Ask Richard: Chilean Atheist Considers Attending Catholic University February 17, 2011

Ask Richard: Chilean Atheist Considers Attending Catholic University

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hello, my name is Rolando, and I’m writing to you from Chile.

This year I decided to study Sociology, but I have a problem. I was admitted in the best university of my country, but it is a Catholic University. In fact, its name is Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile). And of course, as you probably deduced, I’m an atheist.

It is to my understanding that this is a non-profit university. All the money they make gets re-invested in the university. It’s not a private enterprise, like many others here in Chile. We have to take a Theology course, only once (one semester). Besides that, students are not forced to pray, nor go to church, etc., and I’ve been told that there is no catholic orientation in the other courses students have to take.

Would it be a contradiction to study there? Should I give priority to the best educational possibility, or should I stick to my morals, and choose another university? It’d have to be a private one.

Thanks for your help!
Rolando

Dear Rolando,

I don’t see any conflict in your ethics or morals in this, as long as you are not put into a position where you have to lie about your beliefs. By your description, it sounds more like a “Catholic” university in name only. The religious aspects seem to be reduced to a bare minimum. As you said, students are not compelled to pray or attend church, and the courses are not taught with a Catholic orientation. I take that to mean the courses are not taught from a specifically Catholic perspective. So for instance, you would be learning about Sociology, rather than a Catholic version of Sociology. All the money you would pay for your education goes into the university rather than to the Catholic Church, so you won’t be giving material support to an organization with which you disagree.

I suggest that you attend this excellent university and become an excellent professional. The one semester of theology sounds like a useful course for your major, because religion has a strong influence on society in your country as well as mine. Take what you learn in that class from a sociological point of view. Then it will enrich your education rather than being just a waste of time.

While you’re attending, be as open about your lack of belief as you feel is safe for your self interest. I’m certain that you’ll meet other students and even faculty who are also some degree of non-believers, and many more who are just barely believers, more from habit than from conviction. All around the world, advanced education has a way of reducing religiosity.

Who knows, you might even start the first Chilean branch of the Secular Student Alliance.

So to sum it up, if you don’t have to actively deceive anyone about your beliefs, and you’re not giving material support to the Catholic Church, and you’re not learning your field in a way that is tainted by a religious bias, I don’t see how as an atheist your morals or ethics or principles are contradicted or compromised in any way. You will benefit from the university, and you can give back good, honest scholarly work. You will be helping society as a whole rather than helping a religion.

If you still have a small feeling of guilt just because of the name of the university you’re attending, then here’s a suggested “penance” you can do to absolve your “sin”:

When you become a professional, put some of your expertise to work helping to counteract the bad effects that religion in general and Catholicism in particular have had on society. Sociology is not just the passive study of society as it is. It’s also the science of finding positive ways to actively change and improve society. In a similar way, your atheism is not necessarily just the passive absence of belief in gods. It can also be part of a larger vigorous practice of clear, rational thinking applied to many things, and a commitment to finding better understanding of the world around us and within us. Focus on something that really stands out to you that needs improvement, and use the clarity that your freethinking gives you to find a solution.

I wish you happiness and success in this exciting time in your life.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Claudia

    I don’t know Chile, but I do know one country under the longstanding influence of the Catholic Church; Spain. The country is positively saturated with Catholic symbology, but that doesn’t make it a deeply religious country. We’ve had the church so long, that we’ve learned to ignore it most of the time.

    Rolando, if your “Universidad Pontífica” is anything like the one I know (Comillas, Madrid), you have nothing to worry about. Though I went to a public university, I did know a few students from the pontífica. I most certainly did not get the impression that religious requirements were the norm, and I can assure you they were anything but pious Catholics. Just like lots of other places in society, the Catholic church owns the place and yes, it’s more present than in a public university, but not by much.

    Go there, and make up for any involuntary validation that you’re giving the Church by doing secular volunteer work. I’m sure that Santiago has a fair number of underserved primary schools where poor students could use tutoring from an adult with the fortune of a better education.

    Buena suerte chaval 🙂

  • gabjoh

    Does this mean I’m allowed to go to Georgetown for law school?

