On a regular basis, over 300 students receive e-mails from a cohort of self-described atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers and skeptics.
The group that circulates these e-mails, Secular Penn, is a hub for those who question or do not believe in God. According to Secular Penn’s constitution, the group focuses on promoting and practicing “free, uncensored and rational discussion of matters of religion, philosophy and science.”
The group also stresses its role in providing a community for both believers and non-believers, in fostering tolerance of non-believers and in espousing separation of church and state.
According to current Secular Penn president and College junior Ben Jones, each Friday Secular Penn hosts a tea during which various Penn professors or lecturers speak and then moderate a question and answer session. The meetings draw atheists, agnostics and religiously affiliated members alike.
Jones said the Secular Penn has so far hosted a diverse group of speakers, including a rabbi who spoke about Judaism and a Physics professor who discussed cosmology and the structure of the universe.
Although conflict with other religions may seem inevitable, Jones added, Secular Penn is very tolerant of opposing beliefs.
“We haven’t really had any conflicts with [other religious groups at Penn],” Jones said. “At a lot of schools the secular groups are out doing major visible activities that are sort of insulting to religious groups. We haven’t done that.”
According to University Chaplain Chaz Howard, Secular Penn “is really unique in that it is an intersection between folks who would describe themselves as agnostic as well as atheist as well as humanist ... as opposed to being an explicitly atheist group.”
Howard also stressed the importance of having a diverse group of opinions present on Penn’s campus.
“It’s important that people of various beliefs, whether it’s beliefs in various traditions or different beliefs about religion and divinity, can mentally coexist by being in conversation and dialogue,” he said.
He added that the dialogue Secular Penn has established is “a testament” to Penn’s diversity and tolerance.
According to recent Penn graduate Yan Shen, the program has great potential.
Secular Penn is currently in the beginning stages of restructuring its executive board after re-establishing as a group last year.
Shen joined Penn Secular last spring and still attends various weekly teas. He emphasized that the group has been very effective as a “gathering place” for conversation on philosophical issues.
“If we could get even more people from different backgrounds to discuss their beliefs then I think the success of the group would be even greater,” he said.
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