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Spirituality on America’s Liberal Campuses
A call for dialogue

by Micah White


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.


Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, is a small prestigious liberal arts school sometimes called “The Kremlin on the Crum” in reference to its liberal politics and location near the Crum River. I was drawn to Swarthmore because I hoped that there I might find relief from the conservative Christian mind-set I had experienced while attending public high school in Michigan.

When freethinkers consider religion in college, they typically imagine campuses dominated by vocal, conservative student groups like Campus Crusade for Christ or the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Many freethinkers believe that our colleges are under attack by conservative Christianity, irrationality, and false spiritual beliefs. While this may be true at many institutions—even Ivy League institutions are being barraged by conservative Christian activism—going to Swarthmore has taught me that there is still a type of institution where conservative Christianity is not a vocal presence on the campus.

Even the most active Christian group on campus, the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship, seems to spend most of its energy on distancing itself from the Religious Right. It advertises itself to students as an alternative to the Religious Right.

 

Religion on a Liberal Campus

Although large, vocal religious groups are not in evidence, there are obviously religious students at Swarthmore. Or are there? Accurate data concerning Swarthmore students’ religious beliefs are hard to come by. In November, Swarthmore’s student newspaper, the Phoenix, published a story about religion on campus. Reporters found that in an average week, “approximately 30 students attend Mass, about 30 go to Shabbat services for Ruach, 40 attend SCF [Swarthmore Christian Fellowship]’s Friday meeting, and 20 attend SPC [Swarthmore Protestant Community]-led Protestant services.”1  Keeping in mind that Swarthmore has approximately 1,400 students, and that the same students may attend more than one type of religious meeting, these numbers seem miniscule.

It seems that students at liberal institutions are largely apathetic towards religion, or hold theologically liberal religious views that they feel do not conflict with rationality. Typical of religious students at Swarthmore may be Mike Camilleri ’03, who said in his Phoenix interview: “People just have this stereotype of religious people. I’m not an NRA member, I don’t hate gay people, and there are a lot of other things that aren’t me.” This is a remarkable statement, especially because at many other American colleges and universities, the most vocal Christian students are likely to be those who dislike gay people, support the NRA, and are a lot of other things that “aren’t him.”

This suggests an obvious question. If there is a national rise in religion at most colleges, why is Swarthmore—by extension, the liberal academy generally—seemingly immune?

I can only answer this question based on my freshman-year experiences. Still, I think two factors are largely responsible. One, Swarthmore College has built its reputation as both a small school and as one of the toughest in the nation. Second, Swarthmore prides itself on its Quaker roots and liberal political environment. The campus is full of politically active students; the thriving student groups are those that address liberal political agendas that students feel strongly about. While it is impossible to generalize to every Swarthmore student, it is safe to say that Swarthmore does not attract a great many people who would be interested in joining Campus Crusade for Christ. I assume the same is true of other liberal institutions.

At schools that are liberal and politically active, the most vocal student groups would be strongly opposed to the politics of a conservative Christian group. This was made clear in an intriguing episode that took place at Swarthmore near the end of the 2001 academic year. Because of Swarthmore’s egalitarian Quaker heritage, there is only one dining hall on campus. There is also a tradition of placing messages, pictures, poems, or art on the cafeteria trays. Members of the vocal and sometimes militant gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender club, the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU), had marked some trays with the words “Be Bisexual!” Later, they found some of their trays defaced with Christian attacks on homosexuality—phrases such as “This is so wrong, find Jesus.” SQU activists posted signs all over campus that depicted a defaced tray and said:

Last week, SQU members found that three of our trays . . . had been defaced with homophobic statements. SQU does not tolerate hate, and we hope that publicizing these trays will inspire useful dialogue on campus.

 

SWAT [Swarthmore] is not free from hate.

While these signs did spark a small campus dialogue, what is both remarkable (and a further testament to the mind-set of Swarthmore students) is that the dialogue did not center on religion. Instead, critics suggested that SQU should tolerate different opinions about homosexuality. The defacement was not characterized as Christian, merely hateful. Far from defending a Christian morality that deemed homosexuality a sin, SQU’s opponents instead championed the rights of individuals to voice anti-homosexual opinions. Essentially, religion was silent in this dialogue.

