Secular Doesn’t Mean Silent

According to our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.” Seriously, Teddy?

This may have been the case in 1901, but no longer. In the secular liberal arts world, the comparison between knowledge of the Bible and a college education is not a comparison we can consider making. We can study religion analytically and objectively in the classroom, but by definition, a secular institution has no religious or spiritual affiliation.

If we can objectively study different systems of belief, we should also be able to objectively study different systems of non-belief. In May 2011, The New York Times published an article highlighting the development of a Secular Studies program at Pitzer College by professor Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman emphasized that studying non-belief is equally as valid as studying belief, especially considering the fact that the number of Americans who do not hold any religious beliefs has doubled in the past 20 years, according to a 2008 Trinity College study.

The development of Pitzer’s Secular Studies program speaks to the fact that we must begin recognizing diversity of belief and value systems in addition to discussing cultural, racial, and geographic markers of diversity. Up until now we’ve often overlooked religious diversity as part of diversity of thought on campus. And not talking about it speaks volumes.

“I don’t perceive that Christian faith is something much respected at the 5Cs, and for me that sometimes translates to offense and feeling disrespected,” said Ayana Powell PO ’14, one of the student Bible Study leaders in Harwood, Wig, and Lyon residence halls at Pomona College.

The First Amendment guarantees us the personal freedoms of religion and speech, but just because we have the freedom to talk about religion doesn’t mean that we choose to exercise that freedom. For many students, conversations about religious differences are unwanted conflicts to be avoided.

When asked if she self-censors around religious students, first-year columnist Morgan Yucel PO ’16 shared that she will “skirt around the topic, because religion is so personal that I don’t want to even get into something where we fundamentally disagree. It would be a waste of time and a waste of friendship.”

If this is the case, maybe avoiding these conversations is for the best. If conversations about religious differences and conflicting belief systems are bound to end in frustrated argument, hurt feelings, and disrespect, they aren’t going to build community; they’re going to corrode it.

At the same time, not talking about religious diversity delegitimizes a very legitimate form of diversity of thought, something we supposedly celebrate at our liberal arts consortium. The result is the elephant-in-the-room effect: You’re different from me, I’m different from you, and the differences that we choose not to talk about become even more salient and polarizing when they become silent. As of now, the ways in which we are relating to religious diversity on campus are an exercise in divisive, not constructive, diversity.

According to many students, the general tendencies of collegiate life at the 5Cs aren’t compatible with religious life.

“Unfortunately, the culture of college life doesn’t lend itself to making room for religious belief and practices,” Ski Andrew Kolczynski PO ’16 said.

Powell also highlighted the discord between the “typical college experience” and religious life at college.

“I think religion and collegiate life are compatible in the sense that anyone looking for something different from the typical college experience can find it,” she said.

In negotiating the interaction of religion and secular collegiate life, some students make the distinction between religion and spirituality. Yoga, meditation, and similar practices are often labeled as “spiritual” but are spared the more charged label of “religious.” Such spiritual routines become more compatible with typical collegiate life when they are seen as stress relievers, natural activities for high-achieving college students. Self-awareness, contemplative introspection, and holistic wellness—these are hallmarks of a new-age type of spirituality somehow more compatible with secular collegiate life than organized religion.

It’s hard not to take things personally when they’re inherently personal, and this is why talking about differing fundamental beliefs, whether they are religious or not, is difficult—but not impossible. Attending a secular institution does not mean we can’t talk about religion; it simply means the college is not going to tell us what to believe. That is up to us. And in choosing what is right for each of us, we must recognize what is right for us is exactly that: right for us, not necessarily for others, and this doesn’t make what is right for others wrong.

Secular doesn’t mean silent, and it certainly doesn’t mean certain voices should be marginalized. We need to let go of the limiting belief that when someone has different views, it automatically makes them difficult to talk to. This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to have a conversation with someone who has different beliefs from your own. It simply means that when such a conversation does present itself, you take responsibility for your beliefs: This is what I believe, and in my experience it works for me, but I understand it’s not for everyone. And hopefully, the other person will do the same. Next time you shy away from having that conversation, check your premises. Belief systems may seem like rigid constructs, but they areour rigid constructs, and in this, we ultimately have the agency to change them when it is right for us.

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