Columns

Ingber ’15: Shibboleth

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, January 27, 2014

There are many religious students at Brown. Cheery students from the Christian Fellowship frequently give out hot chocolate on the Main Green. Catholic Mass is packed with students. The Muslim Students’ Association and Brown/RISD Hillel are central parts of many students’ college experiences. But remarkably, it is still taboo to be religious at Brown. There is a general level of disdain toward religion, as many students associate religiosity with dogmatism or incorrigibility.

For all of the talk of acceptance and tolerance of ideas at Brown, I feel that religious individuals often receive the most flak. Labeled “anti-intellectual,” religious students frequently retreat from political discussion or social commentary.

Many forget that religion is not anti-intellectual — at least not the religion we see at Brown. Most religions are founded upon beliefs of questioning, learning and challenging. Proper study of religious literature revolves around discussion and critical inquiry. Surely there should be little place for those attempting to impose their religious beliefs on others, but Brown students do not do this. From my experience, our students are interested in educating and learning from others.

The ostracism of religious students is magnified in political conversations. Religious individuals are considered reactionary or ultra-conservative, and cast as opponents to progressive causes. And ironically, many religious students at Brown have progressive beliefs that stem from their religiosity. I once asked one of my Catholic friends about his faith and politics. Because he is a staunch Democrat, I assumed that his faith played a minimal role in his political values. Instead, he asserted that his Catholicism influenced his strong belief in social justice and aiding those who are less fortunate.

As a campus, we cannot afford to ignore the voices of our religious peers in political conversations. We must remember that Brown is not a sampling of the American populace. Americans consider religion a key part of our social fabric. Certain things that the Brown student body takes for granted are often rejected by other parts of the country, or by populations with different political persuasions. While I would guess that most Brown students oppose prayer in public schools, data from the 2012 General Social Survey revealed that 73 percent of Southerners disapprove of the Supreme Court’s ban on prayer in public schools. Though I am not suggesting that religious students at Brown categorically support school prayer, this statistic illustrates the great disparity between College Hill and other parts of the country. When we pursue careers in policy or public service after graduation, we will encounter diverse religious and political beliefs. It is thus crucial that we listen to them on our own campus.

I imagine our historically progressive campus has seldom been a welcoming place for overtly religious students. That said, I believe that this intolerance exists in part because there are limited opportunities for serious discussion about faith. While various religious groups have their own discussions, there does not exist a common space for Brown students to engage with their peers about spirituality, God and religion. This initiative would empower students of faith and allow others the chance to learn and listen. These exchanges would go far toward fostering interfaith understanding and creating a network of students who consider religion an important part of their lives.

The groundwork is laid for this quiet revolution. The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life is a tragically underused and widely misunderstood institution. The office is not only for religious students seeking conversations on faith, but also for students simply looking for another voice, opinion or outlet for questions and answers. Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, the University chaplain, inspires me every time I hear her speak. In addition, student-run religious groups are more welcoming than one might think. More students should attend a mass, hear a lecture or celebrate a holiday they’ve never experienced. Last year, I invited my Protestant religious studies professor to accompany me to Friday night services at Hillel. It was one of my most memorable experiences at Brown.

In the Book of Judges, the tribe of Gilead defeated a rebellious tribe of Ephraim near the Jordan River. As individuals scurried back to their respective lands, those of Gilead required each individual to say the word “shibboleth,” a password that would identify the Ephraimites amongst the victors. Early on in my time at Brown, I felt I had to use a proverbial password in order to ascertain whether or not the person I was talking to would be tolerant of my dedication to religion. While I am now beyond that stage, I hope that soon enough no Brown student will have to murmur “shibboleth” again.

 

 Zach Ingber ’15 would love to talk to you about religion. Or atheism. Or anything in between. He can be contacted at zachary_ingber@brown.edu.

15 Comments

  1. TheRationale says:

    Oh let’s hope there’s no flame war.

    It seems to me that religion is a don’t-ask-don’t-tell deal, at least in places like Brown. On one hand you value you free inquiry, but on the other you have to pretend like physics, biology, and logic don’t put religious claims out of the question. It seems to float on like this because so many people (still) believe, and it makes for awkward tension.

    If you were to say I thought religious people were dogmatic or incorrigible, I’d have to agree with you to a good degree. I haven’t had a conversation with a religious person where I wasn’t attempting to justify the merits of science or walking through literally ancient logical fallacies. Can they handle a conversation with someone who finds the core morality of their faith abhorrent?

