Courtesy of St. Thomas More
What is it about Yale that draws people to religion? A survey of the class of 2019, conducted in the fall of its first year, revealed that 44 percent of the class identified as atheists or agnostics. That number seems high, but that also means more than half the class identifies with religion in some form. As an observant Jew from birth, I’ve been surprised by how many people I’ve met at Yale who’ve become religious in college; the notoriously secular modern university is brimful with not only students of faith, but students who have found that faith in that same university. What draws students to religion at Yale?
Students who become religious at Yale do so for a variety of reasons and influenced by an array of factors. For some, it’s primarily an intellectual process, a way of arriving at ultimate truth. For others, religion’s appeal is a source of spiritual wisdom and purpose. Students are inspired to join religious communities by classes they take, people they meet and organizations they join. At Yale in particular, the intellectual, social and spiritual combine to make religion compelling.
When Chris Woodhead ’20 arrived at Yale, he began to visit churches. Woodhead’s mother, a devout Catholic, encouraged him to go to church every Sunday morning. Woodhead preferred “trying to figure out how to do Camp Yale and not die,” but nevertheless dabbled in the various churches and Christian groups at Yale and in New Haven, often joining his roommate at Protestant worship. Yet despite the richness of Christian life at Yale, he felt unfulfilled. Having spent time questioning his faith in high school, Woodhead found his old religious doubts returning.
One day after class in his first year, Woodhead wandered over to George Street, to visit the Masjid Al-Islam mosque. He had researched Islam in high school, had found it compelling and wanted to ask questions about the religion. When he walked into the mosque, Woodhead found it empty. He sat, waiting, until a man entered and asked what he was doing there. Woodhead told him that he had some questions about Islam, and that he was thinking about converting. “It wasn’t ‘I want to convert right now,’ but he took it to mean that,” says Woodhead of the interaction. The man he had met brought over another man to witness Woodhead say the testament of faith, and like that, Woodhead had converted to Islam. “I was probably going to do this anyways, so why not do it now, I guess,” Woodhead says of this moment.
Woodhead began to visit the mosque every day for several weeks, and a member of the community eventually introduced him to Omer Bajwa, Yale’s Muslim chaplain, at Friday prayers. Bajwa introduced him to the Yale Muslim Students Association, and after his first Halal dinner with the community, Woodhead quickly developed relationships with other Muslim students. The MSA is now his primary community at Yale.
For some, religious transition is less of a radical shift. Reed Morgan ’17 was skeptical of religion when he arrived at Yale. Raised Presbyterian with a fairly strong foundation in “generic Evangelical Protestantism,” Morgan moved away from formal religion in high school towards Deism. While Morgan had a strong baseline belief in the importance of God and even in the importance of Christianity, this took the form of a commitment to objective morality and absolute truth.
When Morgan arrived at Yale, he joined the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Right, where he met many people who took Catholicism seriously. Through a series of conversations, Morgan began to see the value of “tradition as an epistemic tool — the power of tradition and its value as a way of knowing.” He then began to intellectually explore Christianity further: After attending an Evangelical summer program focused on the study of apologetics and reading Christian authors like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton, he gradually became convinced that “the normative ethics that I understand to be true really only worked with a Christian God.” Morgan began to identify himself as an Evangelical and to take classes about Christianity. He sought out further discussion with Catholic friends in the POR and started “seeing some of the ways in which the Protestant churches have bought into a lot of the secularism, modernism, anti-traditionalism,” all things he was trying to escape in his return to Christianity. Morgan found that “in the doctrines and teachings of the Catholic Church, I was able to find all of these bedrock things that for me were the essence and core of religion.”
He also cites the beauty of Catholic liturgy as deeply influential: The first time he attended a Latin Mass he fell in love. Morgan was struck by “the reverence of a real sacramental liturgy — the ceremony, formality of it, the beauty of the Gregorian chant and song.” Following this experience, Morgan went to see Father Bob at Saint Thomas More, Yale’s Catholic center, about entering the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He has since converted.
