A little while back, in one of those rare moments of intimacy among a large group of friends, a tough question arose: “Do y’all believe in a God, a higher being, a larger power, whatever you want to call it?”
Preparing for the generic I-am-not-religious-but-I-am-spiritual answer that so many espouse, I was somewhat surprised at what I heard. Most people just said “no” — but many also added a qualification: “But I wish I did, I feel like I would be happier.”
Yale is not a faithless place. Walk into St. Thomas More, Black Church at Yale or Slifka on any given weekend and you will most certainly see a crowd, probably a close friend or two. But why is it that in our common rooms and conversations we are so reticent to address our faith?
At the most basic level, faith is a terribly un-academic topic of discussion to tackle at a place defined by its academics. Religious argumentation proves accessible if structured like a research paper (the Torah says x, and the New Testament says y, therefore we can conclude that z is the moral course of action). But when we start discussing faith — the less tangible aspect of religious observance — we’re left open to charges of assumption from dissatisfied listeners. Faced with the question, “But how do you know?” one can only answer, “I simply do.” And we can’t blame our friends for giving us the side-eye when we rely on personal intuition. To paraphrase Marina Keegan’s short story “Reading Aloud,” we are comfortable with the study of God, not the worship of Him.
In some sense, we are affected by campus politics and living in a climate that draws from the legacy of William F. Buckley, the man who shot to fame by penning God and Man at Yale. The success of the American conservative movement in co-opting religious enthusiasm for its political agenda (and the failure of left-leaning factions to do the same) comes into play. On a predominantly liberal campus, faith-based justifications for our political ideologies are less likely to enter the campus dialogue. When we think of faith-based political activism, our minds jump to movements seeking to restrict access to abortion services or uphold traditional family structures. We don’t have similar religious justifications for policies like the redistribution of wealth or the advancement of prisoners’ rights. The result is an unhealthy equilibrium: Faith is associated only with the Right and it is stricken from Yale conversations.
We must also acknowledge that atheism is a luxury good. At a place where nearly half of students come from families that earn over $200,000, consumption is high. I am not making the claim that students from high-income families cannot possess strong faith, but I am suggesting that the riches promised in the next life are much less alluring when the livin’ is easy in the current one.
While I’ve chosen three answers, one can arrive at many conclusions as to why we don’t talk about faith at Yale College. But the reasons we come up with are not as important as correcting for the error. We should talk about faith. We should talk about it not because existential arguments are necessary for the college experience, nor to try to “win” any sort of debate. We should talk about it because one’s take on faith reveals much more than one’s religion.
To believe or not to believe is a choice that individuals make based on life experiences. Faith both shapes and is shaped by our political views and, to an extent, molds our hopes for the future. So when we discuss faith we are not just talking about what moves someone to attend a religious service or abstain from eating a certain food or dress a certain way. We are presented with the opportunity to discuss some of the most formative events in another person’s life, how they have shaped their outlook on this world and potentially the next. We are given the chance to dig deep and ask not what someone’s views are but why they possess those views. More simply, we get to know one another — and ourselves.
So next time faith enters the conversation, don’t keep it out. Let it in. You might be surprised what you find out.
Kyle Tramonte is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns run on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.