Atheism throughout the ages

Queen’s Atheist and Agnostics club barred from campus 60 years ago, current campus atheists says they still face challenges

Following a decision by then-Principal R.C Wallace to bar the Queen’s Atheist and Agnostic club from campus, an onslaught of coverage and strongly worded letters appeared in the Journal throughout Jan. 1950.
Following a decision by then-Principal R.C Wallace to bar the Queen’s Atheist and Agnostic club from campus, an onslaught of coverage and strongly worded letters appeared in the Journal throughout Jan. 1950.
Journal File Photo
Journal File Photo
Journal File Photo
Journal File Photo

In 1950, the Queen’s Agnostic and Atheistic club was barred from campus by then-Principal R.C. Wallace.

“There is no room for any club or organization which is anti-religious, nor will any such organization have a place in Queen’s,” Wallace said in a statement published by the Journal on Jan. 24, 1950. The decision, which sparked significant debate on campus, was reversed less than a week later.

“The danger with atheists and agnostics is that they may shatter the faith of one of the ‘little ones,’ as Christ called them, the disciples of week faith,” Pamela Clarke, Arts ’50, said in a letter to the editor following the reformation of the club under the formal title of the Agnostic Club.

To remove a club from campus today, the AMS constitution requires a two-thirds vote at AMS assembly to revoke the club’s ratification.

“Students are keeping other students in-check,” AMS Clubs Manager Josie Qiu said. “We kind of expect club members will speak up if there’s an extremist view or against the mandate of our school or our Society.”

University Chaplain Brian Yealland said attitudes that saw the Queen’s club barred from campus over 60 years ago still exist today, though on a smaller scale.

“It’s been acceptable intellectually to say ‘there is no God.’ And yet, there are people who are atheists and agnostics who say they feel a stigma about it, and they keep their mouth shut. Even today,” he said.

Yealland conducted a survey of undergraduate and graduate students to gauge the prevalence of religious beliefs on campus in 2007. Of 301 students surveyed, 21 per cent said they considered themselves to be religious, 21 per cent said they were spiritual, 19 per cent identified with both and 39 per cent claimed to be neither religious or spiritual.

Yealland said his survey demonstrates that religion and science can co-exist in harmony.

“Somehow the world of religion and the world of scientific thought get melded together,” he said. “By the time you’re in graduate school, you’ve decided to not throw out either, and to make some kind of a mix work for you.”

Queen’s first shed its Presbyterian ties in 1912, when the Federal Parliament removed all religious restrictions from the University’s Charter. However, the first non-Presbyterian Principal wasn’t appointed until 1930 and Queen’s students and sports teams continued to be informally referenced as “The Presbyterians.”

Queen’s Principal William Fyfe, the first who wasn’t a Presbyterian minister, was warned by colleagues at Queen’s about an “outbreak of atheism at the University of Toronto,” reported the second volume of the History of Queen’s University.

Fyfe was cautioned that “Queen’s religious traditions were taken seriously by many influential graduates and that he as principal should do his utmost to check any such [atheist] tendency on campus.”

Raissa Killoran, ArtSci ’10, is co-chair of the Queen’s Secularists and Inquirers (QSI)—a club that meets every Monday at the Grad Club to discuss a pre-selected topic. Killoran, herself an atheist, said she’s sceptical about how far Canadian society has advanced toward tolerating and accepting atheists and agnostics.

“Very little has changed,” she said. “For example, I think there are very common conceptions of atheist or non-theist people as being somehow either amoral or simply lacking ethics altogether.”

“ ‘Coming out’ as non-theist does feel uncomfortable,” she said. “I definitely had an interesting experience talking to my parents about being non-religious, and some of the interesting assumptions that come with that.”

“They basically attributed it as a teenage phase—which, from my perspective, it certainly wasn’t. That’s the difficulty, especially when telling these things to parents, of not being taken seriously or being seen to have an immature attitude.”

When Killoran was in a lecture for a Christianity class, she said the professor used the phrase “Christians like us.”

“It’s depicted as ‘I’m talking to you about something you’re obviously all participants in,’ ” she said. “There would have been many people in the room [with reservations]. I took it for granted that it wasn’t just me who felt wary about that claim, there were probably quite a few other people.”

“I hope that QSI can be a part of dispelling those [misconceptions],” she said, adding that common misconceptions include the idea that atheists replace reverence for a deity with self-egoism.

The persisting distrust that many people have toward atheists and agnostics results from a breakdown in the lines of communication, she said.

“Maybe it’s this communication barrier. I think part of it is the way ‘new atheists’ present atheism. This sort of [Richard] Dawkins, [Christopher] Hitchens crowd, I think they present atheism in a very bad light, and they kind of ruin it for the rest of us,” she said.

“It does leave a very bad taste in people’s mouths, to have people like Sam Harris calling Islam ‘the cult of death.’ Those are horrible things to say about religious people. This creates a very violent divide, and I don’t think that’s necessary at all.”

Killoran said QSI’ mandate is based on inclusion and debate, and that they welcome students from all religious and non-religious affiliations.

“We seek to provide a very positive and welcoming space for students who identify as atheist, non-theist and agnostic and give them a space to talk about their views,” she said.

“We enjoy each other’s perspectives, and we enjoy debating and arguing with each other. In that way, we enjoy where we differ. It’s really great to sometimes have a bunch of people in one room where you know that no two of you agree.”

Professor John Young of the School of Religion said Canadian society has made great strides toward accepting the non-religious.

“In the present day, in the Canadian context broadly, to self-describe as either an atheist or an agnostic [doesn’t] affix you any kind of stigma. I think at one time it did, but sitting here in 2011, I don’t think … it’s a problem.”

He conceded that there are still pockets of society in which the secular-minded may face prejudice.

“Could I find places in this country where people would face discrimination for holding those views? Sure I can, there’s no question about that. I think particularly if you lived in a rural area or a small town, where most people were involved in a religious community,” he said.

“In the Canadian context, we’ve been on a fairly significant trajectory away from [intolerance of non-believers] since ... the late ’60s, early ’70s,” he said. “There are certainly particular communities where there are exceptions, but I think generally, that’s where we’re at.”

Young said despite today’s secularism, religiosity was once closely associated with the concept of civic responsibility.

“There was a sense that to be a good citizen of the country was also to have a formal religious connection. We inherited something here from Western Europe ... where, historically, Christianity and the state were very closely related. So that’s the historical origins of it.”

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