Xuan ’18, who uses they/them pronouns, describes themself growing up as “profoundly atheist — very much a student of Science. You might know the type.” As they grew older, though, they mellowed out — religion “just no longer really seemed like a serious problem compared to the ills of sexism, racism, capitalism.” When Xuan entered Yale, they no longer strongly identified as an atheist, but they were not at all theistic or religious.
Growing up, Xuan participated in a variety of Buddhist and Chinese folk practices, in particular funerary practices. “These rituals and practices,” they said, “never occupied much of a place in my intellectual life.” While Xuan was actively opposed to Western ideas of religion, like theism and creationism, “everything I grew up with was more or less lumped into the category of ‘superstition.’ The irony of colonialism is that you don’t just end up embracing the dominant intellectual tradition of your colonizers (i.e., secular humanism), you end up taking on its enemies too — your own traditions are left by the wayside.”
Initially, Xuan wasn’t drawn to Yale’s Buddhist Sangha, in particular because all the student and professional leadership were white, and the only group activity was meditation, something most lay Buddhists in Asia do not do. However, Xuan began dating a Western convert to Buddhism, one of the leaders of the Sangha, which made them more comfortable, and was exposed to Buddhist thought through an academic course. In particular, they found Buddhist arguments against the Self compelling, “and with that came the realization that alleviating the suffering of sentient beings was no longer subjective or optional.”
Now, Xuan is on the Sangha board. “Even after joining the board, I was uncertain for a while about calling myself ‘Buddhist’ — and I’m still not fully committed to Buddhist practices like meditation. I’ve since gotten used to the label, but it’s strange to think of myself as having ‘converted’ in the traditional sense. I suppose what’s similar though, is that I’ve found a new way of facing up to the fact of life and proceeded to try and live it.”
Yale’s intellectual climate, in particular the Religious Studies Department, undoubtedly plays a role in drawing students towards religion. Xuan credits “what will perhaps be the most life-changing course I’ll ever take at Yale,” “Recent Work in Buddhist Philosophy” by professor Jay Garfield, as among the primary elements that led them to Buddhism. Xuan found the course “transformative,” and said that “much of what I learn[ed] resonated heavily with half-formed thoughts and intuitions that had long been in my head, reconfiguring my existing beliefs and shedding upon them new light.”
Eve Romm ’18, who grew up in a “relatively secular” Jewish home and entered Yale a Buddhist, attributes the beginning of her move towards Jewish observance to a class — a class, however, about Christianity. In her sophomore year, Romm took a class about Christian mysticism at the Divinity School, and said “it felt less foreign for me to say that I believed in God after taking that class.” As part of the class, Romm was asked to do spiritual exercises, and though she didn’t think of herself as “being a person who prayed,” she explains that after the class her Buddhist contemplative practices began to feel to her more like prayer, which she found important as she began to explore Judaism.
All of the converts to Catholicism I spoke to had taken Carlos Eire’s GRD ’79 “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition,” which Morgan described to me as “the class that everyone you talk to who’s become Catholic will have taken.” The Catholic converts who I spoke to were unique in their emphasis on the intellectual. Sherry Ann Morgenstern ’19, who was in my discussion section when I myself took “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition” in the fall, answered my question about her move towards religiosity by sending me a thorough numbered outline detailing her thought process, including the idea that “[t]he most reliable way to come to a conclusion is through investigation and deliberation (using the faculty of reason).” Among the final steps in her process was “I finally list my reasons for not converting and find them mostly irrational.”
Relationships, both friendships and romantic partnerships, are another factor that many people who became religious at Yale cite as significant. Romm explains that part of what empowered her to join the Jewish community at Yale is that it was peers who were leading it, rather than anonymous adults in a synagogue. She adds that in college “it’s easy to find people to talk to, who are your age and have had similar experiences.”
