Religious faith at the College

Over the past year that I spent here at Williams, I’ve been saddened by the overall religious climate. For such a brilliant student body, the level of religious inquisitiveness is disappointing; I’ve seen many more students become disillusioned with their faiths than inspired. I feel that this tendency towards disenfranchisement is produced by the struggle of intellectualism vs. spirituality, the inherent conflict between religion and any college culture, and the underlying tension between various facets of the Williams college student body with regards to religious conviction.

The religion department fosters a scholastic approach to the various dimensions of religion, and as I soon learned after my first religion class, the crucial distinction between religious investigations within and outside the classroom. While I laud the three religion classes I have taken here, I wouldn’t say that they have deepened my own spirituality. If anything, the socio-anthropological approach to religion that I feel underlies much of religious scholasticism (by charting universal features in both developed and more primitive religious practices) inevitably leads to the tacit hypothesis that religion is merely a cross-cultural social phenomenon, which in turn weakens my faith.

While I understand that religious theory should not have to be couched so that it’s comfortable and cozy for all, I think that these theories are particularly jarring to students of such high intellect. (The arguments are virulent because they are feasible; they make sense.)

Thus, as students who have invested our time in academics and support education as a means of self betterment, we find this rational debunking of religion highly convincing. This is particularly due to the fact that we, as highly intelligent students, regard the intellect and its capacity to reason as the best filtering process through which we understand our reality.

Thus religious belief may come less naturally. We have difficulty believing in the intangible, in an area that slips below our perception. Religion exists in a realm above our faculties of perception. As a result, religious faith is particularly difficult for one who relies on intellect because it exists only through faith, which is precisely the point at which reason fails to lose its efficacy. Thus this intellectualism is in part responsible for the lukewarm religious atmosphere at Williams.

The social scene at Williams also creates friction with the various faiths that people bring to Williams. Most members of campus religious groups regard our social scene at Williams as hedonistic. The social institutions of colleges are frequently nucleated upon drinking and sexuality. Especially since the advent of the “hookup,” sexuality has taken the foreground as the prominent weekend social interactions between college guys and girls. Dating has been supplanted by the amorphous etiquette-less social interaction of the “hookup.”

Thus, the excitement of partying seems hinged on the possible promise of a “hookup.” This beer-fueled sexual culture on campus, while enjoyed by many students, is instrumental in causing students to lose faith. Students frequently resolve the tension between religion and college culture by abandoning their religions that condemn their behavior instead of striking a middle ground between zealotry and hedonism.

I feel like this abandonment of religion is exacerbated by the social interaction between those with different religious perspectives on campus. That saddens me, not because I’d like to see more students filling the aisles of houses of worship, as I have neither care nor wish to do so, but because I feel judgmental individuals have caused them to abandon their spirituality. Religious groups on campus sometimes equate holiness with some kind of time commitment, a shopping-list of mandatory good works. Thus those less intensely religious people are turned off to their faiths when someone indicates that their method of spirituality is better than another’s. One can be spiritual without going to daily Mass; one can be Catholic and also pro-choice. Many would argue otherwise.

It was unsettling to me to hear last spring students refer to Francis Kessling, a pro-choice Catholic as not Catholic at all. This type of audacious judgment permeates the religious scape of Williams. Some of the personalities present in the various religious groups seem to have a “take it or leave it” mentality concerning their belief systems; if you don’t vote pro-life, you’re not Catholic.

Many people, frustrated by this non-questioning authoritarian religious structure, have chosen “leave it.” I personally feel a sense of ownership of my spirituality and I don’t feel like someone else, whether a professor or a religious zealot, has the right to take it away from me. I’m not an advocate of total religious relativism; I do believe in a governing ethical base to any way of life.

I’m just suggesting a more open minded approach to finding one’s own place within the spectrum of religion. I’m suggesting that it’s acceptable to disagree with some of the facets of ones faith and still consider it your own.

I feel that spirituality can be nourished even amidst the kinks here at Williams. I just believe that it calls for a much less judgmental and more peaceful standpoint especially amidst those self-identifying as religious, an open minded attitude to the inscrutable splendor of a god and a willingness to see the beauty and validity to various religious practices.

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