When Sang Yun ’93 was a student here, he was one of only 10 or 15 active members of Yale Students for Christ. But when he returned as a Yale Students for Christ staff member in 1998, he already noticed a change. Now, the group has more than 80 active members.
“There’s a broader spectrum of people who are eager to explore faith and eager to explore religion,” he said.
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Founded as a religious training school in 1701, Yale College still required all students to attend daily chapel services until 1926. But by 1951, William F. Buckley’s ’50 polemic “God and Man at Yale” assailed the University’s apparent disregard for its religious heritage and hostility toward students’ religious beliefs.
But the pendulum has swung back, students and religious leaders interviewed said. Rabbi Shua Rosenstein of Chabad at Yale said that the atmosphere now is more open to religion than when he first came to campus as a rabbinical student in 2002.
“There’s a lot more comfort with religion at Yale than there once was,” Rosenstein explained. “The recent growth of religious organizations at Yale has really made it more accommodating for those who want to be religious.”
There are currently 18 registered undergraduate religious organizations. One recently established religious group is the Hindu Students Council, founded in 2002, which opened its first prayer space this past month along with hiring a Hindu fellow to oversee the group. University Chaplain Sharon Kugler goes so far as to say that the common perception of Yale as a completely secular institution is unfounded. She said she has observed that the student body is actually more religious than at some other universities, which she attributed partially to Yale’s long history of being closely tied to religion.
There are 28 member groups of Yale Religious Ministries, an umbrella group that brings together the chaplains of various religious groups, ranging from First & Summerfield United Methodist church to Indigo Blue, the center for Buddhist life at Yale.
The religious groups can provide strong support for students looking to get more involved with religion in college. Ashish Bakshi ’10, a Hindu student, came from a high school with very few Hindu students and did not go to a religious center regularly at home. When he came to Yale, he found a larger religious community and has become more religiously involved. He is now president of the Hindu Student Council.
“It gives me some sort of spiritual environment,” Bakshi said.
Eight students interviewed said remaining religious in college requires a conscious effort on their part.
Religious students also generally credited the Chaplain’s Office with providing the support they needed.
A Christian from a conservative evangelical background, Matt Shafer ’13 said there is plenty of room for open discussion of religion at Yale. He said his religious views have become increasingly liberal, to the point that he no longer feels comfortable going to his evangelical church back home. But he said he has found a vision of Christianity in Yale religious organizations that is more in line with his own since it pays more attention to social justice issues.
A peer liaison for the Chaplain’s Office next year, Shafer said the Chaplain’s Office encourages interfaith dialogue and celebrates religious differences.
Kugler said the Chaplain’s Office programming works to foster genuine understanding, not just tolerance, of religion.
“I try to make sure that spiritual wholeness, civility and authenticity have a big presence here,” she said, citing their support for religious rituals, religious organizations, educational and social programming and community service.
LOUD AND PROUD
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, associate rabbi at the Slifka Center, noted that even in her three years here, she has seen religion taking on a more prominent role in student life.
“Over the past three years, because our campus has been hit by crises, there has been a stronger use of religious leaders,” she observed. For instance, she said, chaplains often speak at memorial services for students, which has made religion a more visible presence at Yale. This is one thing that has helped make students feel that religion does have a place at Yale, Holtzblatt said.
An active member of many Christian organizations on campus, Jared Baragar ’11 said he has been impressed by the religious life at Yale, which allows him to feel comfortable openly maintaining his faith.
“It surprised me when I got on campus that there was such a vibrant Christian community,” he said. While he has heard of occasional situations in which religious students have faced disrespect, he said he has found that when his religion is discussed any challenges are usually respectful and provide him with the opportunity to constructively evaluate and refine his own beliefs.
Even those who are outside of the religious community can sometimes feel its force at Yale. Fabian Ortega ’13, who was raised Catholic but is now agnostic, pointed out that Yale has not been the extremely secular place he expected.
“I feel sort of in the minority, because a lot of people identify with a religion,” he expressed. “I feel sort of out of the loop.” He said he often feels surrounded by his friends talking about religion, going to services, fasting, or doing other things with which he does not identify.
At the same time, he said this has made college even more of a learning experience for him. By having an Orthodox Jewish roommate for example, he has learned about everything from Jewish holidays to why he needs to turn the lights off on Friday nights.
Vlad Chituc ’12, president of the Secular Student Alliance, said he doesn’t think there are many openly religious people at Yale, but rather a small, vocal minority.
