When he is home, Thomas Robinson lives with his parents at the top of a church. He attends every Sunday service and knows most of the faces at Manhattan Church of Christ, where his father is a senior minister.
However, Robinson does not believe in God.
Robinson, senior English major from New York City, said he used to be Christian but now is atheist.
“It’s hard to say when it happened,” Robinson said. “It’s not one thing that kicked me off. I just had to be honest with myself. Admitting was a hard thing; it felt like I was betraying an old friend.”
Like Robinson, about 5-10 percent of the student body is not Christian, according to the office of Admissions and Enrollment Management. The proportion of non-Christians is greater among international students, the office said.
Steven Gist, international students’ recruiter, said the majority of students from East Asia are not Christian, with the exception of Malaysians and Koreans. In Japan, less than 1 percent of the population is Christian, Gist said.
“I have no hard data, but 50-50 is what it feels like to me,” Gist said, relying on his conversations with international students and to the “preference” box students check on application forms.
Laura Blake, coordinator of International Students Services, said she thinks the ratio of Christians to non-Christians among international students is a little higher, “maybe 60-40,” because most African and Latin American students at ACU are Christians.
Blake said international students come from diverse cultures and include Muslims, Buddhists and non-believers, but most feel welcome and fit easily into ACU’s student body.
“Some students struggle in Bible classes,” Blake said. “[Bible classes] are one of the most challenging parts of being a non-Christian student at ACU. It might help these students to talk to Christian friends who could help explain what is being discussed in the Bible classes.”
Dan McVey, professor of Islamic studies and world religion and a former missions coordinator in Africa, lived in Ghana for 23 years and knows what it feels like to have a different faith than the majority. McVey lived in Accra, the capital of Ghana, for most of the time and also spent five years in Yendi, where Islam is dominant.
McVey said one of the difficulties for non-Christian students at ACU is dealing with classes that are colored with the perspective of a conservative, American Christian culture. He also said non-Christian students often feel a sense of condescension from many of the other students and even faculty.
However, McVey said international students are eager to adjust and make the most of their educational experiences, and he is pleased with the steps the university has taken toward greater diversity in Chapel programs and the way classes are taught.
Patrick Wei, a Chinese exchange student from Shanghai, said he came to ACU to learn about communication and Christian culture. He said he is interested in learning how the Christian culture contributes to the social stability and has enjoyed the hospitality of Christians in Abilene.”Most people are atheist in China; I have been an atheist in the past 34 years,” said Wei, who is unsure of his beliefs. “In Shanghai, people don’t trust other people very much. You can’t tell who is good. Here, it is completely different. People tend to trust you.”
Still, the fear of being rejected does exist among international and even American students. Some keep their religious beliefs to their families. Others, like a Muslim student who asked his name not be used, tells only his close friends about his faith because he worries about his physical safety and fears the stereotypes Americans have toward Muslims. However, he said he feels comfortable at ACU because he knew what to expect; he even enjoys Chapel and Bible classes.
The judgment of others does not matter as much for Robinson, who talks openly about his religious opinions. Robinson’s parents are both Christian, and he said his Christian beliefs were so strong during his freshman year he would argue with atheists about religion.
But, he began to question his faith during his sophomore year and faced a lot of problems during his transition from Christian to atheist.
“It started my sophomore year, and I admitted it my junior year,” Robinson said. “At first, it makes you feel hopeless and meaningless. When I talk to Christians, they say ‘I would not want to live in a world without God.'”
Robinson said it took courage to accept his new beliefs, but he felt supported by his friends and only faced a few hostile reactions.
“Sure, I have been called a couple of words,” Robinson said. “I hate how Christians here group atheists together.”
After becoming an atheist, Robinson did not transfer because he wanted to stay with his friends. However, he thought about creating a support group for atheists because he knew atheists at ACU who were afraid to tell people they were not Christians.
Dr. Stephen Allison, associate professor of psychology and Robert and Mary Ann Hall, chair of psychology and intercultural studies, said it is common for students coming from conservative, Christian backgrounds to struggle with their faith during college and even become cynical about religion.
“Between 18 and 30 [is] a time of a lot of inquiry,” Allison said.
He said several factors can influence a change of faith, such as being away from home for the first time or interacting with students from diverse backgrounds.
Allison, who directed the University Counseling Center for 18 years, said students also begin questioning their faith when they experience a family disruption, such as the divorce of their parents.
However, it is common for people who experience a change of faith to become believers again; it can happen when they become parents themselves because the idea of not allowing their children to know about Christianity bothers them, he said.
“They don’t necessarily go all the way back; they are usually not as conservative as before,” Allison said. “But most people heal from their experiences, and they come back around.”
Regardless of backgrounds and experiences, non-Christian students still have to deal with the requirements of a Christian university.
Chapel, Bible classes and class prayers may cause struggles, especially for those who have no religious experience.
Gist said he tells international recruits early in the recruiting process that they have to attend Chapel almost every day and take 15 hours of Bible classes – only six hours for most transfers.
“It is a very important part of the conversation with prospective students,” Gist said. “I am very upfront about the Christian requirements. I try to give a picture to the best that I can. At some point, no matter how I share, some people don’t know what it’s like.”
He said some international students come from such different backgrounds that the culture shock is inevitable.
“Some students come, and they are like, ‘Wow, this is really a Christian place,'” Gist said. “For some non-Christian students, it is so foreign, so strange that they feel really uncomfortable.”
He said students have two choices: either explore Christianity and reconcile or withdraw and completely reject it.
