Ask Richard: Should an Atheist Attend a Catholic University?

Jan. 6, 2010

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Dear Richard,   

(Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.)

Dear Richard,

I'm thirty-three and going back to college. Right now, I'm working on an associate's degree, and I intend to transfer to a university to get my bachelor's.

There's a university here with a good reputation, and I can easily meet the entrance requirements. There are a lot of good reasons to go there – everything from small class sizes to a lack of parking problems on campus. It seems perfect for me – except it's a Roman Catholic school, and I'm an atheist.

From what I can tell there's no religious component or requirement for a degree. Graduates of the university, including one Wiccan, have told me it's no different than a secular school in terms of the education provided. But I'm not sure I want to support a school linked to the Catholic church. Can you give me any advice?




Dear Allison,

It seems to me your only hesitation is because you sense an ethical conflict about supporting the Catholic church both financially and in adding to its status by attending and graduating from this university.

That's the common feature of ethical dilemmas: There's always something very tempting on the "go ahead and do it" side. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a dilemma. We'd just listen to the "this is wrong" side, and walk away.

The school is convenient, it is apparently academically satisfactory, and I'll assume that you've made certain that it has enough credibility or prestige in the field you're pursuing to be an asset to your career. Like you said, it seems perfect for you.

Except that you have a sense of ethics.

I'll also have to assume that the other half of the ethical dilemma for you, the "this is wrong" side, is your awareness of the long and far-reaching record of corruption, greed, bigotry, abuse, hypocrisy, social injustice, political meddling, promotion of superstition and general self-serving ruthlessness that has been, is now, and will continue to be perpetrated worldwide by the Roman Catholic Church. I'm guessing that even if you were not an atheist, your ethical sense would be troubled because of the malevolence that is associated with this particular vast, rich, and powerful institution.

So I guess it comes down to how much wiggle room is there in your ethical principles. Does the university get "off the hook" if you can reassure yourself that the faculty and administrators don't personally participate in any of that wickedness?

Do you get "off the hook" if you disapprove of the Church's iniquity, even though you know that some of your tuition money will end up in their coffers? Will the good that you do with your education somehow cancel out the evil you help to support?

Will you wonder the rest of your life if you got a bachelor's in your major with a minor in hypocrisy?

Allison, I don't know what you plan to do with it, but a bachelor's degree is the first level of being a professional. People put their trust into both the competence and the honor of professionals. A professional who is able to rationalize his or her questionable actions can be a dangerous menace. They get there by taking tiny steps, making tiny compromises, accepting tiny increases in their duplicity, in their willingness to be expedient, and in their abandonment of principles. Tiny steps add up.

Your ethical sense is a precious and rare trait. It's far more valuable than your intellectual intelligence. The ability to sense that there is a conflict of your principles is sadly rare among people. Many are smart or talented or hard-working, but what you stopped to deliberate about doesn't even occur to them.

Preserve the strength of that instinct. It will make your life challenging at times, but over the long run you will be very satisfied that you have lived an exemplary life of principles lived up to instead of just given lip service, and you have not betrayed the trust that your education brought to you.

Look around. Perhaps there are other colleges with not quite as convenient parking, with slightly larger class sizes and with a bit longer commute, but without that built-in conflict that may pester you the whole time you're there, or even longer.



(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseld more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)