  • I’d second Richard’s suggestion that you take your Theology course from a sociological point of view- whether it’s taught that way or not. While I’m fortunate to not have had to take a course like that, I can say from experience that taking a step back and looking at a social situation from the perspective of the various social theories I’d learned? Has immense potential to transform almost any situation into a useful and educational experience. (Seriously, I have no idea how I would have gotten through my various sentences stints in customer service jobs otherwise!)
    Also, if you are interested in social structures, in how groups are created and maintained, in power structures, in identity construction, in the social use of narrative and myth, and so many more things, then religion is one hell of an interesting area to study.

    Oh, also, Sociology is awesome, and congrats on getting admitted into your course 🙂

  • ManaCostly

    hi

  • Rolando,

    I see no conflict at all in your situation.

    Attend, study hard, and do well in life.

  • Drew M.

    nvm

  • I agree with Claudia; many Catholic colleges and universities have the face of religious institutions but offer opportunities in education just as secular as any. I went to a Catholic university myself, and I’m truly glad I did. I got a fantastic education out of it. I was required to take a few religion courses, but that’s about as far as it went. I approached them from, as considerthe teacosy suggests, a sociological point of view, and they were really interesting in the end. The vast majority of my professors, aside from the religion classes, taught in a purely secular manner, encouraged questioning and argument, and really cared about critical thinking. It was actually there, in a literary theory course taught by an ancient, hard-as-nails ex-nun, that I learned to incorporate the most important phrase I think I’ve ever learned into my daily life: “Consider the source.”

  • Luther

    Rolando,

    And be open to all your studies, experiences, values and where they may lead.

    My son, an outstanding math student, went off to college thinking he would be a theater major, considered philosophy, and ended in sociology. Now he is working on a Ph.D. in social and political theory.

    My daughter found she liked economics, minored in Spanish and physiology. The Spanish got her a job as a teacher and now she has several years under her belt as an effective math teacher.

    As for myself I majored in Math in the 60’s while taking every newly created computer course offered. After a full career in software, I am now a full time volunteer political activist in election integrity, which requires all of that computer experience.

  • Laura

    I received my undergraduate degree at a Catholic University and I couldn’t have been happier with my education. We had to take a few religion classes, but there were so many to choose from that I didn’t feel like Catholicism was being promoted in any way. My favorite class, “Religion and Science” was where I first learned about Carl Sagan. And it was taught by a priest!

    I loved my Catholic university so much that I’m going back now for my MBA. I love that we focus on how we can make the world a better place, and not just make as much money as possible. A Catholic university does have some good things to teach too!

  • Anna

    I worked at a Catholic College and it was not a big deal. Students had various religious, even non-religious backgrounds. They all had to take theology classes, but I think it is useful to understanding the world we live in – and its people. Critical thinking is valued in most Catholic colleges.

  • Lysistrata

    As an atheist who is attending her third Catholic University, I see no need to worry about it. I have never once felt pressured by the foundational beliefs of the organizations. In fact, I have actually seen less influence of religion because you don’t get the conservative Christians preaching on the school grounds. The only time I have even thought about it being a religious organization was the crucifix in the classrooms and I have grown to ignore that. I have received excellent educations from all three.

  • As I mentioned in a previous Ask Richard column, I also went to a Catholic university. I have no idea what the religious climate is like in Chile, but Rolando’s description of the university makes it sound very much like the college I attended. I wouldn’t let the affiliation put him off. Even in Chile, I’m sure not all the students are Catholic, and it seems that the courses are not biased towards Catholicism. In my opinion, it would be a shame to turn down the best educational opportunity merely because the university in question is associated with a particular religion.

  • but let’s all admit we’d be making different comments if the program of choice was say, Patrick Henry’s poli sci dept. they place their grads really well, but they are far less forgiving when it comes to the religious indoctrination. the catholics have been in the education racket for a loooong time; but not all religious schools are as flexible. just sayin.

  • Rolando, I know fisrt hand some of the members at PUCC and I am confident you’ll be getting a good education. When I started looking for a job in Mexico I refrained from sending my resume to one of the major Chatolic-owned universities, since, at least at that time, activities included weekly Mass and praying. Seems like this is not the case anymore.

    Anyway, by all means go ahead, your education is first

    Best from the Hippo