“I haven’t seen very many people rejecting it, but I do see many people shocked,” Gist said.
Dr. Rodney Ashlock, assistant professor of Bible, ministry and missions, said two years ago, a Japanese student approached him at the end of his Old Testament class and told him she was not Christian. He said they talked a lot, and he tried to answer all of her questions about Christianity, beginning with the basics.
“What we take for granted was a strange world to her,” Ashlock said.
He said when some students approach him, his goal is not to convert them but to explain to them the story of Christianity.
“Then it’s their decision,” Ashlock said. “If I don’t have a huge class, I try to get to know every student. But [non-Christian students] don’t typically advertise.”
Vibulano Hun, junior pre-med major from Sihanoukville, Cambodia, said people do not ask him about his religious beliefs because they assume international students like him are not necessarily Christian.
Hun, a Catholic who still sees American Christianity as foreign, said he likes Bible classes but does not always understand the purpose of Chapel.
“Chapel sometimes does not make sense to me,” Hun said. “I know it’s mandatory, but what you believe is in your heart.”
Gist said during the four years he has worked with international students, he witnessed only two to three transfers because they did not want to attend Chapel. The accommodation to the Christian environment depends on the maturity of students, he said.
“Fundamentally, it is about crossing culture and learning about other cultures,” Gist said.
Raised in a Christian, conservative background, Gist experienced cross-cultural challenges himself by pursuing a master’s degree at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., a “very liberal, secular” institution.
“It was a great experience for me to see different perspectives,” said Gist, who also studied in Belgium for eight months and lived in Japan from 1998 to 2001.
“There are stereotypes on both sides,” he said.
Gist said he does not talk to all incoming international students because some, like student-athletes, are recruited by other departments.
Linda Brivule, junior management major from Riga, Latvia, came to ACU in the spring of 2008 on a track and field scholarship. Brivule, 25, is not a Christian, and does not have to attend Chapel because students 25 years and older are exempt. However, she does have to take Bible classes.
“I knew I had to take [Bible classes],” she said. “It’s not a big deal. At first I was very confused, but I spoke personally with the teacher. I told him I was not Christian; his reaction was positive. He explained me the basics.”
Brivule said she went to Chapel 12 times before she turned 25 years old. She said she was shocked to see the other students not paying attention in Chapel and instead playing games on their cell phones. It would make more sense if students had the choice between going to Chapel and taking Bible classes, she said.
Brivule, a former world junior champion and the NCAA Division II 2008 national champion in the javelin throw, said she did not experience a culture shock in Abilene because she has traveled around the world for track and field meets. She said she fits well in the Christian environment and has good relations with other students.
She said she does not waste time worrying about what other students think of her beliefs; she said her focus is on track, school and her future.
“I came here to change my life, to study what I want,” she said.
Jared Mosley, director of athletics, said although international student-athletes often do not have the opportunity to visit the campus, head coaches inform them of the school’s religious requirements when they are recruited.
“We highly encourage that there is no surprise,” Mosley said. “We encourage the coaches to let [student-athletes] know early in the process.”
He said he hopes all student-athletes take something productive out of Chapel and Bible classes. He also said the presence of non-Christian students is valuable to ACU and he would not want the school to be for Christians only.
“That’s life; wherever you go, there are people from different backgrounds,” Mosley said. “It shapes who we are, what we believe. It’s beneficial and adds to the process.”
Robinson took one year of Biblical Hebrew and two of Biblical Greek. He said he reads Bible verses regularly, and Isaiah is his favorite book of the Bible.
“I am a philosophical ‘Jesusist,'” Robinson said. “[Jesus’] teaching and person are phenomenal; he is the most forward thinker ever.”
But as much as he has enjoyed his Bible classes, Robinson said he dislikes Chapel.
“As somebody who used to be a Christian, I hate [Chapel],” Robinson said. “Because I grew up Christian, I still respect what they talk about, but when you force someone to attend, it takes everything out of it. It’s not a personal thing anymore.”
Despite his admiration for Jesus, Robinson rejects Christianity and religion.
“Religion is one of the most powerful things on Earth,” Robinson said. “It can unite but also create a lot of division.”
He said his father is one of the most inspirational people in his life, but he has not told him he is no longer a Christian.
“I told my mom,” Robinson said. “She says it’s just a phase.”
Robinson said the people he grew up with at the Manhattan Church of Christ do not know either, and he hopes they will not react negatively.
“I’d like to think that they will still accept me,” he said.
posted 4/29/09 @ 10:23 AM CST
I can imagine that Mr. Robinson’s parents are praying hard for their son. I, too, have an atheist in my family and it is devasting to know that a family member does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
posted 4/30/09 @ 12:21 PM CST
I feel for Mr. Robinson. The Gospel is a hard pill to swallow. Yet, I think it a distinctly new age phenomenon in which one can take the teachings of Jesus a la “Philosophical Jesusist” and divorce them from the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus has died for the sins of all who would accept Jesus as their Savior and their Lord, and that he was dead and buried, and on the third day he rose again as proof of God’s acceptance of His sacrifice.
To the extent that “mistreatment” means obligating all students, regardless of faith preference, to attend chapel and bible classes, I don’t feel sorry for non-Christian people who feel they are being mistreated at a Christian University. As one who is a proponent of truth in advertising, I do not know how make it any clearer that Abilene Christian University is a Christian University.
I believe all people should have the opportunity to attend a college in which they feel comfortable with the social, spiritual, and scholastic environment. For those who feel uncomfortable with the Christian environment at Abilene Christian University, you are obliged to attend a different university.