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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!

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.


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