Feldman ’15: Moderate religion a rarity in college

Opinions Columnist

Academia and religion have long struggled to coexist because they seem based on mutually exclusive ideals. Academics generally rely on facts and reason, while religion relies on faith. This conflict can be epitomized in theories characterizing creation, such as the theory of evolution and the Big Bang, which have long contradicted fundamental Judeo-Christian beliefs. While it may seem these two sides have found a way to coexist, they are still very much at odds with each other on college campuses.

Students often struggle to find a balance between their religious and secular identities. A large part of this vulnerability derives from being separated from parental guidance. Growing up, kids are usually obligated to maintain their parents’ faith or are at least influenced by their family’s customs and practices. At college, students are forced to make their own decisions without their support group of family, friends and clergy that helped maintain their religious identity thus far. Some students choose to leave their religious practice at home, while others choose to envelop themselves in faith. The problem is that academia makes the area between the two difficult to maintain.

One of the main causes for the difficulty of maintaining one’s religious practices is how overwhelming college can be. The famous adage states that when it comes to sleeping, socializing and schoolwork, students can only adequately maintain two of them. Where does that leave religion? Many people put religion into the social category because of its community aspects. While community is a large part of it, religion is more than just a social activity. Religion encompasses studying how to be a better person while also valuing rest and happiness. Religion transcends these three classifications because it can be a major facet of an individual’s identity.

When some students enter college, they treat religion as a significant part of their identity by becoming heavily involved in religious organizations. While useful to allow people to practice their religion the way they see fit, these spaces can also provide great ways to make friends and get involved in the community. One prime example with which I am relatively familiar is the Brown/RISD Hillel. Hillel offers free holiday meals, including weekly Sabbath meals after which students are invited to Oneg Shabbatot in an intimate social setting. While I have attended numerous Shabbat meals and Onegs and found the community extremely welcoming, I also felt it difficult for students like me — who want religion to be a part of their life but not all-encompassing — to become fully integrated in an environment of relatively devout students.

At the other end of the spectrum, many students treat religion as just another extracurricular activity. This diminishes the time spent observing religious practices. When a student considers something to be an extracurricular, it usually means school comes first. For example, this Yom Kippur, many students with upcoming exams modified the holiday to fit the academic calendar — some students still fasted, but did so while spending the day studying in a library and never partook in any sort of religious ceremony.

I am not trying to suggest there is a right or wrong way to practice a religion. My beliefs are my own, and I invite others to practice religion as they wish. But the problem here is that academics take that choice away from students. By not fully accommodating students’ religious observances, the academic calendar often pressures students into choosing between religion and academics, which damages one of the facets of their lives.

There are several ways Brown can go about being more sensitive to this issue. The easiest first step is to implement lecture capture in every large class. If students have to miss a class for religious purposes, or really any purpose, having a video of the lecture will minimize the amount of material they miss. I don’t think lecture capture would completely replace the in-class experience, but it’s much better than having to track down a classmate to copy notes without knowing if the notes are sufficient.

Another method would be to create an online survey on either Canvas or Banner that asks students at the start of each semester to list any holidays they observe that could conflict with the course during the semester. This would make it easier for professors to be aware of students’ religious observances, which could potentially help professors plan when important projects or exams occur. If nothing else, this would provide a written record to inform professors to not require students to have any work due on the day of the observance or the following few days.

The easiest fix is not to have class on the same day as a religious holiday. This practice used to be much more prevalent but has decreased in recent years because of the inability to accommodate every religion. I believe the Brown student body is capable of engaging in dialogue that could reach a compromise to declare a few days each semester religious holidays for the entire school.

The benefit for the students observing the holiday would be immediate. Even when holidays such as Easter and Eid al-Adha occurred during a weekend this year, students living outside of New England were limited in their ability to return home because it would entail missing class.

This could benefit students of different faiths. Sponsoring university-wide dialogue on religious holidays could educate and diversify students in ways that limiting ourselves to a purely secular schedule never could.

Students should not be required to pay to go to a parochial school just for the opportunity to balance their religious beliefs with academics. Students should neither be charged for wanting to observe their religion nor be compelled to accept an uncompromising religious education. Rather than inhibiting religious practice with inflexible standards, the University should attempt to catalyze the growth of all types of thought, idea and passion — including those of religion. It is important for students to prioritize academics, but it shouldn’t have to come at the price of assimilating one’s practices into polarized university standards.


Academics have already impeded Andrew Feldman’s ’15 ability to religiously watch football every Sunday, and he can be reached by email at or by tweet @Amfeldz on ways to preserve genuine religious practices at the University.

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  1. Rebeca Feldman says:


  2. Brown --> Sinai says:

    Pretty hard to argue against lecture capture. We have it at Sinai, and even though med school coursework is more time consuming than Brown, student still have time for religion if they want.

  3. TheRationale says:

    I think (moderate) religious belief is a rarity on campus because it’s just not compatible with an educated mind. There are all sorts of philosophical matters and ways of life in religion for sure, but when it comes down to the question “Is what I’m believing true?” the answer is no. The concept of supernatural entities, God(s), prayers being answered, miracles, and an afterlife are accepted on *faith* because there aren’t any good real reasons for believing them in the first place.

    So at Brown you probably have two main groups of people. One is people who are (already) fully committed to their religion and have either expertly convinced themselves that they have good reasons for believing or may simply just be unaware of the problems to begin with. The other is people who either are atheists because they’ve figured out that religious claims are ridiculous or who are only nominally religious, who basically do religious things when duty calls (grandma says grace before dinner, etc.) but otherwise commit neither thought nor time to the matter.

    I think the community and atmosphere force people away from the middle. You’re either sold beyond much reasonable debate, or you’ve figured it out, so to speak.

  4. IdleThoughts says:

    Some of us are moderately religious because we appreciate the traditions and culture even if we don’t believe. And the remainder of the values from religion can often be worthwhile, whether that be kindness to others, self-discipline or whatever else.

    But then, it’s not as if I’m going to be debating this with anyone anyways. I won’t be in any inter-faith groups or dialogues.

    Besides, no one will ever give my religion’s holidays a day off.

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