Olivia Paschal ’18, who was raised in a mix of Protestant traditions — “My mom’s family is all pastors in Protestant churches, and my dad’s family is all Southern Baptist, so there’s a lot of religion there” — but hoped to put faith aside when she came to Yale, found herself returning to church when she was homesick. She’s now involved in what she considers a process of “re-conversion” to Christianity and now is a member of a group message called “Churchgoers”— she and other undergraduate friends who are exploring Christianity go to a different church together each Sunday. Woodhead says that after his introduction to the MSA, “I kept going to the dinners, and I just spent a lot of time in the Musallah [the Muslim prayer room], like way too much time, so I’ve just been there, you get to meet everyone.” He in particular became close with other freshmen and will be living with other MSA students next year.
Romm ended a relationship with her Buddhist partner when she became observant because the person “couldn’t understand observant Judaism”; she’s now dating another observant Jew. Courtney Hodrick ’16, who was converting to Catholicism her senior year but dropped out of RCIA after discovering that she had maternal Jewish ancestry, “broke up with a Catholic I had been celibately dating for about half a year and wondered for the first time if I had started making an idol of chastity, marriage and the Catholic family — I had.” This breakup happened as she was beginning to explore Judaism.
The Yale Political Union — in particular the Party of the Right and the Federalist Party, two of the parties on the Union’s ideological right — is often thought of as influential social force in people’s conversions. As Morgan puts it, “the YPU gets a reputation for being a Catholic factory.” For this reason, Morgenstern, when she was weighing religion, was wary of joining the Federalist Party, which is known as a particularly Catholic party: “I was paranoid that ‘peer influence’ would bring about a conversion for the wrong reasons by, for example, causing me to convert out of a subconscious desire to fit in or be well-liked.” She eventually did join the party after deciding that “that this factor wasn’t a reasonable variable to try to control for, and after, I gained confidence in my ability to resist such effects through my involvement in other groups.”
Hodrick was a member of the Party of the Right and the Independent Party during her time at Yale. Echoing Morgenstern’s worry about peer influence, she says that the POR’s specific reputation as a “Catholic factory … creates a self-perpetuating culture. The existence of a well-established script, a narrative of what it looks like for atheists to convert, takes away some of the pressure of what would otherwise be a fairly isolating process. Being exposed to smart converts means that some of the intellectual and rhetorical legwork is done for you, and I think that’s part of the appeal of religion for people in the YPU more broadly.”
Morgan is unconvinced that the YPU, or the Party of the Right, is an ultimate factor in people’s conversions to Catholicism. He says that “I think in the minds of a lot of people who do convert and are affiliated with the YPU, the YPU is probably an important stimulus encouraging a certain kind of person to look at Church initially, but the YPU, at least for me, never did the heavy lifting of actually convincing me that I should go to the Catholic Church.” Morgan explains that in his experience, conservatives on the right of the YPU are really effective at getting people to take the Church and its offer seriously, but then individuals must evaluate that offer independently.
For many people who convert or become religious, the appeal of liturgy and observance plays a major role. Alex Garland ’17, who was raised Southern Baptist, says of his conversion to Catholicism that “I’ve come to appreciate the practice of religion (in particularly, the liturgy of a religion) far more than I previously did; I’ve come to look toward authority and tradition in interpretation far more than I previously did, whereas I would rely on individual readings informed by experience for Scripture; and I’ve come to view religion and religiosity as a much more holistic enterprise than just belief.” Morgan says that liturgy, one of the things he values most about Catholicism, represents “thinking about religion as a communal and ritual way of encoding truth about the world. I saw in the Tridentine liturgy a way of encapsulating everything that Christianity meant in a way that was much more rich and embodied and lived than anything I had found in many of the Protestant explorations that I was going through.” Paschal says of her return to church that “I kind of realized that I liked it, I liked the liturgy. I wasn’t sure — slash, still am not sure — where I stood on Christianity as a concept, but I enjoyed being in a Christian space for a service.”
