By Maya Butler | Contributor
Baylor is known for its religious integration into courses, athletics and social organizations. However, not all of Baylor’s students are Christian. In fact, unlike a lot of her classmates, New Braunfels senior Morgan Pettis is an atheist.
Pettis’ childhood never placed religion as a top priority as she was raised by a non-Christian mother in one household and a non-devout Lutheran father in her other household.
“It wasn’t really an upfront topic in my family — basically in the same realm as going to soccer practice. You could go to Bible study if you felt like it, but no one’s going to encourage it or discourage it,” Pettis said.
Pettus, a professional writing and rhetoric major, attended Texas Lutheran University her freshman year because it was close to home and preferred it over Texas State University, but eventually transferred to Baylor. She said Baylor offered her a reasonable scholarship and she liked the English department and didn’t think much about the religious difference between her and Baylor.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal. All the people I knew who went to Baylor weren’t very religious at the time, so I assumed that Baylor was a lot like Texas Lutheran, where it was very laid back.”
It was during her first year at Baylor that Pettis said she experienced a personal crisis in her life, leading her to the counseling center on campus. They eventually recommended she see the spiritual life center, where she met Dr. Ryan Richardson, director of worship and chapel. She started going to University Baptist Church every Sunday at his suggestion. While she no longer goes to UBC, Pettis appreciates the experience.
“I saw that time not necessarily as finding God but a community of good, supportive people,” she said.
As expected of a Baylor student, Pettis also attended the required Chapel and religion classes, taking one of the alternative chapels with Dr. Burt Burleson, who also helped her at the spiritual life center. Pettis described Burleson’s alternative chapel as more self-reflection than biblical.
“He was great. He never pushed anything; he was very open to just, ‘You figure your way out. My office door is always open if you need it,’” Pettis said.
Burleson, who has served as both university chaplain and dean of spiritual life at Baylor for over 12 years, explains that one part of his role involves campus ministry while the other deals with pastoral counseling.
“We walk alongside students, especially, but really anyone in the university who is dealing with a crisis,” he said.
The number of atheists that attend Baylor has increased, according to the latest Institutional Research and Testing report, which noted a bump in atheists attending the university from 60 students in 2012 to 100 in 2018. The number has remained stable over the last few years. Pettis said that she’s thought about converting to Christianity but has never acted on it.
“I’ve thought about it. I don’t want to try to commit myself to something that I don’t think that I would actually believe. I don’t want to just put a name to it and go through all the work just to say I’m something that I’m not. I’ve tried very hard to believe. It just doesn’t happen,” Pettis said.
Despite absence of her own faith, spirituality surfaces in many areas of her life. In fact, it serves a crucial role at the Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center on campus, where Pettis works.
“The spiritual aspect of holistic wellness isn’t necessarily a religion, but just grounding yourself in the moment,” Pettis said.
At Baylor, Pettis says the spiritual aspect of holistic wellness “tends to be the starting point” for many visitors who seek help at the BARC. Interestingly, the service Pettis provides at her work reflects the founding values that helped establish Baylor in the first place, said Burleson.
“They [the founders] saw Baylor as something in service to society, and so from the beginning, students didn’t have to be Christian or certainly not Baptist to come to Baylor,” he said.
Burleson goes on to point out how one of Baylor’s past presidents, Samuel Palmer Brooks, exemplified this belief.
“He said we will be Christian, we will talk about God, we’ll have piety, but—and this is a Baptist conviction—we will not coerce others to adopt our faith,” Burleson said.
Since joining Baylor, Pettis has formed close friendships with other students, and plans on getting her masters in social work from San Diego State after graduation, but until then, continues to love her work at the BARC and her colleagues.
“Every person has their own views. There’s one meeting that I don’t attend simply because it’s a Bible study-based group, but all the other ones? We’re all respectful of each other’s views,” she said.
While Pettis has found her own community at Baylor, she believes the university isn’t as accepting of non-religious students as a whole.
“I think that falls more into the way that organizations on campus work,” she said, using the unofficial status of the Student Secular Alliance chapter at Baylor as an example. Pettis was briefly a member of the organization a couple of years ago but disliked the negative attitude of Baylor’s chapter.
Pettis also believes other religious groups would likely come across the same situation. Burleson also admitted that the university needed to work harder on connecting more with students who weren’t devout.
“One of the things that was apparent to me early on was that Baylor had to work harder at presenting more clearly what our faith environment was about,” Burleson said.
Burleson says one concrete way the university has tried to connect with all of its students is by implementing programs like Better Together, Baylor’s on-campus interfaith group that is a part of the national organization Interfaith Youth Core. The program Better Together is meant to engage students and help them learn from one another, with Burleson attending interfaith conferences that aim to achieve just that.
“They’re [atheists] often included in these kinds of conversations where they’re bringing a particular perspective on some issues,” he said.
Burleson says the Better Together program is only about three years old and has a long way to go, but his role as university chaplain and dean of spiritual life has already helped him reach common ground with atheist students and others of different belief systems.
“I just believe there’s a reality in this world. We’re more connected than we think we can begin to imagine. It’s like this fusion of horizons, and my job is to try to figure out how to make that happen, and when it does, for me, it’s holy ground,” Burleson said.