Purdue welcomes new students with a dose of religious privilege

Going off to college is an exciting time. For many students, it’s the first time in their life that they’ll be far away from friends and family. That independence is awesome, but it also means you’re trying to awkwardly adapt to your new home, make new friends, and fit in. Universities often try to make this process as painless as possible, but my alma mater Purdue University missed the ball when they sent this email to incoming students (emphasis mine):

Welcome from Religious Student Organizations

You are about to become a Boilermaker – Congratulations!  This is an incredible place, not only to continue your education, but to experience all that the university has to offer through the plethora of student organizations.  We want to encourage you to think about growing in your spiritual life as well.  There are around 40 different religious student groups that offer places for worship, prayer, study, conversation, and fellowship, as well as opportunities to put faith into action through service opportunities, mission trips, and faith-based initiatives.

Please go to our website: www.campusfaith.info where you will find links to student ministries and organizations that are non-denominational, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, ecumenical, etc.  You’ll also have opportunities to meet several faith groups during Boiler Gold Rush.  Groups will be at:

–Activities Fair: Tuesday, August 14, 11:00 am-1:00 pm, in the Armory
–Faith Fest: Saturday, August 18, 4:00-5:00 pm, on the Memorial Mall

Welcome to Purdue.
University Religious Leaders and Religious Student Organizations

Sent from the Office of the Dean of Students on behalf of the University Religious Leaders and Religious Student Organizations

Anna Biela, current President of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue (the group I founded!) perfectly sums up why this email is inappropriate:

The Society of Non-Theists finds it highly inappropriate for a public university to endorse religion in such a way. We feel that incoming freshmen should not be pressured into joining a religious institution, especially not by the university itself. Rhetoric of this variety is alienating to non-religious students and can make them feel like outsiders before they even set foot on this campus.

And this has made at least one non-religious student feel like an outsider. The student who brought this email to my attention wishes to remain anonymous (I can’t imagine why in Indiana), but had this to say about how the email made them feel:

I was taken aback that this was one of the few emails chosen to be sent to all incoming students. Why not “Welcome from *all* student organizations”? The choice to send this email presumes that all incoming students are interested in spiritual growth; worse still, it tacitly implies that spiritual growth corresponds solely to organized religion. Overall, the email gave me the distinct impression that Purdue will not be a welcoming community for a student more likely to worship Carl Sagan than any deity.

That’s why this email is such a perfect example of religious privilege. It automatically assumed that spirituality is 1. Something everyone is interested in 2. Important and good 3. Worth promoting over other things. You don’t see the Dean of Students sending out emails to incoming freshmen on behalf of the Purdue Progressive Coalition. At the very least they could have been more inclusive by including an option for the non-religious students, or sending out an email for clubs in general and listing major themes (Academics, Activism, Religion, etc). But positively promoting religious groups alone is a type of endorsement that is inappropriate for a public university like Purdue.

I know some of you are probably thinking “Who cares? Who is this really hurting? Suck it up!” But I can tell you first hand how awful it feel to be a religious outsider, especially at Purdue.

Annual pro-life demonstration at Purdue, because all aborted fetsuses are Christian

When I came there, I felt like the only non-Christian on campus. I was constantly getting religious advertisements from groups in my mailbox. People were always asking me where I went to church, and some literally would stop talking to me and briskly walk away when they found out I was an atheist. Campus preachers were common. Students from Christian groups spot lonely freshmen in the dorm common rooms and offer up friendship if you’d just come to their Bible study. They prey on the desperation of lonely homesick students to convert them (which unfortunately happened to a good friend of mine).

The hand of God creating life…a piece of art in our Biology building

I co-founded the Society of Non-Theists to combat this notion that everyone on campus was religious, and to provide a safe place for students who were not. We’d get people screaming at our tables saying we’re going to hell. As President, I received hate mail. At graduation, I was treated to a choir repeatedly singing “Amen.” The one time we tried to use a public display case, it was vandalized.

