A man stopped me in the candy aisle of Walgreens last week and asked me if I knew when Easter was this year. I shook my head and apologized, and he joked in response that as kids we probably counted down the days until Easter. Afterwards I laughed, realizing he had presumed my Christianity; I then remembered I don’t know the date of Passover, either.
Before I actually stepped foot on campus as a freshman, I penned a piece for the News questioning the role of religion in my collegiate future. I wondered how my Jewish upbringing would translate into my involvement in Slifka or Chabad here at Yale. Several months later, I’ve visited Slifka plenty of times — for swing dance practice on the third floor. My religious involvement, on the other hand, has been minimal. I’m outspokenly atheistic, and my thoughts and actions have turned to Judaism only on a few occasions. Nostalgia once motivated me to light the Shabbat candles that some young Orthodox boys were handing out on Elm Street.
I’ve found myself drawn to a primarily secular, agnostic or atheist crowd, a phenomenon about which I’m a little ambivalent. Though the nonreligious inclinations of many of my Yale peers mirror my social circle at home, the relationship between the nonreligious crowd here and my faith-minded peers is loaded with greater tension and intellectual conflict than I witnessed in high school. Secular Yalies seem visibly uncomfortable with other students’ religious observance.
That’s not to say there is any conspicuous or dramatic conflict among these different groups. But on a broad scale the secular community actively ignores the religious lives of our fellow Yalies rather than seeking to understand them. The respect that the religious community gives to the atheist and agnostic population is returned more frequently with dismissal, and religious devotion is even written off as an intellectual shortcoming or character flaw. “When people ask me about religion, I adopt a tone of cynicism before I even say I’m Catholic because I anticipate their own cynicism,” a friend explained to me. “But then I feel guilty about it — I shouldn’t have to do that.”
One nonreligious student explained to me that we agnostics are not obligated to support other students’ beliefs if we firmly disagree, but I don’t think true disagreement is the issue at hand. This problem is not one of academic or intellectual merit, nor is it about the validity of our ideas about God and religion. The issue is our failure to respect and understand the ways in which our peers engage in their own spirituality. This isn’t always manifested in disrespect — it’s often simply about a failure to regard our friends’ faith as a topic worthy of meaningful conversation and exploration. In finding that my friends are mostly irreligious, I’m guilty of this failure.
I once saw my coworker wearing a ring that spelled “faith” and she later mentioned traveling to Guatemala on a church mission trip in high school. She is also a member of Yale Students for Christ. Recently, I asked her of her perception of the relationship between nonreligious and religious Yalies. “I don’t think there’s any animosity,” she said hesitantly, “but I’m surprised people never really ask me about religion.”
Trying to justify this lack of communication by labeling religion an uncomfortable subject is cowardice — the campus community is an incubator for meaningful discourse about personal experiences and beliefs; it serves as an ideal setting for sensitive conversations. I think we avoid these conversations because we’re afraid discussing religion necessarily verges on proselytizing. The nonreligious community seems to fear that those who believe in God are inherently evangelical and stubbornly intolerant of atheists; we’re afraid that faith is a topic beyond the reaches of rational or reasonable dialogue.
I’m ashamed to reflect on my relationship with my religious peers and recognize that I’m complicit in dismissing and marginalizing the concept of faith or spirituality as unintellectual. The nonreligious population is received with a great deal of respect by the spiritual communities on campus. We ought to treat them the same, reaching out and seeking to understand their religious practices — chances are we’ll learn a lot in the process.
Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .