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Mike Johnson '11: The two-thousand-year (approximately) debate

Barbs about religion seem to be flying on Brown's campus. I'd like to overburden the Herald reader even more by lending my thirty pieces of silver to the debate.
Religion at Brown is a much touchier subject than it should be. Brown's own history with the topic is embedded in its architecture, where we are presented with "In Deo Speramus," or "In God We Hope." 

This is similar, but strikingly different, from our nation's motto of "In Deo Confidimus," or "In God We Trust."  Brown, then, isn't placing trust in God, it's merely hoping that God will lend a hand now and then. Implicitly, our University is allowing us to choose our own destiny and take hold of our future.

That essential fact lies at the heart of everything Brown University stands for: choice.  We can choose to take whatever classes we like for the duration of our time here. We aren't restricted by core requirements or over-rigorous concentration requirements (except possibly Engineering concentrators. Sorry).  Similarly, we are allowed to choose to flaunt our religion, as some do, or keep it to ourselves, as most do.  However, I'm still stymied by the fact that the mere mention of God throws everyone into a tailspin over religion.
We've seen columns in this section by a Catholic, Kate Fritzsche '10 ("The secret life of Catholics at Brown," Sept. 17), speaking out about the oppression she feels at the hands of atheists at Brown, and by an atheist, Michael Fitzpatrick '12 ("The secret life of atheists at Brown," Sept. 24), who reinforced Fritzsche's point by mocking her complaint. 

I'd like to rebut both of those columns here.  First, to feel singled out because of the pretentious behavior of others is not new.  I think we can all agree that those who flaunt their rejection of religion are just as annoying as those who flaunt their religion. 
Second, to blast someone's understandable concern over their religious freedoms only contributes to a culture of intolerance and disrespect, however tongue-in-cheek such remarks may have been.

In the midst of all this, two men (perhaps smelling religion in the water) stopped me at the Gate and asked me for a minute of my time to talk about religion.  One thing they asked was what word I would use to describe Christians. They offered starting-point suggestions: "hypocritical," "extremist" and "conservative." 

It was odd to me that a negative connotation of Christianity could have pervaded so deeply into our consciousness that it becomes inconceivable to think of the religion as anything else. They continued to ask what I felt the role of religion was at Brown. Before this week, I wouldn't have known what to say. Now, I replied that it was unfortunately the source of division and intolerance.

There is a religion that preaches kindness to others. It teaches that we should provide for those less fortunate than ourselves.  Its pillars are love, peace and equality across race and gender. As a religion, it espouses belief in something greater than the individual, some guiding power that energizes the human spirit. This enables us to achieve great works of art and to discover the wonders of the universe through empirical observation. It prescribes spreading this belief to all people of the earth, so that all may enjoy its teachings and the warm fuzzy feeling it provides.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it's a general description of every religion, ever.  Whether one is black, white, purple or razzle-dazzle rose, from San Diego or Togo, every person is instilled with a sense of community with others and a belief that the human race can accomplish something to make our limited time on this planet worthwhile. 
God need not have anything to do with it; there is a difference between religion and faith. It's possible to believe in the power of the human spirit, in the triumph of good over evil and in the simple practice of charity without subscribing to a host of religious tenets or doctrines.

In this definition, God has nothing to do with spirituality or faith.  A belief or disbelief in God doesn't make someone "right" or "wrong," nor does either give anyone the privilege to rudely spout his or her ideology and mock those who disagree. 
It's not a question of who is made to feel more unwelcome on campus, nor is it a question of which group has the most student organizations to join. Spirituality and faith take place in the human mind. We each have just one of those, and we all have the right to feel secure inside of it.

Mike Johnson '11 wishes we could all just get along.


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