In 1951, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that religion at Yale was under assault. In 2013, it feels as though that assault is long over, but we all lost the war in our own ways.
This topic is a veritable minefield, so I’ll preface this column by saying that I recognize it is dangerous to generalize. My observations are based on my own experiences and those people with whom I’ve discussed these thoughts, so the usual caveats about “highly scientific” straw polls apply. The plural of anecdote is not data, but I think these suggestions can be valuable, even if they are not universally applicable.
Social spaces like common rooms, dining halls and local establishments play host to a diverse array of verbal battles over politics, and students are challenged to defend their beliefs. Hookups, relationships, sex and love get their fair share of play via workshops and conversations both gossipy and sincere. On the other hand, personal relationships with God and religious institutions, or questions about existence and the fundamentals of the moral life, are more seldom discussed — or at least not in the mixed company of believers or nonbelievers. Perhaps an exception should be noted for courses on philosophy and religion, but I hardly think those classes count as natural environments where people express and engage with their deeply personal beliefs.
Some in the undergraduate body say they are happy to relegate their struggle with sublime beings and the meaning of it all to the few minutes of a Shabbat “sermon” on Fridays at Slifka or an hour of Catholic Mass at St. Thomas More’s. Others engage in more frequent bouts of serious philosophical discussion and self-reckoning, but only amidst communities of like-minded peers. The end result is that there is precious little public discussion going on about God and what it all means or why we are here (aka Life, the Universe and Everything).
In a way, that’s understandable. For one thing, we live in a hyperscheduled bubble, where social and even romantic interactions are often governed by the almighty Google Calendar. It’s hard enough to stop and just be happy or cherish life, let alone give deeper thought to the deepest questions. These ponderous concerns seem to have no practical impact or bearing on our immediate, day-to-day lives, and so they are condemned to the back burner.
But the other reason behind our lack of spiritual reckoning is that talking about these things takes us to a vulnerable place that we often aren’t willing to turn to — a place only revealed in the wake of the blackest tragedies, after the 9/11s and the Sandy Hooks. On the terrible days when discussions of public policy and cultural values fall dismally short, we publically share our more primal and raw feelings. It is then that we rage together against an unrelenting God and an unsympathetic universe, or find our only solace in the thought of a paradisiacal afterlife.
But when the memory of these events fades, so do our exposed emotions and feelings, and we return to the state of affairs where we are thoroughly uncomfortable asking and answering the big questions.
In a country where 80 percent of people still identify as religious, one of the breeding grounds for its future leaders has not learned how to speak the language of God. But the theological and spiritual have informed important contemporary conceptions of human dignity, the relationship between forgiveness and justice and an ingrained appreciation for entities greater than ourselves. Even those Yalies who are atheists have something valuable to add to the discourse about life’s biggest mysteries, for they are also products of a culture influenced by religion and faith, and have a unique perspective as rebels against it.
Engaging with these issues constitutes an important part of our common cultural character. Religion has important implications for our development as Yalies and as humans. From whatever background we approach it, we would do well to inject something of the divine into everyday life.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .