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A moment of reflection: Religious identity at Brown

For students on College Hill, religious belief and practice manifest in a variety of ways


On Sunday, Father Henry Bodah, associate University chaplain for the Catholic community, is giving a sermon on a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.


Now I beg you, brothers, through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been reported to me concerning you, my brothers, ... that there are contentions among you.


Though he was not one of the 12 apostles, Paul converted and sought to spread salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ to the first-century world.

“The Church is one,” Bodah says later. “At the human level, of course we disagree with each other. Already at the first or second generation, there were divisions.”


What it is to be faithful

“Whatever arguments you’re having internally, … your religious identity is not really accessible by argument, and you might change your vantage of religion while you’re at university, but more likely you won’t change your identity while you’re here.” — Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain


Many students make the distinction between identifying as part of a religion culturally and following the religion’s doctrines. Vanessa Flores-Maldonado ’14 calls herself culturally Catholic but atheist in belief. Raised Catholic, she chose to maintain her religious identity so she could continue participating in Catholic celebrations with her family — even though she does not believe in God.

Once students arrive at Brown, they may choose to develop their religious lives in different ways. Over 60 percent of students participate in religious activities on campus, Cooper Nelson says. The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life offers six different types of services regularly throughout the academic year, according to its website.

“Strengthening your faith is much more than ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’” says Aniqa Azim ’14, a Brown Muslim Students Association executive board member.

“Of course it’s been a spiritual journey,” she says of her Muslim identity during her years at Brown. “But for me it’s also been the community here.”

Brandon Taub ’15 keeps kosher and serves on the programming board at Brown/RISD Hillel and the Alpha Epsilon Pi executive board. “At least within the Jewish community, because that’s what I can speak to, there are lots of different places to get what you need,” he says.

“The Catholic community here is much more active than just Mass every Sunday,” Michael Petro ’17 says, citing various events and trips that the Brown-RISD Catholic Community hosts.

Petro says he believes Pope Francis has guided the Catholic community back to foundational practices. “The big picture is good, but you have to be good at the little things, too,” he says.


Taking it all apart

“Universities are places where everything is challenged. It could be your political beliefs, it could be your economic beliefs, it could be your religious beliefs.” — Susan Harvey, chair of the department of religious studies


Looking back at their years at Brown, many students speak about the communities they belong to and how they have shaped their beliefs.

When Azim came to Brown, she says, “I had to ask myself if this is something I was doing because of my family, my community, my mosque.” She ended up joining the Brown Muslim Students Association. Now in her last semester, she says, “I guess my big takeaway from my time at Brown — it’s that curiosity and questioning are valuable things.”

Taub says, “I think my biggest community has been Hillel in my three years at Brown, and it’s been really great.”

Lauren Rouse ’15, who will have been in the Air Force for a decade this year, also describes a complicated balance of religion and personal life at Brown. “I’ve seen a lot more of the behind-the-scenes of the strong reactions that religions get from the queer community, and I understand it a lot more than I used to,” she says. “So I think that’s important for me, both as a lesbian and as a Christian. And just as a person, in general, just knowing where people come from.”

Rouse now leads a Queer Alliance subgroup called Queer Faith, which is a safe space for students of faith and queer identity to discuss community issues.

For better or worse, this culture of questioning pervades the University.

“Having your ideas challenged is a good and healthy thing,” Harvey says. “It can be enlivening, exciting, invigorating.”

Yet for some students, these debates can be trying. Azim acknowledges that “fielding questions in class, or in social situations — that’s a hard experience for an 18-year-old.”

Cooper-Nelson says she thinks anxiety about questioning religion comes mainly from the Christian community. “There’s this Protestant anxiety that I’m going to go to university and someone’s going to ask a question in class and I’ll ‘lose my faith,’” she says.

On the other hand, many Brown students identify as culturally  — not religiously — Jewish, she says, and there is less anxiety about losing Jewish culture through doubt.

Harvey explains the visibility of Christian anxiety by noting that Christianity is the most common religion among Brown students. It may also arise, she says, “because Christian identity of a certain kind is a very contentious part of our American public political discussions — we bring that expectation.”


Where the problem lies

“Everybody’s convinced that they’re a minority, and that they’re embattled.”  — Father Henry Bodah


Bodah, Harvey and Cooper Nelson all express some frustration with the confusion that can come from combining religion with academic life.

“I think there’s all different kinds of knowledge, like embodied knowledge that I get from different kind(s) of sports, … and there’s spiritual knowledge that we get from things like prayer,” Rouse says, pointing to the tension between religious understanding and scientific theories. “I often joke with my friends that I get more flak for being Christian here than I ever did for being gay in the military. People are just very confused by it. A lot of people in academia are confused by religious people who are also academics. In the military, no one’s confused by gay people.”

Many students said they do not feel antagonized by Brown’s environment.

“I don’t find that people here are put in a box based on their religion,” Flores-Maldonado says.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that,” Taub says of religion-based antagonism. “I think it’s because I’ve surrounded myself with people who are Jewish.”

In her native United Arab Emirates, Sana Siddiq ’16 says, “we don’t actually talk about religion all that much, … and I felt like it was actually pretty easy to do it here at Brown.” But she has heard from others who “find it quite difficult to talk about religion, … and they find that there are stigmas attached if they do.”

Others say they don’t feel antagonized so much as judged for or reduced to their beliefs.

“I don’t like getting in arguments with people, because I think that causes division, and the Catholic Church isn’t about division,” Petro says. “Our very name comes from the Greek word for universal. … People start arguing with me, and I start saying, ‘No no no, I agree with you. Like, that’s not where I differ.’ ... Definitely people think, ‘Oh, he’s a right-wing Republican and he’s an idiot.’ Well, no, actually, I’m not either of those things. So please don’t stereotype me.”

“People make assumptions about what I believe, and they don’t know,” he adds. Catholics “have a two-thousand year history of theological nuance that can’t be summed into a couple of assumptions.”

But this pigeonholing is not necessarily particular to the University. “It’s just everyone in the world,” says Farzanah Ausaluth ’14. “There’s a degree of ignorance with certain things, where they’re just unaware of a different culture, a different religion, a different experience to your own. … I have my own set of stereotypes for things that I’m not exposed to.”


Putting it back together

“We pick our friends, we pick our communities, we pick which types of questions and conversations we have.” — Aniqa Azim ’14


Across religions, Brown community members emphasize the diversity of students within each of their communities.

In the Muslim Students Association, Azim explains, “you have to recognize the diversity of experiences. … It’s a lot of different beliefs, and a lot of people on different parts of their religious journey.”

“Whoever comes to our events, they want to be there, whether they’re exploring, whether they’re questioning, whether they’re looking for friends with the same belief systems, … it makes for not only good conversation, but good friends,” she adds. “And I think that’s what unites us.”

Siddiq appreciates the diversity within the Muslim community at Brown. “There’s more freedom to consider yourself a proper practicing Muslim and ... still differ from the orthodox model quite a bit,” she says. “I feel like there’s more space to do that here.”

Taub also describes the diversity within the Jewish community, saying, “There are a lot of different groups specialized in different areas.”

Rouse recalls a dinner last year between the Queer Faith group and another Christian group on campus. “It was hard conversation, but it was good conversation,” she says. “There were no attacks or anything hostile. And that’s what we really want to do — we want to reach out in all directions and try to just get the conversation started without an agenda of proving someone right or wrong.”

Harvey says, “If we are what we claim to be, an open-minded and curious and intellectually rigorous culture, then religion is something that should be treated like anything else in that context. With respect, challenge, and liveliness.”

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