Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In a discussion sponsored by the Ring Board on Thursday night, students discussed topics such as the tension between religious and secular values on campus, the difference between being spiritual and being religious, and how being in a religious minority helps reinforce religious identity.
The discussion began with a panel of students relating their own personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Marc Engel ’09 described himself as an atheist with a strong sense of Jewish identity, an identity that he grew into only after rooting himself in the Jewish community at Swarthmore. Ernestine Chaco ’07 described the transformative experience of converting to Christianity after living on a reservation in a non-religious home. Nuvia Hassan ’09 discussed how religion became an important source of identity for her immigrant parents, and how her relationship with Islam helped her form a relationship with something higher then herself. Bettina Tam ’10 described growing up in a Catholic/Buddhist household, where discussions on religion were firmly ingrained in everyday life.
Once the panel had spoken, the discussion was opened up to the rest of the group.
Students began by exploring the differences between being spiritual and being religious– is there such a distinction, and how can one define it? One student identified himself as spiritual as opposed to religious because “religious beliefs are too constructed.” Another student described herself as having a spirituality that was fulfilled by religion. She called spirituality a need to connect herself to something bigger then herself and religion fulfilled that need by connecting her to a God. However, another student cautioned against making assumptions as to what needs other people have, because he felt no such spiritual need.
The discussion then turned to how religion is discussed at Swarthmore. One student expressed surprise that the only context in which he had seen religion discussed at Swarthmore was in his seminar. Most of the group agreed with this assessment– religion was not very visible in the campus culture, rather in academic endeavor in the sociological/humanities context.
Another student believed that there was a fear of bringing matters of religion onto the table because of a need to restrict identity to private space. While there is much debate on ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation on campus, there is little to no debate on faith. “But faith is often a big foundation of identity and source of motivation. Faith and scholarship cannot be in opposition to each other, because one’s faith informs and motivates his scholarship.” she said.
One student suggested that the blocks on discussion on religion came from not know how to have the discussion. “We know how to have discussion on sex, race, and identity. We have a perception of what to discuss, what you can and can’t say. With religion and spirituality, there is no understanding of where to start, where to go, and where it will take us.” People would seem comfortable enough discussing the idea of God in the abstract, but shirked discussion that came down to specific doctrines or to religious figures like Jesus. “There is a fear of offending people, or stepping on toes.”
A few students discussed creating greater campus-wide opportunities for interfaith dialogue. But another student described a gut, visceral reaction that she had against seeing religion discussed in a large-scale manner. Other students from homogeneous neighborhoods described a desire to be exposed to other faiths and beliefs. But some religious students expressed concern about the possible tokenization of religion. Explaining and defining one’s religion to another person can become problematic when one isn’t sure himself where he fits in with his faith. However, this experience can often lead one to self-inquiry and growth because you are forced to hold your own beliefs accountable. While the experience can be disconcerting, it can ultimately make a person stronger in his or her faith.
The forum allowed students to have a lively and rare discussion about religion on campus. Students walked away with a better understanding of how others relate to religion, and hopefully ideas to better relate to them.