“Religious” is not among the qualities that most people will first think of when talking about Vassar. The college has been independent of ties to any specific religion since its inception.
Despite being such a secular campus, Vassar does its best to offer support to students who are religious. At the forefront of this effort is the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) which promotes an open and accepting environment for students of all faiths to exercise and grow in their spirituality.
There are about a dozen officially recognized groups under the RSL’s guidance—they range from the Vassar Intervarsity Fellowship to the Pagan Circle to the Islamic Society—but these groups do not necessarily contain all students of faith on campus. Nor do they represent the enormous diversity of faiths that can be found among students, despite the range of groups the RSL is currently helping sponsor.
There are many faiths and spiritualities that may only have one or two members here at Vassar. These students have no real religious community with which to practice their faith, and while this would seem to isolate them from others of their faith, can be a blessing for some.
Anthony Choquette ’17, who is a Religion major, said, “Religion is a very personal and individual thing for me. Therefore, not having a group of fellow students who share my particular faith doesn’t really bother me.”
Anthony is an agnostic theist, meaning he believes in a god but not in any particular religious ideology. Although only a freshman, he has noticed that religious students, despite being passionate about their faith, have a very small presence on campus.
“The people here who are religious are very open and comfortable with their faith. The problem is that religion is underrepresented among students, and that bothers me,” said Anthony.
He talked about how in one of his classes a particular student is very passionate about their faith—which he found very beautiful— yet he noted many of their classmates looking askance at the other student.
In situations such as this, the role of religion in the classroom—traditionally a secular environment—is called into question. Anthony remarked, “Vassar is extremely tolerant towards so many things, like race, gender and LGBTQ, but we are not so open to religion and religious expression.”
For many students, expressing their religious beliefs—particularly in, say, a science class—can be a cause for ridicule or disdain from their peers.
Professor Johnathan Kahn of the religion department noted this trend. “For students who aren’t Christian or Jewish bringing up religion in the classroom can be really tough, and even for those who are it can still be rough. Which is a real shame,” he said over the phone.
Aaron Hill ’16, who is a member of the Unitarian Universalist community, also feels pressure from other students about his spirituality. He said, “It’s difficult to find a space where we can feel free of ridicule for our beliefs.”
Balancing spirituality with all the rigors academia can be another challenge Hill shared. “I find time each week to carve out a niche where I can focus on my personal faith,” he added.
Kahn, meanwhile, went on to talk about misconceptions people may have about religion classes. “The study of religion is not necessarily the education of religion,” emphasizing that studying religion at Vassar is more than merely learning how different religions operate. Students are meant to learn how they interact with and as part of our daily lives.
Professor Kahn stated that he felt religion and spirituality—which are not necessarily the same thing—can and should be a part of student’s lives.
He said, “Learning is not only about studying a body of facts, it’s about finding one’s place in the world. And religion should be a viable way of working towards that.”
Together, he and Reverend Sam Speers, the Director of the RSL, have been traveling to different campuses across the nation and running workshops.
These, according to Kahn, focus primarily on redefining the role of the secular in the classroom. Traditionally, a secular classroom has meant one that is totally without religion. Professor Kahn and Reverend Speers believe that being secular does not necessarily have to totally preclude religion.
“What does this mean? ‘Religion,’” Said Professor Kahn, “Can be one of any number of potential discourses that should be able to find expression.”
As mentioned before, comments stemming from a religious motivation can often be ignored or not respected within in the classroom, as many feel that they violate the sacred secularity of academia.
But Kahn and Speers see religion as a viable way of looking at the world.
Both Kahn and Anthony noted a bit of a trend at Vassar where many students feel that being a secular campus and classroom means not merely that religion remains largely outside of the public sphere, but that it is an actively anti-religious environment.
Anthony remarked, “In religion classes, there is this innate cynicism or skepticism towards religion.” Both agreed that there is a dichotomy and a tension between the religious and the secular here at Vassar, and added they hoped it could be resolved through discourse.