“There are a few people who are really passionate about it. They feel like a minority so they feel the need to speak up about it,” he said. “Religion is a private thing so displaying it publicly is kind of weird to me.”
Chituc went through a lot of changes in thought about religion when growing up, from Eastern Orthodox Christianity to his current belief in secular humanism. He grew up with Eastern Orthodox parents from Romania, but did not often go to church since the nearest one was over an hour away.
“My mom said, ‘Oh, you can still be religious. Read the bible.’ I read it when I was 12 and it made no sense to me,” he recalled.
During his freshman year at Yale, Chituc met the two founders of Yale’s Secular Student Alliance, who he said taught him about secular humanism, which advocates human values over religious values.
The group, which is officially registered as a social service organization with Dwight Hall, also works closely with the Chaplain’s Office and is planning to host joint events with the leaders of Yale Students for Christ. Although Chituc said not all members of the group support this cooperation, he thinks it makes sense because of their similar views and goals like community outreach and student support.
LIVING OUT RELIGION
None of the 18 students interviewed said it was difficult to remain religious, since, despite occasional challenges, their friends were generally accepting of their faith.
Salah Ahmed ’11, who comes from a conservative Muslim background in Pakistan, said he has no trouble being Muslim at Yale and that being surrounded by nonreligious people only strengthens his own faith. Given his background, he said he expected to spend most of his time with Pakistani students at Yale. But he was surprised to find that he branched out, spending less time with Pakistanis and more time with his suitemates and friends in the Muslim Students Association. Now many of his friends are in the MSA because that is the main organization with which he is involved, he indicated.
“Friendships are based on similar interests and same student groups,” he explained. “Of my Muslim friends, the reason we’re friends is because we’re in the same student group.”
Many students believe that while religion or religious observance does not lead to self-segregation, religious organizations often provide people with a social sphere. In February 2008 student leaders of various religious groups on campus founded the Inter-Religious Leadership Council, which serves as a forum for religious discussion and communication among religious groups.
Michael Haycock ’12, the vice president of the Latter Day Saints Students Association, who proudly mentioned that all of his ancestors since the 1850s are Mormon, said he enjoys having friends from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, which occurs naturally at an institution like Yale. Now a sophomore, he took two years off after his freshman year to go on a mission to Argentina, as all Mormon young men and women are expected to serve on a mission.
“[A] dynamic that’s created by being in such a secular place is a unity among religious people,” he said. He mentioned he hopes to meet more people of different religions through his involvement in the IRLC. Despite different cultural norms, the challenges and benefits many religious students face are very similar, he added.
Shira Aliza Petrack ’12, an Orthodox Jew, said that the main challenge she faces here has to do with the small Orthodox community. She contrasted her situation with that of many of her friends from her Jewish high school, who go to schools with such large Jewish communities that their entire circle of friends can be Jewish. While she never faced any intolerance, she said it is still difficult to be in a small religious minority.
“I think it’s definitely difficult because no matter how accommodating people are, you always have to be explaining yourself, which is taxing,” she explained. Constantly being reminded that she is Orthodox makes her feel labeled and boxed in to an identity, which can inhibit her from fully expressing the other elements of who she is, Petrack said.
But Husna Bayram ’13, a Muslim who wears a headscarf, said it was easy to transition to Yale from her often intolerant, secular high school in Turkey.
“People in Turkey are not as welcoming to things like headscarves,” she noted. “I had to take it off because that’s the law. People openly expressed antipathy towards religion in general.”
She said though most Yale students are not religious, they are more accepting and tolerant of her beliefs. The only time she has witnessed any intolerance is during some of her classes, she added.
“In [political science] classes, I’ve heard a lot of factually untrue and insensitive comments about the Middle East and Islam,” she recalled. “For example, people will say that Sharia [Islamic law] does not support something, whereas the Sharia does. It would be a matter to read a book and find out.”
While in most cases students said they didn’t feel that religion restricted their social lives, Oliver said students whose religious beliefs place restrictions on alcohol and sex sometimes find themselves with limited social options.
Yishai Schwartz ’13 said he met his closest friends through Slifka, Directed Studies and the Independent Party. However, since he does not participate in the party scene, he feels less connected to some of his friends.
“It’s hard to know you don’t share part of their lives and they don’t share part of yours,” he said.
But Schwartz recalled an event that he felt illustrated the shift in attitude toward religion. In February, at his request, the Independent Party debated “Resolved, morality requires religious faith,” and the resolution passed. This, he said, probably would not have happened a few years ago.