    The main reason I see this topic not discussed is because rather than engage in an open discourse, people get offended by the hard questions, the relevant questions – they take it very personally. Of course that’s no good, so people avoid it. At least for me, I’m totally comfortable discussing religion, I just hold back because experience has taught me that the religious aren’t.

    • Send me a note. Lex.Rofes@gmail.com. I’m probably a religious person by most definitions of religion — but the term itself is a very Christian-centric one that isn’t fundamentally what most other things we call “religions” are. But problematizing words aside, I would call myself very religious, unapologetically, and I have absolutely no trouble at all accepting the “merits of science” fully. The science vs. religion dichotomy isn’t a real one. Maybe science vs. certain forms of fundamentalist Christianity. But painting all religion as inherently anti or un-scientific seems like a generalization that I would paint as…ummm….un-scientific (or maybe, if I’m gonna discard my probably unnecessary snark, just simplistic?). Would be thrilled to discuss religion whenever you’d like. I could provide you with plenty of other contacts who similarly would identify as religious (or at least engage with their religious identity in a very deep way), who would love to have a conversation about it with you, without you having to explain that no, the world is actually more than 6,000 years old.

      To any others who share TheRationale’s thoughts about religious people, feel free to send me an e-mail as well. As I mentioned, Lex.Rofes@gmail.com

    • Send me a note. Lex.Rofes@gmail.com. I’m probably a religious person
      by most definitions of religion — but the term itself is a very
      Christian-centric one that isn’t fundamentally what most other things we
      call “religions” are. But problematizing words aside, I would call
      myself very religious, unapologetically, and I have absolutely no
      trouble at all accepting the “merits of science” fully. The science vs.
      religion dichotomy isn’t a real one. Maybe science vs. certain forms of
      fundamentalist religion. But painting all religion as inherently
      anti or un-scientific seems like a generalization that I would paint
      as…ummm….un-scientific (or maybe, if I’m gonna discard my probably
      unnecessary snark, just simplistic?). Would be thrilled to discuss
      religion whenever you’d like. I could provide you with plenty of other
      contacts who similarly would identify as religious (or at least engage
      with their religious identity in a very deep way), who would love to
      have a conversation about it with you, without you having to explain
      that no, the world is actually more than 6,000 years old.

      To any others who share TheRationale’s thoughts about religious
      people, feel free to send me an e-mail as well. As I mentioned,
      Lex.Rofes@gmail.com

    • Christian&Physics Concentrator says:

      ” I haven’t had a conversation with a religious person where I wasn’t attempting to justify the merits of science or walking through literally ancient logical fallacies.”

      The thing is, you’ve probably had many conversations with religious people where you didn’t have to defend science or teach logic. You probably just thought about them as normal conversations with fellow Brown students.

      I know that the vast majority of my views on life are influenced by my religion. I’m a big fan of loving other people, treating them correctly, not being arrogant, using my time wisely, being intellectually curious and not allowing myself to naively believe lies. All of these character traits I take directly from my religion. Basically every conversation I have is somehow influenced by what I believe.

      BUT when I use the word religion (or Christianity or bible, etc) I notice that people shut down and disregard what I say, so frequently I avoid it. When we talk about our futures, or our perceived purpose in life, when we talk about politics or friendship, for me those are all conversations about religion, or more broadly about beliefs.

      For me, the idea of being accepted as a religious student on campus doesn’t mean that everyone needs to ask me questions about who exactly I think God is or how I believe the world came to exist. You don’t have to agree with me on these topics or any other. I just want you to listen to my thoughts and consider them like you would anyone else’s, to call me on my logical flaws in a non-abrasive or patronizing way, and to come into the conversation with the belief that what I say might have merit. If this describes your approach, then in my mind you’re not part of the problem!

      • TheRationale says:

        I suppose I should make a correction. I do know I talk to people with religious beliefs all the time, but when religion is brought into the conversation more or less like, “I’m Christian, therefore X,” that’s where it takes a nose dive.

        The word “Christian” takes on a lot of baggage. It’s one thing to be influenced by the Bible just as you are Aesop’s Fables, but it’s another thing entirely to actually believe them. Insofar as people actually believe in, say, the afterlife, or miracles, or God, I have a very difficult time having an adult conversation with them. Am I going to be able to take you seriously if you tell me you sincerely believe that Jesus rose from the dead? No.

        Basically it’s hard or impossible to say you’re religious and not set off the signal that you believe something absurd that is jarringly inconsistent with the rest of your otherwise reasonable self.

