Religious students find acceptance, skepticism at Macalester

By Michael Grove

Students returning to campus in August may have noticed a billboard placed in Kirk that read: “You know you’re a Macalester student when…” It was covered in post-it notes with various anecdotes and jokes. But one contributor had a somewhat profound statement: “When you know a lot of spiritual people, but not very many religious people.” Students may recall that Macalester was ranked first in the country in the Princeton Review’s listing of “colleges most likely to ignore God on a regular basis” in 2002. While Macalester has dropped to 14th in the nation this year, our presence among the top 20 “least religious” schools begs the question: how do religious students at Macalester feel about this rating, and how has it affected their lives?

Zachary Marley ’06, the head of the Macalester Catholics organization, expressed frustration at how many Macalester students lump together religious individuals, based on institutional affiliations.

“I feel that a distinction has to be made between the church and the faith.” Marley said. “The Roman Catholic Church is perceived in not the most positive of lights. Lots of jokes, stuff like that. But generally, my presence as a person of faith, and my faith in general is treated with a lot of respect. It seems that religion has a lot of negative history associated with those hierarchies that makes it an easy target for negativity.”

Marley also explained a sort of neutrality regarding religious organizations and their formation at Macalester.

“I think at Macalester, students have to build their own framework,” he said. “The framework isn’t explicitly supportive, but it isn’t explicitly discouraging either, even if it doesn’t support them as much as it could. I’m not sure how much of the administration’s responsibility it is to support [religious organizations] more than it has.”

Marley said he was frustrated by Princeton Review’s religion rating.

“I wish they didn’t have that category to begin with,” he said. “It’s like a self-perpetuating stereotype. If you call us a godless community, people of faith won’t see Macalester as attractive to those looking for an education and a strong faith community in a school, which is something I definitely think you can find here.”

Other students share Marley’s frustration over the Princeton Review rating. But this tension regarding religious beliefs isn’t universal among religious Macalester students.

Mashal Saif ’06 and Sherazad Hamit ’07, the co-chairs of Macalester’s Muslim Student Association, said Macalester actually offered them a more comfortable environment compared with other experiences in the United States.

“I feel that we are perceived at Macalester very differently than we might be by the general European or American public,” Saif said. “I don’t think anyone discriminates against us here. It’s part of our identity, and it doesn’t matter. It’s not as if that makes us different from anyone else.

Hamit said Macalester students seem more informed and more accepting. “That’s refreshing,” she said.

But with this increased acceptance and awareness, Saif and Hamit also spoke of the increased responsibility they have as representatives of their religion.

“Because we are leaders of an organization, we must be more careful about how we represent ourselves,” Hamit said. “We are representing a group, so our actions should reflect what the group stands for. Personal lives aside, in a setting where we assume that role, we should be acting to represent our faith.”

Other students, like atheist Sean Peterson ’07 have taken a more passive stance.

“I think that many Macalester students are fairly apathetic about faith,” Peterson said. “I think students can find faith-based groups if they want to. In the Twin Cities, its fairly easy to find lots of faith communities in the area, so the community around Macalester is conducive to a lot of faiths. Inside Macalester, it might be difficult, but that might be because we’re a fairly small college.”

But some members of the Macalester community have experienced marginalization by religious groups prior to their experience at Macalester, and are wary about certain denominations.

“All the time, I was hearing all this anti-gay, anti-abortion stuff, which didn’t make me particularly happy,” Corey Monteith ’07 said. “I feel like, if someone says, Hey, I'm Christian,' I say,Oh, okay,’ but I question it more.”

Skepticism of religion seems to be a common theme among members of the Macalester community. While most Macalester students do not have trouble with, as Monteith puts it, “intelligent people of faith who understand how religion functions in the present day,” a stigma does seem to exist against the very idea of organized worship.