Vriezen: Students should further their religious understanding through conversation


Collection of symbols representing various beliefs.

Claire Vriezen

As of late, there have been several articles in the Iowa State Daily regarding various topics of religion. One article dealt with religion and the freedom of speech, while others covered aspects of Christianity and the reactions to the American Atheist Convention that will be in Des Moines this month. 

While all are, perhaps, useful for starting dialogues about religion among students, similar columns or letters that only promote one point of view may inhibit honest discourse. A recent letter made some rather large generalizations about atheists being anti-Christian, a problem I can only guess comes from lack of exposure to a wide variety of atheists.

Like any philosophical outlook, there are differing opinions among atheists. Some people oppose religion as a whole — referred to as “anti-theists” — while others adopt a “live and let live” attitude. To make a blanket statement about “anti-Christian” atheists is patently unfair to the population of atheists that are content to quietly dissent in the privacy of their own homes and minds. 

One of the best ways to demolish stereotypes is through visibility. Much like LGBT groups that encourage openness in sexual orientation to break down preconceptions, various atheist communities have started their own campaigns to promote atheist awareness.

Perhaps the most well known among atheists is the OUT Campaign. This movement seeks to let the public know that nonbelievers are among them and to break down the negative stereotypes the public seems to have.

Their website proclaims, “We can help others understand that atheists come in all shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. We are labourers and professionals. We are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and grandparents. We are human … and we are good friends and good citizens.” 

Much like the OUT Campaign, the Secular Student Alliance holds an annual event: National Ask An Atheist Day. This event is designed to provide an opportunity for nonbelievers to “defeat stereotypes about atheism and encourage courteous dialogue.”

National Ask An Atheist Day is right around the corner, in fact. April 13, you may see classmates and fellow students walking around campus wearing white stickers reading: “Atheist: Ask Away!”   

But this problem of invisibility and “closeted” religious views extends beyond atheists. Iowa State has a large Christian presence on campus, but what of other faiths? Of the 25 student groups registered under the “Religious/Spiritual” category, it seems that two are related to spiritual concepts and meditation, one is for nonbelievers, one is a group of Tibetan Buddhists, and one represents the ISU Interfaith Council. The remaining 20 groups stem from a variety of Christian denominations. 

A Buddhist friend of mine has said on several occasions that if you aren’t a Christian at Iowa State, it’s as good as being an atheist. It’s unfortunate that he sees it this way, and it’s unfortunate that the groups available on campus seem so limited for those that don’t associate with Christianity. 

I think much of this “in-group/out-group” mentality — real or accidental — among the ISU campus as a whole comes from the lack of visibility of other religions beyond Christianity. It is rare to see a Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist group in a free speech zone or at a booth in the Memorial Union. 

Perhaps instead of having a national Ask an Atheist Day, it would be more effective to simply have a day that urges students to talk with those in a different religion than their own. To reduce the ISU campus to Christians versus atheists neglects to account for the actual diversity in religious views. 

April 10, there will be a panel of representatives from Christian, atheist, and Muslim groups running a Q&A at the Memorial Union. This event is meant to allow students to ask questions of differing views in their community. I, for one, plan to attend, because I am very curious about the questions that the Muslim representative will receive, and the responses that he or she will give — a curiosity that stems from lack of interaction with the Muslim faith.     

Most, if not all, non-Christians I know are perfectly willing to engage in civil conversation, provided you do the same in return. A good religious discussion shouldn’t turn into a finger pointing game.

Accusations and heated words tend to result in both sides coming away frustrated and annoyed. Questions about religion shouldn’t come from a closed mind, but a healthy curiosity and desire to understand. Surely, we all have that?