By sending that email, Purdue has effectively labeled non-theistic students as “others” in an environment where they would already be ostracized.

Anna tells me the Society of Non-Theists will be meeting with the Dean of Students on Monday to address these issues and discuss making campus more inclusive in the future. I’m optimistic since the Purdue administration has always been fair to our group in the past, and I don’t think this email was sent out of malice toward non-religious students. But I do think they were unaware of the religious privilege they were promoting, so it’s good someone is pointing it out.


  1. says

    I am a faculty member at Purdue. I endorse the points you make here – especially the one about the implication that spiritual growth must be connected somehow to organized religion.

    If you can forward me that email that went out to students, I’d be happy to write a note about it to the Office of the Dean of Students.

  2. TychaBrahe says

    You know, atheists and agnostics can also grow spiritually through discussions of atheism, philosophy, and ethics, and examination of the lives of fellow and sister atheists, both current and historical. Perhaps the situation would be remedied by including the secular group in that e-mail and on that web site.

  3. says

    Reminds me of a conversation I had during my time at Purdue with a friend who’d chosen to attend a private Christian college. He was shocked that our student health center provided free condoms, that it was inappropriate to use public tax money in that way, etcetera. It highlighted for me why I was glad my university wasn’t a religious institution. Also I’m glad you founded the society of nontheists — even though I never attended any of the meetings or functions, I was glad the group existed and made its presence known. I had a lot of conversations that I otherwise never would have had, due to people seeing the nontheists in various arenas.

    Honestly the creepiest part of BGR was the area with all the student groups and their tables — with Religious Row. It was shocking to suddenly have dozens of different cultish associations suddenly assaulting my religious beliefs. Luckily, I later found less-extreme organizations, but you are absolutely right that “grow your spirituality” is really not the most encouraging message to send incoming freshmen.

  4. says

    If you thought that was creepy, imagine how our group felt…they always stuck us right in the middle of it. Hella awkward *and* all the secular students were AVOIDING that area! Terrible for us to reach new members…

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words! I’m glad SNT helped you out even if you never physically came to meetings :)

  5. says

    You know, atheists and agnostics can also grow spiritually through discussions of atheism, philosophy, and ethics, and examination of the lives of fellow and sister atheists, both current and historical. Perhaps the situation would be remedied by including the secular group in that e-mail and on that web site.

    I have no idea what you think “spiritual” means. Without a soul/spirit, it makes no sense.

  6. Anna Biela says

    This year, in addition to the usual BGR fairs, they’re having “Faith Fest” (as mentioned in that email) on the same day as OutFest (the LGBT street fest in Lafayette). This will, of course, also be addressed in our meeting.
    The timing seems deliberate and says a lot about how the university regards homosexuality and religion.

    Some things have been getting better here (I’ve never gotten hate mail!), but the administration keeps messing up. We hope that the Dean will be amenable to some criticism, but our President Mitch is a lost cause.
    I just don’t understand how an office that preaches inclusion and diversity can think that this is a good idea.

  7. Gus Snarp says

    Is it standard practice for the Dean of Students to send out messages on behalf of student organizations? Do other organizations have access to this same kind of email on their behalf? If so, then they haven’t really done anything wrong, although giving the Dean’s imprimatur to any group that asks for it can be rather problematic, it’s not the same as giving it exclusively to religious organizations. The Society of Non-Theists is an official student group, is it not? The first step is to ask to have the Dean’s office send a similar email on their behalf. If they refuse, well then you’ve got their asses on a silver platter.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    One productive response to this would be to get the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue listed on the campusfaith.info site, and to be represented at the Activities Fair and Faith Fest.

  9. says

    If I recall correctly from my days at Purdue, it’s pretty rare for the Dean of Students to send out emails on behalf of groups, unless it’s a campus-wide thing (a volunteering day, calls for groups to participate in a block party, etc). I agree that asking the Dean’s office to send a similar email on the behalf of SNT is a good idea.

