In an oversized bold font, at the top of Brown’s Spiritual and Religious Life website, it is affirmed, “A nonsectarian institution, Brown embraces all spiritual traditions and celebrates the diversity of religious identity on campus.” Considering this forthright affirmation of religious neutrality, how is it that our motto remains “In Deo Speramus” — literally: “In God we hope”? How does such a statement at all reflect the spirit of religious impartiality? Where is there room in this motto for the dozens of atheist and agnostic students, not to mention believers in polytheistic faiths? Furthermore, do these three words really encapsulate the essence of Brown? As I will argue, this motto is antithetical to the ideals that Brown itself professes and exemplifies.
Brown’s policy to accept students regardless of religious affiliation was the first of any college in the nation. This is laudable and has, over the years, nurtured a student body rich in religious diversity. But you don’t need a detective to discover a significant number of “infidels” parading around campus. Daily conversations make it fairly clear that many Brown students are non-believers and many more are skeptical thinkers. That said, many fail to see a problem with the perpetuation of our antiquated and religiously fueled motto.
I imagine many people simply gloss over it, thinking to themselves the motto is simply a relic of the “olden days,” an era at Brown when religious belief reigned. But our school statement is a remnant of a pious past Brown has maintained out of unwillingness to challenge the standard.
Since when has Brown been in the spirit of maintaining the status quo — in perpetuating tradition for tradition’s sake? As far as I know, it hasn’t. Throughout its history, Brown has been about progress and promoting equality and well-being for everyone — regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, religion or any other division you can conceive — in our own community and, more recently, beyond our gates. The spirit of Brown is not and has never been to hope for divine intervention to better our society. On the contrary, it is in our very nature as Brunonians to intervene ourselves, to get our hands dirty, and to “be the change (we) wish to see in the world,” to quote Gandhi. For me personally, it feels as if nearly all of my fellow Brunonians — driven by their own initiatives — are constantly involved in remarkable and admirable activities.
Furthermore, it seems especially hypocritical that an institution that cherishes reason, evidence and argument in the pursuit of truth and insight would support a motto that reflects the antithesis of these values. Simply put, religious faith is unjustified belief, glorified by centuries of fiery — albeit misplaced — confidence. In no other area of discourse apart from religion do unjustified beliefs about the nature of the universe receive such unquestioned respect. You do not need to respect your professor’s theory about biology if he does not — or worse, cannot — provide good reasons and evidence for you to do so. Likewise, you wouldn’t simply accept your psych professor’s theory of behavior on faith — that is, without justification. “In Deo Speramus” spits in face of the standards by which members of the Brown community conduct research and explore the sphere of knowledge.
Our current motto only caters to those who believe in a monotheistic God. It explicitly excludes the rest of us — skeptics, non-believers, polytheists and more. Worse, it misrepresents a significant portion of our student and faculty body. This is not quite in the spirit of a “nonsectarian institution.”
Is this the motto that best reflects Brown’s core values? It seems patently clear that the answer to this question is a resounding “No.” Does it suffice that this motto could carry some metaphorical meaning or inspiration? Perhaps for some, but why beat around the (burning) bush? Why not endorse a motto that concretely outlines Brown’s core values?
I’m not saying Brown is a vault of hopeless, dispassionate reason. There are many things Brown students hope for: warmer weather, a decent Spring Weekend line-up, a lucrative job that also does some good in the world. But hope in God does not seem high on the list. You wouldn’t create an ad campaign for apples using pictures of oranges. Just saying.
Moreover, how much moral or spiritual wealth does one really gain by reading these three words? Any person with a Latin-English dictionary could devise a motto that is vastly more meaningful and relevant to Brown’s essence as an institution than is the current one. How about “In Rationis Speramus” — “In Reason We Hope”? Or “In WhisCo Speramus?” Whatever it may be, let us abandon our antiquated superstitious slogan and brand Brown with a motto that truly reflects our collective core values.
Jesse Hartheimer ’14 enjoys discussing religion — over politics — and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.