Monday, February 22, 2010

God on the Quad? Religion at America's Universities

I usually do not like to take on the topic of religion in everyday conversation. As a religious person, this is not because that I am not open to other people's ideas or that I can't defend my convictions. It is because I really do respect individuals who disagree with me and find that I am just not given that same respect for my views. With that disclaimer, I am going to try to write about that very topic, a topic which Fordham and many other establishments across America struggle with each and every day: the role of religion in the secular world.

Newsweek's religion editor, Lisa Miller, recently wrote an article called “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith: Can a secular university embrace religion without sacrificing its soul?” There are many, many other books that also take on this sensitive issue. I've read a lot of them because the subject interests me and I find that none that I have read have reached any practical conclusions. There are so many different factors to analyze- religion at campuses in the social, academic and economic contexts- but here I would like to focus on non-religious students and faculty members who choose to attend and teach at religious institutions. I find their stories to be extremely interesting and largely untold.

There are hundreds of universities and colleges in America. Why would a non-religious person choose to attend a university sponsored by an establishment they reject or disagree with? When religion does come up at Fordham with other students or with faculty members and I can't ignore it, I find myself naturally asking these people what attracted them to a Catholic institution. Their answers seem to reveal that religious colleges are attractive for many other reasons besides their faith offerings:

Beliefs That Aren't Religious: I naturally associate the faith of the University with it (Catholic-> Fordham) but I find that non-religious individuals instead tend to associate the teaching beliefs of the University with it (Jesuit -> Fordham). Theoretically, Jesuit and Catholic is one and the same- the Jesuits are Catholic priests. But the Jesuit ideals of a well-rounded, liberal arts core, a belief in critical thinking and reflective speculation and the idea of committing yourself to larger movements ("men and women for others") are ideas that are congruent with contexts other than religious ones.

Religion as an Academic Subject not a Lifestyle: Obviously, faith goes back thousands of years. Religious doctrine- and the physical texts, art and architecture associated with it- is world history. It is a part of our humanity that is simply impossible to ignore and the cause of conflicts that still perpetuate in the modern era. Studying religion as an historical discipline, like one would study science or math, instead of believing the tenets of the faith and it being part of one's lifestyle, seems to also be another reason for non-religious individuals to attend faith-affiliated colleges.

I think it is very beneficial for non-religious individuals to be present on religious campuses, that it is important for all ideas to be debated openly in an academic setting and that Jesuit universities in particular would be going against their fundamental tenets to not entertain these "opposing" non-religious ideals. I do get upset, however, when I am ridiculed by other students here for going to mass on Sunday, when I hear students complain endlessly about why birth control is not distributed freely all over campus and when when I give tours to prospective families and have eyes rolled at me by my tour when we go through the church (which I actually show for its sheer beauty and significant artifacts, not its religious relevance).

On the flip side, I am sure a lot of non-religious students here have had similar "reverse" upsetting experiences, getting ridiculed for not attending mass, feeling pressure to defend their personal rejection of faith and hating the ring of the church bells during Lent and Advent.

When it comes down to it, there are thousands of American colleges to attend. If you are not willing to accept some of the "unfortunate" social realities of attending a religious institution then you should simply go to the hundreds of non-religious ones. The same goes for religious students attending secular universities. However, I truly appreciate our diversity of opinions on faith here and hope Fordham's academic community can work together to build a community of respect for all faiths- a respect that is currently missing.


Max said...

Dear Amanda,

Stop overachieving all over this blog and let some of the younger kids get a word in.

<3 Max

PS I'm kidding. You run this for realz gurrrl.

Amanda Fiscina said...

Dear Max,

I've asked Professor Hendler if I should write less multiple times and he told me not to! I actually only blog once each week which is not very often in "blog" world...

Now how about a constructive comment Matthew? What is your experience being Jewish on this Catholic campus? I'm putting you on the spot because I KNOW you have no shame about your ideas!

<3 Amanda

Sara said...

I very much agree with your points, Amanda. I think Fordham is certainly a liberal university which welcomes the opinions of students and faculty who have a diverse range of beliefs.

However, like you said, people should respect the fact the Forhdam is a Catholic University. The institution has every right to promote Catholic values.