St. Olaf's BTS-B and BTS-T Requirements for Atheists

St. Olaf seems like a perfect school for a candidate that I’m helping to find colleges for. It’s a dry campus mostly, with smart quirky artistic intellectuals, is a pretty, has a strong ethical perspective, and has good food, among many other qualities. It seems perfect except possibly for the requirements to take Christian-oriented courses called BTS-B and BTS-T. The pdfs from the college explaining these courses don’t address the content well enough for me to understand what’s taught. I think that, for example, a course that discusses objectively and academically the historical nature of Jesus Christ and Christianity as a world religion among others that are worthy of study WOULD be acceptable to this candidate, but one in which the course discusses literally that JC will be back to raise us all from the dead, would be a much harder course to sit through.

I hear that St. Olaf is very accepting of various types of people but I’m concerned that someone brought up with no religion at all might find it difficult to sit through required religion courses that were more proselytizing in nature rather than academic and objective.

Any comments are appreciated. Thanks!

We asked this question when my daughter applied and were told that there were more historic and analytical in nature than faith-based. A family friend (atheist) graduated from there and enjoyed her time there. You might want to check if there are any comparative world religions that would fill the requirement. I recollect that there were, but it’s been awhile and things might have changed.

I loved this school and it was a serious contender for my kid, who is not religious.

When we toured, this was addressed and our guide said there were different options and the classes she took were more “about” religion, vs. requiring a specific belief. She also said chapel time (there are no classes scheduled but chapel attendance is not required) was a great opportunity to get coffee or something and take a break between classes.

You can search the course schedule for classes that meet BTS-B (check the section topics and descriptions) and BTS-T (multiple different classes) requirements here: https://www.stolaf.edu/sis/public-aclasslab.cfm

My D22 is non-religious, but comfortable in a generally Christian environment as long as her beliefs and choices are respected, and St. Olaf is near the top of her list right now based on her visit.

The ethical perspective you mention is informed by St. Olaf’s Lutheran roots, but it resonated with my D from a secular POV.

I would guess the student you’re working with would like it but I’d encourage a visit if possible to check out the vibe.

Thank you @mamaedefamilia and @myrna97

This gives me great hope! I really think that St. Olaf is a wonderful school for so many reasons and I hope this works out for the student I’m attempting to help.

Thank you!

Hello, St. Olaf alum here! I know it’s long past the matriculation deadline, but I’m seeing a lot of worries re religiosity at St. Olaf so I want to add a bit more:

I know U.S. News&World Report makes St. Olaf sound like an evangelical fundamentalist school, but I promise you it is not. There’s a chapel with daily services for people who want to attend, but nobody is forced to attend. Students can also give chapel talks and the topic doesn’t have to be religious. The majority of students are either atheist or non-Christian. A year or two ago the school hired a Rabbi to accommodate Jewish students and I believe they are working on adding support for other faith traditions as well. And of course, if you are agnostic or atheist, nobody will force you to observe any religion either.

The school underwent significant GE requirement reforms the past few years and I believe they got rid of the BTS-B and BTS-T reqs. Although for what it is worth, my BTS-T course was a comparative theology class taught by a well-regarded Hindu scholar (who I believe is very active in international inter-faith exchange activities and has been invited to the Vatican.) I entered college as a somewhat edgy atheist so I was quite skeptical of the religious aspect. After spending four years there, I came away with a good deal of knowledge on religion from various humanistic perspectives (social, political, cultural, philosophical, theological and so on). The knowledge I gained helps me understand and appreciate other people’s traditions better and also allows me to examine my own perspectives confidently. I truly believe I received one of the best education possible.

The school has a long history of liberal arts learning and places free intellectual inquiry at the forefront of its mission. Here’s a document created in 2000 reflecting on the school’s mission and value in depth (https://pages.stolaf.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/421/2014/08/1-StOlaf_2000-excerpt-1.pdf). And finally, I’ll leave this address by Robert Pippin from U of Chicago (https://college.uchicago.edu/student-life/aims-education-address-2000-robert-pippin). I know the address is directed at students of U Chicago, but the quality of liberal arts learning described is exactly what you will get at St. Olaf. Good luck!

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My D is a St Olaf alum. I posted a ‘vibe report’ from her sophomore year that addresses her perception of the religious vibe of St Olaf. That ‘vibe’ echos what is written by the alum above.
https://www.collegeconfidential.com/vibe/st-olaf-college/4129201.html

D is/was an atheist as were many of her friends. She did the Great Conversations program which does read many religious texts (along with many other Western Civ classics). There was never any evangelizing in the classes. It’s not like that at all. However there is a higher fractions of students who are Christians and ‘deepening one’s faith’ is part of the school mission. Thinking about ethics is a ‘thing’ and for many students that will involve their belief in god.

D was very happy with her education at St Olaf (math/physics major) and felt that her liberal arts education was superb. The (optional) Great Conversations program was intense but very good.

@liska21

Not sure what year your daughter is but there’s a good chance we met each other or studied in the same classes (I used to be a physics major myself)! It’s funny that you mention ethics, I think one way the school stays true to its “Lutheran roots” is their heavy emphasis on the search for meaning, value, vocation, and questioning ethics/morals. Nobody will force you to commit to a particular set of beliefs. Instead, the classes we took forced us to think about these questions deeply by reading various thinkers and situating their ideas in contemporary social realities/events as well as our own identity and beliefs. It wasn’t until a year or two after my graduation that I realized that this was a very unique experience since apparently my friends that went to other schools said they didn’t experience anything like it at their LACs.

But I think that’s what “strengthening faith” means in this context – because you are forced to confront so many difficult questions and nuances, forced to evaluate the strength of various arguments and consider counter-arguments or arguments that completely reframe the discussion – whatever conclusion you arrive at (be it religious or political or social), you come away with a stronger confidence in what you believe. Sometimes that might mean you would change your view completely, sometimes it means sticking with your original view but now with a caveat, either way, because you engaged with them critically your beliefs are now truly your beliefs, instead of ones thrusted upon you.

So in that way, the college’s commitment has always been first and foremost in the spirit of liberal learning – liberal not as in liberal vs. conservative, but rather liberal in the sense that this type of education should bring about liberation.

EDIT: Also I’d just like to add that this critical process is pretty difficult. But at St. Olaf you will be surrounded by so many wise and nurturing professors that do everything to help you on this journey of self/world discovery. None of my professors forced any beliefs on me (except the idea that I should always be thinking haha) but rather they help me articulate my own reasonings better, push me to challenge assumptions I take for granted, and guide me to various texts/thinkers for further studying. At the same time though, they did demonstrate virtues such patience and awe and curiosity and humility which convinced me to adopt these characters myself in order to be a better thinker and person. Even now as an alum, I still email some of my professors occasionally exchanging readings/podcasts/ideas connected to contemporary events. It’s really cool!

The above information is incorrect regarding the GE requirements.

Biblical and Theological Studies: Bible (BTS-B)
Biblical and Theological Studies: Theology (BTS-T)

Are still mandatory courses. Current parent of two Oles.

My daughter is a rising Senior at St. Olaf and also an atheist. She also did Great Conversations. I believe Great Con fulfills one, but not the other of those two requirements. She fulfilled her other requirement with a course about feminism and the bible. It was a women’s studies course that also helped her fulfill her concentration in women and gender studies. (She’s a music major with arts management concentration as well as the women and gender studies concentration). She’s had a really great experience at St. Olaf.