By Neal Simons
“None.” A Gallup poll shows that last year 18 percent of Americans checked this box when asked if they identify themselves with any particular religion. Referred to as “nones,” they are comprised of several groups including atheists, agnostics, humanists, deists, and spiritualists.
A negative stigma, however, pervades over the non-religious community, particularly among atheists. In a sociological survey conducted by the University of Minnesota, atheists rank first at 39 percent as a group that “does not at all agree with a person’s vision of American society.”
Muslims ranked second at 26 percent, and homosexuals at 22 percent. This makes atheists the most distrusted minority in the United States. Participants of the study associated atheism with “an array of moral indiscretions, ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.” Does this level of distrust impair fellow “nones” from enrolling to a Lutheran college such as Finlandia University?
“I knew Finlandia was Lutheran when I applied,” said English major Maxwell Malone, who is an atheist. “It wasn’t a concern because I knew that, as an adult, I wouldn’t be obligated to share in that belief if I didn’t want to.”
Two other students, a Junior in PTA and a Senior in Nursing whom we’ll call Jack and Justin, also shared Malone’s feelings. They have requested anonymity, citing a disinterest in publicly announcing their personal beliefs and the possibility of being confronted by students and faculty.
“The only concern I had was when they told me that because they are a Lutheran-Finnish based college I was going to have to take either a religious course or Finnish course,” Jack said, “I didn’t want anything to do with the religious courses.” Both Jack and Justin took a course in Finnish Studies. Malone took Sociology of Religion.
“We are a private Lutheran college….that is what we profess, that is who we are,” explained University Chaplain Soren Schmidt, “That being said, we service students from every walk of life. We have a lot of students here who are Lutheran, Catholic, who are many other religions and who are also not of any religion. All of them are served in different ways at the university.”
All three students also have a major background in religion. Malone was raised Catholic and had read the bible many times. Jack has a pastor for a father, and Justin was a former Jehovah’s Witness.
“I have a huge background in Christianity,” Justin said, “I started off believing that ‘there is one true god and his son Jesus Christ died for our sins.’ From there, I changed my beliefs when I was 23 years old.”
When asked to describe their beliefs, Malone said that as an atheist he believes that, “people can have morals instilled in them via the actions of others without the interference of a social institution such as religion.” Both Jack and Justin preferred not to be labeled. Jack simply follows good morals and doesn’t feel comfortable following any one religion. Justin still considers himself a spiritual person despite having left his sect.
“I feel that there is a creator,” Justin explained, “I do believe in a higher power. In terms of the identity, I’m not really sure.”
Malone feels that he is able to freely express his view on-campus.
“I don’t think Finlandia is very pushy with its Lutheran basis,” Malone said, “which is good, otherwise I would have probably reconsidered choosing to go to school here.”
Justin and Jack, however, feel most students and faculty would not be comfortable with their views.
“I try to keep to myself,” Jack said, “I know the area…there’s a lot of people that really do hold to their faith and who am I to disrupt that?”
“We live in a culture where there is a massive appreciation and respect for people who are part of a religion,” Justin said, ” if they [students and faculty] see themselves as a Christian, then they would expect other people who say that they are spiritual to be part of some kind of religion and if they’re not then that confuses them.”
Schmidt meanwhile says, “the overarching understanding of what we do here is walking with our students where they’re at in their own spirituality, so they have a better understanding of who they are spiritually, not religiously but spiritually.
He noted that, “we struggle with our Lutheran identity as a university. When it comes to the community as a whole, we work together to make sure that the aspect of who we are, without being overly religious to people, can come through.”
Schmidt also added, “if they have questions about religion, we would be more than open to sharing our faith expressions, but without saying ‘ you will be this, or you are a heathen’, we’re not going to be stating those things to people.”