        Also problematic is that everyone has their own version of religion. What is it that you actually believe? What don’t you believe? What exactly are we even talking about?

  2. Just a Student says:

    I don’t think the majority of students here label religious people as “anti-intellectual.” I think the roots of this op-ed are unfounded. I feel you are judging Brown students by jumping to conclusions here. Students at Brown aren’t so quick to judge, but an overwhelmingly large portion of them are quite secular, so it simply means discussion around religious identity doesn’t come up often. I feel you might be conflating this rarity of discussion on religious identity with an explicit socially normative belief that religion is inferior to “rational” science and reason. As a religious studies major, and one who works closely with the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life on campus, I meet a lot of people from all ends of the spectrum on this and talk often on this topic. Religious students feel they are a minority on campus, but never have I heard that they feel they are treated as intellectually inferior because of their beliefs. I think you are expecting Brown students to do so, though…

    • It happens, dude. I assure you. I’ve experienced it firsthand, even from my closest friends. I’ve taken religious studies classes, and those are obviously welcoming and don’t treat religious students as intellectually inferior, but keep in mind that’s an academic context. Obviously religion is being engaged with academically there. But there are Brown students who just can not understand why someone might want to go to (or even enjoy!) services, and they have no qualms about saying it. Even when they aren’t asked for their opinion.

    • “If you were to say I thought religious people were dogmatic or incorrigible, I’d have to agree with you to a good degree. I haven’t had a conversation with a religious person where I wasn’t attempting to justify the merits of science or walking through literally ancient logical fallacies. Can they handle a conversation with someone who finds the core morality of their faith abhorrent?”

      Even if someone doesn’t say this to your face, generally you can tell when people feel this way about you. And more to the point, before people know I am religious, I hear this kind of comment all the time.

  3. Once again, Zach Ingber nails it. I often feel uncomfortable discussing my relationship with religion with Brown students, and that shouldn’t happen at a place that likes to pride itself on being “tolerant” and “open-minded.” I’m luckier than, say, Zach when it comes to politics because I agree with most of campus on almost all major political issues. When religion comes up, however, I’m made to feel uncomfortable and awkward because people don’t always understand what being religious means, and they aren’t always willing to learn.

  4. The OCRL has the Brown Religious Literacy Project that is open to all students every Spring to discuss the foundational beliefs of the 5 major world religions and gives them the chance to discuss their own feelings and sentiments towards religion. I did it 2 years ago and it’s pretty close to the type of group you are calling upon to be created, and it seems an oversight in your article not to know that it exists…

    • The religious literacy project is great, but often inaccessible and a huge commitment. It self-selects students who are interested in engaging with religion. It doesn’t reflect the majority of Brown students who refuse to engage.

  5. Nut Up.

    You’re not oppressed. You face no systemic anything. You are free to move and speak and act as you want without any institutional discrimination of any kind.

    So a few kids disrespect you. They don’t expect your ideas. They’re mean. Tough. We all get that, Ingber. There’s a big scary world out there and no one’s going to hold your hand. Once in a while people might even tell you to your face that you’re full of sh!t.

    Be a good person and fight your fight. You’re a white boy at an Ivy League school. And that’s fine, but you do’t get to complain in the BDH because someone wasn’t nice to you.

    • The author never said he was oppressed and in fact ends his column stating that he is over it and hopes others that wish to engage feel free enough to do so. I surely hope that you get over the personal attacks and the “white privileged” lefty talk and learn how to engage with others.

  6. Given the liberal perceptions that surround “Brown” (as a collective identity), one could perhaps frame this conversation in a different light: given the social imperative that many students have to support equal human rights among marginalized populations, the reticence to support Judeo-Christian centricism (and the other religious communities present on campus) may stem from the aggressive stance often taken against what many students deem as human rights. It can be difficult for individuals on campus to support “Christianity/Religion (for many these are conflated)” (as a concept) when so many of the religious conservative leaders are publicly voicing their support for anti-gay, anti-immigration, anti-(fill in the blank), legislation that many view as an breach in the separation of church and state. Perhaps the lack of religious enthusiasm perceived among the brown community stems from a recognition that religion has far overstepped its bounds. While there must be a space for religious observance, it should not come at the expense of individual liberty.

    • Points well taken – but most people who let Judeo-Christain values guide them are concerned with human rights and liberties. It is the religious zealots(as well as the far left extremists) that infringe on the liberties of others.

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