 

The Challenge of the Liberal Academy

A liberal institution may seem the ideal location for a freethinker’s higher education simply because of the absence of conservative Christianity. However, the liberal academy poses unique challenges and problems. Swarthmore is secular in every sense of the word, but it is also a school that allows students to continue holding unsound religious beliefs uncritically—in part, precisely because there is so little critical dialogue on religion. The religion of students here is no more refined than anywhere else: more liberal, perhaps, but no more logical. The absence of religious debate has created an environment where religious students simply are not challenged, and thus never offered the opportunity to put their religious ideas to the test of dialogue. One of my earliest memories of Swarthmore puts this point in focus.

Having just come from high school in Michigan, I was excited to debate religion with individuals whom I assumed would be much more intellectual than my high school peers. I had been discussing various topics with a friend from my hall, and decided to accompany her to a Swarthmore Christian Fellowship introductory meeting. While there, I struck up a conversation with several students after having announced that I was an atheist. Their arguments in favor of belief were disappointing. It was immediately clear that these students had never been exposed to good atheist arguments. One student even presented me with a version of Pascal’s Wager, less as an argument than as something he’d once heard, and asked how I’d respond to it. I provided him with arguments from the atheist perspective, then even supplied the counter-arguments a Christian debater might offer in rebuttal. Later, I wound up discussing Pascal’s Wager in detail with this student, as it turned out to be his primary way of intellectualizing why he was a Christian.

The point of this story is not to say that religious students at liberal colleges are poor thinkers, but instead to focus on the fact that freethinkers offer a long list of critiques to religion that students are unlikely to be exposed to unless they engage in critical dialogue about religion. Where there is no critical dialogue, there is a perpetuation of weak Christian arguments—and weak atheist ones, too.

I see two primary reasons liberal campuses lack critical dialogue on religion. The first is simply that students don’t place much importance in such debates. Since there are few, if any, conservative Christians on campus condemning homosexuality or trying to build memorials to the Ten Commandments, students who focus on tangible political problems like the environment or animal rights just don’t pay attention to religion. It’s a moot issue to them. The second reason, and probably the most important, is the discourse of tolerance that is such an important aspect of liberal campus life. Think back to those cafeteria trays: it was largely Swarthmore’s culture of tolerance that kept that issue from becoming a religious debate. Students regard religion as a personal choice and therefore not something open to criticism.

And yet there is a climate of intellectual vigor on liberal campuses that I can’t help thinking makes them ripe for critical dialogues. I have yet to meet a student at Swarthmore who was unwilling to discuss his or her religion. It may be simply the fault of freethinkers that students holding the kinds of religious belief prevalent at Swarthmore seldom find themselves engaged in intelligent dialogue.

There is another type of student who I have been neglecting thus far: the nonbeliever who was never exposed to the rich philosophy of secular humanism or atheist debating. This is the type of student I am most interested in talking to as a campus activist. I think the ideal way for freethinkers to organize at a school like Swarthmore is to begin by appealing almost exclusively to nonreligious students, and to begin informing them of America’s freethought heritage and organizations. To do this I hosted a radio show that had a guest, such as Dr. Paul Kurtz, each week who would share his or her thoughts on religion. I must admit the response to the show wasn’t as high as I would have liked; this seems to be the consequence of trying to speak critically about religion in a setting where most people simply dismiss it.

 

Why Dialogue Matters

My experience at Swarthmore provides a platform from which to explore issues of religion and inventory my own hopes for the future. At Swarthmore-as-it-is, the religions of the world are silent outside of their own meetings. Nonbelief is assumed; it is surprising to find someone exhibiting explicitly religious behavior. In part as a consequence, neither believers nor nonbelievers have formulated clear defenses of their positions. Hypothetical Swarthmore, Swarthmore as it could be with an influx of religious debate, would be a different place. If religion became a more important part of students’ identities, people would engage the subject more seriously. More vocal Christian groups might arise, be they liberal or conservative; religion would no longer be silent. Individuals’ religious beliefs would be put to the test, as would the beliefs of many weak atheists.

Would this hypothetical Swarthmore be a better place? I believe that it would. Conservative Christianity is going to be in America for years to come, and it will fall to the students of today to protect church-state separation tomorrow. Liberal schools like Swarthmore may be ill-preparing students for these future battles, perhaps imbuing them with a false sense of security. Never exposed to conservative Christianity, never really required to defend what they believe, students may graduate from these liberal institutions with no clear sense of the reasons for their faith or lack of it. Provoking critical dialogues about religion on liberal campuses, therefore, should be of paramount importance to freethinkers young and old.

 

Notes

1. Http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/org/phoenix/2000/2000-11-09/indepth/10325.html

2. According to the Princeton Review, Swarthmore is the second most studious school in the nation, behind CalTech (see http://encarta.msn.com/collegeArticles/NeverStopStudying.asp).


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