Written by Nicole Pettie
Every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Life Science 402, RC students get together to have meaningful discussions about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) in addition to a variety of topics relevant to the world today. This club is called Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers (AAF), and membership is open to anyone in the Roanoke College community.
AAF seeks to dispel the negative connotations society has about those who are nonreligious. AAF provides a friendly environment for people with religious beliefs and those without them to talk about these matters without fear of judgment. Religion is oftentimes considered a taboo subject, but AAF offers a place for it to be discussed in depth.
“I like learning about beliefs that are different from mine. I think of myself as a truth-seeker,” said freshman Razan Hamed, a Muslim international student from Palestine, who said that she was inspired to join the club due to “curiosity”.
“AAF is fun because we can freely express ourselves to each other, even if our views are completely different. Before I came to America, I thought it was mostly a Christian nation, but now I know that it is a mixture of religious and non-religious people here and that is really fascinating to me,” said Hamed.
Hamed encourages others to join the discussion at AAF meetings.
“I think everyone would benefit from joining AAF, because you get to think about things you did not question before and there are interesting topics that open your mind to new ideas,” said Hamed.
President of AAF, freshman Max Kreutzer, an atheist, recalled his favorite moment at a meeting.
“We had a discussion that lasted almost an hour and a half. It captivated our attention the whole time. It was extremely insightful; we discussed the comparison of Islam, Judaism, and other major religions,” said Kreutzer. “We packed up at 8:30 ready to go, but despite our plans to leave, we stayed for 30 more minutes. The discussion was too interesting to leave it where it was.”
Kreutzer is excited for the future of the club and hopes to see increased membership over the next few semesters.
“We’d like more people to join knowing that people of all religious backgrounds are welcome. All perspectives matter and provide depth not found in others,” said Kreutzer.
“I’ve gained new perspectives on how to approach those of different beliefs, through both religious and sociopolitical lenses,” said freshman Hunter Haskins, a Methodist.
Haskins is troubled by dangerous misconceptions that some hold about agnostic and atheist people.
“Many people equate agnostics and atheists with Luciferins or Satanists, but rather it would appear that atheists are just as friendly as those who are religious,” said Haskins.
AAF is supported by two dedicated faculty members. Dr. DorothyBelle Poli, associate professor of biology, is an open atheist and has been an advisor of the club since its creation. Dr. Ned Wisnefske, Charles and Helen Schumann Professor of Lutheran Theology, frequently attends meetings and contributes to discussion.
“This club originally started about five or so years ago when a student approached me about a place for atheists to talk,” said Poli. “The group was active for a few years afterward, but it became quiet about 2 years ago. This year, another brave group of students started things back up!”
Poli believes that AAF provides social support that religious people frequently receive at church to students who are agnostic, atheist, or simply freethinking.
“This is an important group to have on campus, especially in the South. Many people gain a social group by attending church here. If you do not go to church for some reason, it is often hard to make a friend group or to find folks who think in a similar fashion as you do. This club allows for that missing piece to find its other missing piece, so to speak,” said Poli.
Poli is passionate about educating the public about what atheism and agnosticism really mean.
“For me, what I have found is that when people learn I am an atheist they think I am a bad person in some way. Like I worship the devil or have no morals, but that is not true either! The only thing that links atheists, for example, is that none of us believe in gods of any kind. Agnostics aren’t sure about if god exists. Nothing else connects us. The label is a simple definition. In fact, many atheists are philanthropists and leaders in the community in times of crisis as well as everyday events. Good and bad exist for all types of people,” said Poli.
Wisnefske enjoys the consistent quality of discussions at the weekly meetings.
“In our discussions so far, I am taken by the sincerity of the group, the respectful ways they listen to each other’s’ ideas, and the broad-minded way they reflect upon the influence religion has played in their lives and in our society,” said Wisnefske.
Wisnefske is glad that AAF offers a place for students with unconventional or controversial religious views.
“There are many religious groups and organizations on campus, but none that focus on the religious doubts students have-doubts generated by painful experiences in families, churches and with friends, as well as doubts formed by their own reading and studies,” said Wisnefske.
Regardless if one is talkative or just prefers to listen to the discussion, AAF is open to all. This club offers everyone the opportunity to make their voice heard at RC. All are welcome at the weekly meetings and interested students may also contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com for further information.