backlash from the religious community on campus. “The response toward CFI from religious groups has been largely positive — we just held the collaborative event with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and we have been invited to be a part of the new Campus Interfaith Council,” Smith said. “So as far as I know, the religious groups who know about us like us and have been willing to collaborate.”
The discussions CFI students have at meetings do set them apart from other religious groups on campus. What qualifies as art? As a secular person, what should your response to religion be? What are the limits to skepticism? These are some of the unanswerable questions that the 20 or so regular members ask themselves every Thursday night.
“We don’t claim to have the answers and don’t think we can come to them, certainly in one evening,” Smith said. “We don’t try to answer things, but express our views and understand why we think what we think a little more,” Smith added.
For social relations and policy junior Laura Kovacek, college is the ideal time to ask such questions. “You don’t necessarily get this opportunity at other times in your life, to ask such theoretical and impractical questions,” Kovacek said. “It allows you to address issues that you’ve wondered about.”
Their Thursday night meetings consist of everything from discussions to going on field trips. While there is no designated format, “usually we’ll have a presentation of some sort, and then open the floor to ideas,” she said. “Anybody is allowed to come and speak. We bounce ideas off of one another, argue, talk and think about whatever the issue is.”
Students are attracted to the group for a variety of reasons. For Kovacek, politics first drew her in. “The first meeting that I went to was on politics, and I went back because of that,” Kovacek said.
CFI “really gives you an outlet to try and think about things in a non-academic setting. I really think that it’s integral to learning outside the classroom,” Kovacek said. “It’s fun, but not vapid.”
Unlike Kovacek, mechanical engineering sophomore Mike Parr was merely inquisitive about the group. He received an e-mail earlier this year about the group and decided to inquire within at a meeting because “I hadn’t found a lot of secular people to talk with, and thought it would be a good place to find people with similar interests.”
Unlike other religious student groups on campus, CFI students’ similar interests include a world without an overarching God. But the absence of religion doesn’t mean the absence of meaning, and CFI provides a place for students to flesh out all kinds of secular ambiguities.