In 1977, sociologists David Caplovitz and Fred Sherrow wrote that higher education was a “breeding ground for apostasy.” In 1983 another sociologist, James Hunter, claimed it was a “well-established fact” that education “secularizes.” In 2014, more than a quarter of American incoming college freshmen answered a UCLA survey stating they had no religious preference, up from just 15 percent in 1971. In 2013, a Trinity College survey of American college students described this group as showing a “remarkable degree of indifference to religion.” Closest to home, in 1951 William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 dedicated an entire book, “God and Man at Yale,” to the godlessness of the Yale education.
But some Yale students haven’t succumbed to the charms of secularization. In fact, during their college years, many Yalies deepen their faith, finding in religion both solace from the stresses of college life and a way to break free of the Yale bubble.
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I tell Alex Garland ’17 that I work at Saint Thomas More, so he asks me if I’m Catholic and looks surprised and a little disappointed when I tell him that I’m not. I’m disappointed too, I say — and I’m not being facetious. I’m envious of Garland’s openhearted faith and the earnestness with which he tells me that “being more devout probably makes life at Yale easier because it ensures there’s always a place I can turn to when I need help.”
Garland came to Catholicism while at Yale, and finds his faith to be a respite from the stress that Yale’s constant bustle tends to cause. “There’s always a place where I can go and get away and focus on other things, and when you make time for that it actually becomes very relieving,” he said of the Mass he attends at STM. Elena Gonzalez ’15, who also converted to Catholicism as a Yale student, agreed, saying her faith “brings a peace to her life that she never could have before imagined.”
“Yoga and meditation have their spiritual roots in Hinduism,” Ashesh Trivedi ’18, president of the Hindu Students Council, said, “so I’ve started practicing those with a genuineness and faithfulness that I never had. And that’s been a real tangible improvement in my life. I feel more at home, I’ve become a better person.”
“I started going to the Episcopal Church at Yale because they sent me a free hat in the mail,” said Micah Osler ’18, who grew up in a family with a “very mixed level of devotion.” But he continued attending weekly services as a “respite from the difficulties of my freshman year,” and this year became the co-chair of the congregational council.
Osler also sees religion as an escape from Yale’s “cult of ego.” He said students here often succumb to the idea “everything that matters in the world is either within the eight blocks of campus or can be accessed via Metro-North. And church really takes you out of that. It beautifully shows you just how small you really are, which is helpful when you’re assuming that your problems in life are the only things that matter.”
Mujtaba Wani ’17 agreed, saying he thought “most Yalies would be a lot better off if they took a break every day, not necessarily to pray, but to think about what they believe in.”
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Religion can also be a way for students to connect with the families and communities they left at home. Assistant University Chaplain Maytal Saltiel noted that “students have left their home communities and are making decisions on their own about what communities to join, how to think about God and our complicated world.”
Trivedi said he joined the Hindu Students Council in October of his freshman year because he was “trying to find home.” Though he said he did not find his intellectual community there, he described the HSC as a “source of comfort” and a “good place to root my faith.”
Osler said that after attending church at Yale, he “became on some level much more aware of the tenets of my faith and my fundamental belief in them than I ever had been when I was in high school, and going to church was what I did on Sunday mornings as a prerequisite for pizza afterwards.”
Luke Peilen ’18, co-gabbai, or service assistant, at the egalitarian minyan at the Slifka Center, said that his “religion is significantly more accessible at Yale than it is at home.” Because of restrictions on driving and electricity use, Peilen said he can’t practice his religion to his preferred degree while at home because he is “unable to make the necessary modifications.” He noted that his family “can’t shift their schedule to not drive on Shabbat,” but Yale’s pedestrian-friendly campus makes his practice feasible.
Wani also finds his faith easier to practice on campus. “Religion is more accessible on a college campus than it is in the suburbs. At home, I’d have to drive somewhere to go to mosque. But here, everything is 45 seconds away.” He added that though his parents are happy he has become a “better” Muslim, “there are times when they say, you know, come on, it’s a hassle to keep halal. It’s not that they don’t want me to, and I could see them doing it as well, but it’s a slight thorn in their side sometimes.”
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On another level, religious communities serve to bring together like-minded individuals, forging friendships for those who choose to enter them.
“You can be faithful and believe in God from your room,” Peilen said, but “the practice of the religion is what brings community. There’s something about communal prayer that is a very meaningful experience. Slifka on Saturdays is very clearly a very close-knit community. We’re all there for the same reason and even if we’re not very good friends outside — though many of us are — for the time that we’re there, there’s an incredible connection.”
Garland, on the other hand, found a Catholic community before he found his Catholic faith. “My contact with the Catholic Church started at Yale,” he said, “through contact with friends. There are a large number of very smart and engaging Catholics in the [Yale Political Union], and they helped me challenge and explore my faith.”
Gonzalez had a similar experience: “Through my involvement in the pro-life movement and the YPU, I found that many of my closest friends with whom I was spending the most time were Christians who often challenged me on my beliefs.”
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No student I spoke to described a hostile response to their faith from any Yale student, professor or staff member. Some even found that their academic growth, with all due respect to Buckley, prompted spiritual growth as well. “I’ve worried about pushback,” Osler said, “but it’s never once happened.” Garland noted that “the opposite of faith is not hostility,” saying instead that Yalies who do not practice a religion tend to be “largely apathetic” toward religiosity in general.
Wani commented that “if people perceive you as being religious, they give you a space of respect. Because part of secular liberalism at a place like this is ‘you do you.’ People say, ‘You can be something I think is wrong,’ but they’ll let you go about your business without telling you that you’re wrong.” However, he noted that “in a place like Yale, for a person to be a declared atheist is more socially acceptable and seems more intellectual than to be devout. I think that’s a part of the secular culture of academia.”
As for this tension between academic and religious beliefs, Peilen noted that “most of Judaism is in conflict with itself. So obviously I’ve run across ideas that differ from my own, and that’s the point. Judaism is a very conversational religion, a very interactive religion.” Osler says he’s encountered academic opinions that make him “uncomfortable,” but “that was true before my faith developed.”
Trivedi says the Directed Studies program prompted renewed interest in his faith and culture. “We were talking about all these countries with incredible intellectual histories, and then I realized — I’m from one of those countries!”
In contrast, Wani said that his faith had prompted tension between him and one of his professors. “I took a class where the professor would always tell me I needed to ‘put on my scholarly hat’ and ‘take off my religious practice hat.’ And I don’t agree with that. I don’t believe in leaving your religion at the door.”
Gonzalez agreed that the Yale community, though not openly hostile, can be dismissive of faith: “At Yale, most of my negative encounters involve people considering me somewhat of an interesting relic to be analyzed sociologically, rather than considering Catholicism and Christianity in general [as] a valid school of thought that can be honestly engaged with.” She found that being devout at Yale “really requires you to not be complacent and to be firm in your beliefs in the face of aggressive disagreement.”
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Ultimately, many students saw their spiritual development as a natural result of entering adulthood. “I think part of becoming a better and more mature person is growing in every aspect of your life, and one aspect of that is religion,” said Garland. Saltiel agreed, saying that “developmentally, college is the time when many people work through their commitments to religious and faith traditions.”
“In one of my classes, a professor was saying people become more religious as they age, and I found that really interesting. I buy that,” said Wani. “As you mature, [you] lose [your] more outlandish ideas. Tea gets cold,” he joked.
“My dad always told me that when I was older, I would understand,” said Trivedi. “Fair enough, father. You won this round.”