For Romm, it was a change in location that helped her discover religious observance. She spent the last summer in Jerusalem, studying Biblical Hebrew through Yale’s Study Abroad program, which she identifies as the “proximate cause” of her adoption of Jewish observance. “I remember before I went, I had some misgivings, like wow, this is going to be sort of intense — slash change my life irreversibly.” Romm was right: During her time in Jerusalem, she engaged in Buddhist practices like daily meditation but also began to explore observant Judaism. Romm describes attending different synagogues “out of curiosity” and being struck by the feeling of Shabbat in Jerusalem “when pretty much everybody is doing it or knows that it’s going on.” At the time, Romm explains that she was engaging with Judaism “because I liked it, but not because of any sense of obligation — I definitely was very pick-and-choose-y about what I wanted to do.”
Returning from Jerusalem, Romm went to the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale for the first time. From there, she says, it was “a gradual process, of ‘I guess I am really doing this,’ and changing my mindset from doing good Jewish practices that I like to having more of a consistent relationship with what is commanded and what is not.” Romm now observes Shabbat traditionally and strives to pray regularly, among other things.
For some, religion fills a deep emotional need. Woodhead says that his conversion “gave me a solid feeling inside of me — I would feel like something was lacking … I feel at peace, like there will be answers to my questions.”
Hodrick entered Yale antagonistic to religion, but began to warm to it when she was exposed to philosophy and critical theory — she began to to feel that there were many things science couldn’t explain. She explains that “[w]hat finally tipped me from ‘anxious agnostic who yells at the sky when drunk’ to ‘religious,’ though, was absolutely the death of my friend Luchang [Wang ’17] in my junior year.” At the time, Hodrick lived a block away from Saint Thomas More and began attending 10 p.m. Sunday Mass. She had begun going during Lent and says that “the idea of the church as a ‘hospital for sinners’ was exactly what I needed in that moment; I was at the bottom of a very deep, very dark hole, and I didn’t even know where to start pulling myself out.”
Not everyone, though, falls neatly into faith. Hodrick’s conversion process was disrupted when, home for winter break, a chain of events led her to discover that she was in fact maternally Jewish. Upon returning to school, she began to spend more time at the Slifka Center, exploring Judaism, and eventually dropped out of RCIA. She stayed in RCIA for “for longer than I probably should have,” and attributes this to her sense that “my religious narrative until my last semester of Yale felt so clean and linear that I was terrified of complicating it, terrified that I would graduate still becoming myself, not yet having become.”
Becoming religious impacts endless facets of the Yale experience. For Morgenstern, conversion has been “the most important factor” of her Yale experience. “A fundamental task I have as a Catholic,” she says, “is to will the good of everyone I meet. That is a very special task, especially at Yale, where one meets an array of interesting people with different needs all the time.” Morgan has entirely shifted his intellectual trajectory — he entered Yale planning to study archaeology, but his academic interests now lie in the Medieval Church. Among the ways Xuan has benefitted from Buddhism is that it has “served as a kind of anchor or unifying force behind my many activities and interests at Yale” — they now see connections between their work with Yale Effective Altruists, their academic interest in non-Western philosophy and Classical Chinese and their commitment to trans-inclusive feminism. For Woodhead, the people he’s met in the Muslim community at Yale are his biggest resource for his questions about both Yale life and religion: “They’re always there to answer. They’ve given me sense of belonging and a place where I can just relax and feel better. If I didn’t have that, Yale would really suck.” “The most real, deepest communities” that Paschal has been a part of at Yale have been the religious ones.
Hodrick asserts that “there is no space better suited to becoming religious than a college campus. … They’re spaces and a time in your life when you can throw yourself with abandon into new communities and practices.” The liminal space that is college, and Yale’s intellectual and spiritual opportunities, make conversion at Yale for some an inevitability and for others something of a surprise. What newly religious Yalies have in common, though, is a sense that religion has irrevocably changed them and their college experience.