Published Friday, April 2, 1999
At a secular university, God(s) not dead
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 meet.
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."
He 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 religion.
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 think otherwise.
"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 expression."
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 '01 agrees.
"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.
For some, 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."
Religious 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.
And 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.
But for 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."
The 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.
From singing 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.
"I 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."
Contrary to the situation in Buckley's day, religion is now a hot topic at Yale.
The "Does God Exist?" debate co-sponsored by the YCS and the Society of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics attracted a crowd of almost 400.
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.
Rabbi 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