Bahai News - At a secular university, God(s) not dead
Published Friday, April 2, 1999
At a secular university, God(s) not dead
BY CAROLINE MARVIN Contributing Reporter
It's "Jesus Week," a flyer in the Yale Standard proclaims. Posters
all over campus invite Jewish students to Seders in the residential
colleges and at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
For students not celebrating Easter or Passover, all the usual options
are there. Members of the Buddhist Society will meditate this weekend.
Muslims will meet for prayer today. The Hindu Student Prayer Group will
Other students will end their week with none of the above.
What does religion mean to Yale students? It means something decidedly
different from what it would've meant to William F. Buckley, who wrote
about the state of religion at Yale in his controversial book, "God &
Man at Yale."
This book is not the last word on religion at Yale in the mid-century.
Buckley admits that the opinions he expresses represent his own experience
at Yale University from 1946 to 1950. But despite his penchant for blind
assertions and overstatement, Buckley presents a legitimate analysis of
the role of religion at Yale in the 1950s, which invites comparison to
the role of religion at Yale in 1999.
The Yale of today is not the place Buckley described fifty
years ago. The sheer number and diversity of religious practitioners and
organizations on campus, as well as the academic study of religion,
foster an environment receptive to religious inquiry and discussion.
Religion in the Classroom
As a 24-year-old, fresh out of
Yale, Buckley wrote, "I am one of a small group of students who fought,
during undergraduate days, in the columns of the newspaper, in the
Political Union, in debates and seminars, against those who seek to
subvert religion and individualism." He even accused one professor of
trying to turn students into "atheist socialists."
While few would
support Buckley's archaic assertion that Christianity should be promoted
in the classroom, Buckley does pose a fundamental question: does Yale
fortify the average student's regard for religious expression? Buckley's
assessment of Yale in the 1950s answers with a resounding, "No."
says the great popularity of a course in the Religion department did not
point to widespread religious devotion, but was the result of a fruitful
search for a "gut." He even accuses one "emphatically and vigorously
atheistic" professor of single-handedly weaning students away from
Does such an active and vehement rebuking of religion exist
in classrooms today? Most students and faculty members find just the
opposite. The academic study of religion at Yale thrives. According to
Professor Jon Butler who teaches the popular course "Religion in Modern
America," and who with Professor Harry Stout co-founded the Institute
for the Advanced Study of Religion at Yale, it would be ludicrous to
"Yale is a secular university," Butler said. "I
interpret that to mean that it doesn't take sides in religious questions
including the question of religion. It is not that the university
upholds the value of secular humanism or anti-religion. Rather, it
assumes the legitimacy of religion and of student and faculty
And the study of religion isn't confined to the
Religious Studies department. Students and professors undertake the
study of religion in its myriad forms in many classes, from art history
to sociology. Butler further noted that in salaries and resources, Yale
devotes large sums to the study of religion. One student was troubled by
the vehemence with which a biology professor "tried to disprove the
theory of Creation," but such complaints are few and far between.
Religion in Community Life
Buckley belittles the relative
influence and importance of "extracurricular" religious life. In 1999,
many see extracurricular involvement as one of the main components in
students' religious formation.
"But by saying that it is
extracurricular, that is not to imply that it's any less valuable," said
University Chaplain Reverend Dr. Jerry Streets.
From sitting on
couches and making "joyful sounds," to singing religious songs at
juvenile detention centers, Yale students find many creative ways to
express their faith.
And like the members of any club or group, many
of those involved in religious organizations find great community and
fellowship in their respective activities.
Sophie Oberfield '00, who
coordinates activities and programs at Hillel, feels "very much a part
of a cohesive, tolerant Jewish community." Co-coordinator Brandon Smith
"The overall environment of the University makes it very
easy to have religion as a part of your life here," he said. "The Slifka
Center grew into being my real community at Yale. These are many of my
friends and this is where I hang out."
For some, the practice of
religion involves cappuccino. Every Sunday, students involved with
Lutheran House meet for cappuccino and cookies, followed by an informal
"house church" service and dinner. Students sit around a comfortable
living room for what Chaplain Carl Sharon deems "a gathering for
sustenance, support, friendship, prayer, and praise."
In an effort to
bolster a sense of Christian community, representatives from the various
Christian organizations on campus recently formed Yale Body of Christ.
The group sponsored a Call to Prayer last Sunday at which about 100
people gathered together to sing and pray.
The liturgical aspect of
religious life grows as well. Living Water and Magavet are two singing
groups that devote themselves to religious expression through song.