  10. Eric RoM says

    Seriously? Whatever. But perhaps you’d agree that encouraging students to actually think about their behavior would maybe be good thing?

    You don’t have to be superstitious to realize that actions are done “with a specific spirit”, and sometimes callow college students could maybe use some help in not being assholes.

  11. fastlane says

    That’s pretty much what I was thinking. If they included any non-faith based groups like SSA, or the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue in that list, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

    Mmmm..the smell of religious privilege. Still smells like shit.

  12. Anna Biela says

    I checked my email a few days ago to see how common it was, and I have a grand total of zero emails from the odosmain@purdue.edu email address (with th exception of this one, which was forwarded.)

    They could be sending out more stuff to just the freshmen, But I never got anything, even when I was a freshmen.

  13. says

    I know people love the world “spirituality” and love to glom it onto a wide variety of topics that already have names, but I’d label that “ethics”, “manners” and “introspection”.

    There’s nothing “spiritual” about it.

    When the religious talk about spirituality, they’re not talking about consideration and introspection. Spirituality is literally soul searching.

    The rest of us don’t need that word at all. It only confuses the issue.

  14. Mark says

    Is this kind of thing normal at American universities? I’ve been to three universities and one college here in Canada, and never had the school endorse religion in any way.

  15. SciCommenter says

    At the large southern university I am associated with, all student org emails directed to the students via mass email go through the Dean of Students office. And any org can submit one – it is just a system to ensure that the announcements aren’t too obviously spam, vulgarity, etc. Our local Spectrum group has used the system regularly for announcing events.

    At least here, it doesn’t indicate university approval of the events. I agree it is odd that there isn’t a track record of mass emails being done this way at Purdue but it, as mentioned above, could be result of a new dean.

  16. isilzhaveni says

    Please, explain exactly what it means to “grow spiritually”.

    As an atheist I have absolutely NO belief in any SORT of “spirit”. So, how do I “grow spiritually” without some sort of belief in something that doesn’t exist? And why would believing in something imaginary benefit me in any way?

  17. says

    I can completely relate to this since I attended Purdue’s summer commencement today. It felt strange to have a reverend open and close the ceremony. It felt awkward to have the chorus sing “Amen” after his opening speech. He referenced one of his quotations as “Eastern” (as if all of Eastern culture is this one monolithic thing?). Then the 2012 student speaker just casually mentioned in her speech, “I know most of you believe in a higher power…” and I just felt strange and out of place and couldn’t wait until the speeches were over. Even though many of the people who were graduating were doctoral candidates who were largely from other countries (like me) who were likely not Christian (like me), the ceremony just didn’t really seem to take that into account. It was great to walk up on stage and have my advisor place my hood on me, but I also just felt left out in some way.

  18. Anna Biela says

    Do you mind if I use this when I talk to the Dean? Examples of religious privilege on campus and the alienation of non-religious students will help a lot and lay he groundwork to take on the commencement issue more directly.

  19. F says

    Yeah, seriously. You can use “spiritual” in a metaphorical or poetical manner, but that has no application where “spiritual” is clearly meant in a literal fashion. You can’t gloss things over here by playing word definition games.

    As to your practical upshot, where was it suggested that any of this has anything to do with encouraging students to grow into better people and not be assholes? You are making a huge assumption for religion here. Religion has never made for better people, people do.

  20. says

    I noticed the same thing today at commencement about the “Eastern” tradition proverb – how easy it was or a very Christian-clad reverend to lump them all together!

    Under the very light disguise of non-denominational moments of reflection, commencement is very much infused with Judeo-Christian spirit (meant here as “flavor”), from the “Amen” chorus to the obvious presence of a reverend on stage – not sure why one is needed there?

