Where does religion fit for students at Vassar?

Sufana Noorwez/The Miscellany News.

Vassar is known for its small population of forward-thinking, curious, academically driven students. This population is, in many ways, a paragon of small liberal arts colleges. There are many qualities that make up a typical Vassar student. One of these assumed characteristics is a decisive lack of religiosity—you’ll be hard-pressed to find many staunchly religious students on our campus. The religious communities that do exist on campus are generally small and, if you aren’t looking for them, can be difficult to find. All of this contributes to the perception that religion doesn’t play a role in most Vassar students’ experiences. In reality, religion and the liberal arts are, in many ways, inextricably linked.

Vassar students preach tolerance, but of course, this tolerance has limits. Unfortunately, for many students, this limit exists where religion begins. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the discomfort that a religious presence can bring. Many of us chose Vassar with the intent of joining a community that didn’t center religion. As a queer woman who grew up in a primarily Mormon community, I know as well as anyone the pain that religious communities can inflict on outsiders. Escaping the prying eyes of my friends’ mothers and the incessant knocking of missionaries seemed like a dream when I first arrived on campus. I know that I was not alone in this feeling of freedom. Many of my peers expressed similar pleasure at joining a group of people who seemed perfectly content to ignore the looming presence that religion has in so many places across the country. There was a sudden lack of shame and pressure to live by someone else’s rules. We could all just be.

The problem is, whether we like it or not, religion has played a key role in the development of the communities that we come from. It is effectively impossible to find a place in the world that hasn’t been shaped by religion in some form or another. Vassar is a bubble. We are not always going to live in this utopian secular environment. In order for our liberal arts curriculum to truly be successful, all of us must, at one point or another, reckon with religious influences, and there is no better time or place to do that than right here and right now. Vassar students are privileged to be in an environment where the very best of religious communities are on display. For me, Vassar was the first place I had ever seen joyful interfaith collaboration. Just last weekend at the annual Service of Lessons and Carols, students from a range of religious organizations acted as readers for the service. And at the newly opened Pratt House, students from all kinds of faith backgrounds are invited to break bread, pray, meditate and build community together. This collaborative faith community is one that is hard to replicate in day-to-day life. It is by virtue of being on this campus that students are able to find such radical acceptance.

The interfaith collaboration on campus allows for religious students to explore their faith in a way they may never have been able to before. There is space to ask whatever questions you want, to stop or start attending services, to pray in new ways and to explore new communities you may not have even heard of. The liberal arts curriculum at Vassar means that students can take a religion course and learn about what they’ve been taught their whole lives from a new perspective. This is especially key. For many of us, this is the first time we are able to explore these questions in an academic setting. Faithful students are given new, safe ways to explore their faith and allow it to change and grow with them, in and outside of the classroom. But then, where does this leave students who are not religious?

There is no obligation to partake in any religious exploration in college, especially not at Vassar, and many students never will. That being said, these students will, in time, be forced to face the way they perceive and interact with religious people. Vassar provides a new perspective of religiosity for all students, faithful or not. I have yet to find or hear of a truly hateful expression of religion at Vassar. This is wonderful, but not really representative of the world we’re going to find ourselves in after graduation. Religion can be a breeding ground for intolerance, but the solution is not to respond with more intolerance. Religion is ingrained into daily life for many people; it is something we’re all going to face in the real world. A liberal arts education should prepare us for this reality. As Willis J. King says of religion and social issues in “The Place of Religion in the Liberal Arts College”: “All of these problems must be in the purview of any institution that proposes to prepare for the serious business of living. The Liberal Arts College, our best-equipped institution for this purpose, cannot escape its responsibility in this matter.”

At first glance, it may seem that religion has no real place at Vassar. It’s a community of generally open-minded and progressive students. These adjectives are not usually what first come to mind when thinking of religious communities. Vassar’s religious communities challenge these preconceived notions. Exposure to this new, accepting form of religiosity is a privilege that comes with being a student at Vassar. Vassar has whatever space for religion that any individual needs it to have. All of us are lucky to have the opportunity to challenge and explore our own relationship (or lack thereof) with religion, however that may look. This is a keystone of a liberal arts education that we should all be taking advantage of.

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