Does Mac pass over religion?

By Students of Prof. Aron Kahn’s News Reporting and Writing class in the Media and Cultural Studies De

Drink blood, smoke crack, worship Satan, go Mac. Though we don’t drink blood unless it’s in an EPA-certified water bottle, and we don’t smoke crack unless it’s produced by union workers, we do worship. And not just Satan. While comical at its root, the spirited–or spiritless–Macalester cheer seems to indicate that religion at Mac is taken lightly. Least religious, according to rankings At the start of the school year the Princeton Review ranked Macalester the eighth-least religious college in the country. “We used to be No. 1,” Macalester Chaplain Lucy Forster-Smith says with a chuckle and shrug of her shoulders. Notions of faithlessness on campus abound. David Melms ’13, founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on campus, heard from a student during his first year that Mac is two-thirds atheist or agnostic. Allison Gerber ’15, who is studying to be an Orthodox Jew, retains the feeling that religious students at Mac are a small minority. But on this day–Good Friday and the beginning of Passover–it is prudent to report that religion runs deeper in these 53 green acres than many realize. A 2004 study done by the Macalester Institutional Research Office–the last time the study was conducted–found that 60 percent of seniors identified as members of a religious group. A more recent survey of 51 students, conducted by our team of reporters last month, saw similar results: 70 percent of surveyed students identified themselves as religious to some degree. Russ Helder ’15 attends church regularly, doesn’t do homework on Sundays and plans to become a priest. Rebecca Boylin ’14, a member of the Mac Christian Fellowship, strives to serve her community in Jesus’ name. Sarah Fleming ’14, a leader of the Unitarian Universalists on campus, is a member of the Multi-Faith Council and Sitting at Mac, a Buddhist meditation group. The list goes on. Religious stigma stands strong Still, some believe there is a religious stigma at Macalester. Jim Laine, the chair of the Religious Studies Department, notes a “smug dismissal of religion,” which he sees as a part of the Mac culture. Forster-Smith says the Mac classroom can be a “chilly environment” for religious discussion. Philosophy professor Geoff Gorham, who includes religion discussions in most of his classes, agrees that Macalester students tend to be less religious than students at most colleges. “The good thing is they’re open-minded and accepting,” Gorham said. “The downside is they’re sometimes a little dismissive of religious questions, as if they are beyond that kind of thing.” Several students said the “smug dismissal” of religion sometimes extends to professors. However, students were guarded in discussing faculty on the record, given the sensitivity in the relationship between teacher and student. The dismissal is ironic in a way, given that Macalester was founded on Presbyterian principles. As recently as the 1960s, there were five Presbyterian clergymen teaching required classes on the Bible. Today, no such courses are required, and the Religious Studies Department has just one clergyman on staff, Rabbi Barry Cytron. Moreover, some religious students, such as Muslim Mariam Yehya ’15, take issue when religion is seen as splintered from intellectual thought. “It’s almost as if a person can’t be a real intellectual and a person of faith at the same time,” Yehya said. “Being intellectual and religious is perceived as mutually exclusive here.” Forster-Smith finds the alleged close-mindedness disappointing. “Being secular divides the world into a public and private space,” she said. Instead, she yearns for a “robust secularity.” In class discussions, evolutionary theory and creationist theory should be discussed and critiqued, she said. Inside the classroom and out, conceptions about religion often follow political lines. “Religious people tend to be more conservative,” said Judy Syrkin-Nikolau ’15, an agnostic. “Students sometimes aren’t very accepting of certain religions because of what they feel those religions represent,” said Mbemba Camara ’14, a Muslim. “Identifying as Christian brings up a certain mental picture, and often that picture is skewed,” Camara added. Dani Hudrlik ’12, a Christian, experienced this expectation first-hand. “I tell people I’m a liberal Catholic, and they say, ‘you’re a what?’ ” she said. For Unitarian Universalist Leewana Thomas ’14, having to justify holding religious views at Macalester seems odd. Thomas was raised in Moorhead, Minn., a heavily Lutheran and Catholic community. There she was godless, stigmatized by peers for being Unitarian, she said. At Mac she is part of a minority of students defending religion. Indeed, Christians at Mac seem to be in the position of defending their faith more than on other campuses, and perhaps more than other religious groups at Mac. “Christians probably feel more of the brunt of it than do Hindu or Muslim students because it’s more ‘mainstream’ and Mac is so un-mainstream,” Camara said. Melms agrees. “I honestly do think there is a difference between how religious students are treated and how Christian students are treated,” he said. Those other religious students include Jewish students, whose forebears painfully understood what “different” meant. Jewish students don’t seem to suffer much prejudice under the Macalester bubble. Many of the trends in American Reform Judaism line up with Macalester’s values of social activism and the quasi-religion of global citizenship, Cytron said. The Jewish community has remained politically progressive throughout the years, he said, fighting for their rights as well as others’. Cytron believes the increasingly visible Jewish community on campus may be spurred by social, political and cultural trends as opposed to an influx of faith. A “Jon Stewart effect” could be giving the Jewish community a cool image, laughs Cytron, referring to the host of the liberal news-comedy TV program, The Daily Show. Religion versus spirituality The experience of religious and non-religious students at Mac cannot be summed up unequivocally, given the deep and broad nature of the subject. To be sure, spirituality, as opposed to religion, is also on the minds of some Macalester students, though such individual convictions are much more difficult to quantify. The fact remains that many students are devoutly religious. And while Macalester presents a religious landscape rarely seen elsewhere, Christianity, like in the rest of America, can be said to constitute the largest faith here. Numbers, however, don’t necessarily translate to the mood, atmosphere and character of the school. “At Mac, I’ve never felt extremely uncomfortable or persecuted,” said Bolton Howes ’15, a Christian. “But I have felt like a minority. “As a white, Christian male, that definitely doesn’t happen much elsewhere.” refresh –>