  21. Bryan says

    Awful as it is, the letter doesn’t really surprise me. One look at the Exponent’s three-plus pages of “COME TO OUR CHURCH” ads shows you the overwhelming amount of Christian privilege going on in the greater Latayette area. 50 or so Christian churches, one Jewish temple, and not a whole lot else. Who cares that there are students from all over the world on campus? :P

  22. CitizenJoe says

    I remember the Lilly Hall of Life Sciences (and Al Chiscon, Martha Chiscon, Joe Vanable) with immense fondness. I was a freshman there in 1964; Martha and Al let me work in the lab, even as a freshman, and I had an NSF grant to work with Joe Vanable. They all let me feel like a real scientist. Al was the best teacher I ever had as an undergraduate.

    I had forgotten the hand-o-god artwork–I’ve not been back to Purdue in maybe thirty years.

    I don’t remember active pushing by Purdue to get students into religious organizations; maybe they did, and I was just unaware.


  23. Armored Scrum Object says

    Depends on what you mean by “this kind of thing”. Club outreach announcements being distributed via official channels? Yes. Those announcements being exclusively for religious clubs? No.

  24. Zume says

    Ironically, I was looking for more information on the Purdue Faith Fest and encountered the SNT website, which I had seen before, and this blog. I believe you make some good points, and I am sure that the Dean of Students did not mean on the least for non-theists to feel excluded. In a way, making that assumption would be like me feeling excluded if I receive a notification for activities from the LGBTQ group, just because I am heterosexual.

    However, speaking from a different perspective (and I only can speak from a perspective of Christianity as I would not dare pretend to know how someone from another religion would approach these issues), I would like to clear up some misconceptions, if I may.

    First of all, I do not know if you realize that we too encounter hate all the time. I understand if it is hard for you too see that because you are in an “opposite” position and may see hateful comments as just someone expressing their opinion. In that same way, it is common for someone who is a theist to see what you perceive as hateful (and many times is) as just an expression from a different point of view. For instance, I too have had people stop talking to me instantly or gradually (even supposed friends) just for finding out that I believe something different than they do. Often that exclusion even comes from someone who says they “believe in God”.

    Even so, I have never seen a committed Christian (or someone that does not call themselves a Christian just because that is what they were taught from childhood or because they believe there “must be” a God) complain about the rejection we often get, let alone report it or use the purdue.edu/report-hate page, as the SNT suggested (not that there is ANYTHING wrong with reporting hate, on the contrary!! Hateful acts and comments should be STOPPED!). Many Christians understand that opposition will be encountered when different points of views collide, but do not allow that to prevent them from seeing the person whatever the believes.

    On the other hand, you mention that you have seen “students from Christian groups offer up friendship if you’d just come to their Bible study”, “prey[ing] on the desperation of lonely homesick students to convert them”. Moreover, you use this example as a way of getting a point across: that being a non-theist may feel lonely because it seems that everyone else in campus believes in the existence of God, and that religious groups grab unto lonely students just to add more numbers to their groups. (Please, let me know if I am misunderstanding your point.)

    However — and again, I can only speak from the point of Christianity — more often than not, the approach made to a person to join a gathering (from a Bible study, like you mentioned, to just watching a game) comes from a place of love and caring. In the case that the invitee would not be interested in “religion”, I think it would be wrong for the person making the invitation to withdraw an offer of friendship solely on this.

    Honestly, many of my closest friends are either atheists or agnostics. I would never use their believes or lack of to distance myself from them. I truly love them whether they want to come to church with me or not, and I would never force or insist on something that would make them feel uncomfortable.

    Believing that anyone (or even that most people) who pertains to a religious organization is prejudiced against non-theists and do not understand what feeling marginalized is like, is a generalization and, dare I say it, even a hateful stereotype.

  25. says

    ‘we’re here today to interview the new dean about the deans office’s distribution of mail from known hate groups and cults. dean, is this this new school policy?’ bit much?

  26. Triny says

    Excellent points. Agreed. I also found this blog and the SNT website when I googled FaithFest.

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