Sharon invites students of all faiths and denominations to join in what
he calls, "the most peaceful 45 minutes on campus." Every Wednesday
night, students meet in Dwight Chapel for candlelight prayer and to hear
calming Taize music, Christian songs with a classical feel.
religious groups provide a respite from the daily grind. The newly
formed Buddhist Society meets every week to meditate, give backrubs, and
read from Dharma books. Many who identify with other religions -- or
none at all -- come to meditate, an activity which leader Ravenna
Michalsen '01 calls "spiritual, but secular."
organizations also sponsor social service projects such as Resurrection
Lutheran Tutoring, and the Young Israel and St. Thomas More soup
kitchens. Salt of the Earth is a Christian activist group and the
Episcopal Church at Yale, Christ Church at Yale, Yale Hillel, St.
Thomas More House, and the International Church, among others, spearhead
social action programs.
From coffeehouses to swing dances to lecture
series and symposia, religious groups offer a bit of everything.
there are many students on campus who don't belong to an undergraduate
organization, but for whom religion plays an important role. Many
Catholic students, for example, are dedicated church goers, but are not
involved with groups such as Yale Students for Christ.
others, "Jesus Week" is just like any other.
"I'm Jewish in my spare
time," Aaron Crowell '02 said. "And I'm a very busy guy."
Attitude towards Religious Expression
Whether it is indicative of
a more global trend, a response to local issues, or as one devout
Christian suggested, "a divine intervention," religions of many sorts
maintain an increasingly palpable presence on campus.
groups to meditation sessions, Yale students can take part in myriad
religious pursuits, both spiritually and intellectually. And most
students and faculty members find a tolerant and welcoming community.
Roya Shanks '00 helps coordinate the Yale Baha'i Association. Baha'i
is an independent, monotheistic world religion. The following at Yale is
still quite small, but the group sponsors informational meetings
throughout the year.
"You can be religious without a problem. It is
another aspect of the diversity at Yale," Shanks said. "I wouldn't say
it is a huge force in the majority of students' lives, but the
environment is hospitable if you want to make religion an important part
of your life."
Shanks commended the willingness on the part of
professors, dining hall workers, and other members of the Yale community
to accommodate students in their observance of religious holidays.
One of the goals of the newly formed Multi-Faith Undergraduate Student
Council, is to heighten awareness of religious holidays, by notifying
deans, masters, and dining hall managers in the residential colleges.
"We must make sure that Yale provides an atmosphere of hospitality and
support to explore religion either as a devotional or intellectual
pursuit," Reverend Streets said. "The more opportunities for people to
learn about different perspectives and the practice of religion, the
more Yale encourages an understanding and appreciation, not just a
tolerance for religious beliefs."
For many, the
question of religion is intriguing in an academic sense, although it
doesn't play a part in everyday life.
Musab Balbale '01, is a member
of the Muslim Students Association, which gathers every Friday for
prayer. He said he finds the atmosphere of religious tolerance at Yale
to be largely the result of an intellectual interest in religion.
don't know if it's an interest in one particular religion over another.
But in general, I think events such as the crises in the Middle East and
Kosovo inspire greater interest in the question of religion," Balbale
said. "I think the increased religious interest at Yale is more of an
intellectual interest than anything else. In that sense, students are
very tolerant. If you can explain and give reasons for your beliefs,
other students will respect them even if they don't agree."
to the situation in Buckley's day, religion is now a hot topic at
The "Does God Exist?" debate co-sponsored by the YCS and the
Society of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics attracted a crowd of
Some religious leaders point to a more global trend to
explain increased interest in religion among college students. Current
issues from the approach of the millennium to global economic crises may
contribute to a lack of certainty among students. Or perhaps, as Samuel
P. Huntington proposes in his recent book, "The Clash of Civilizations
and the Remaking of World Order," a clash of cultures and religions will
supplant the ideological struggle presented by the Cold War.
James Ponet cited Huntington's theory as a reason why more students are
turning to religion. Another explanation he sees for the shift is a
sense of "unsettledness" among undergraduates. He notes a drastic
increase in the number of students who now don't know what they want to
do after college.
Buckley lamented the waning importance of religion
at Yale in the mid-twentieth century. In 1999, religion is back and
bigger than ever.
Applications to the Yale Divinity School are on
the rise. Almost 50 percent of this year's freshman class expressed
interest in some form of religion. The University Chaplain's Office and
the Sociology Department are conducting a joint follow-up study to one
compiled in 1995 which found that religion was more important than many
thought. Results of the follow-up survey will be tallied this summer.
The opportunity for religious expression, inquiry, and growth abound for
students of many faiths and denominations. And for many, although
religion may not figure prominently in daily life, the question of
spirituality and religion provides fodder for interesting and lively debate.
©Copyright 1999, Yale Daily News
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