This week, Sharples lit a menorah and sidelined the condiments bar to make room for a Christmas tree. These religious symbols were praised as festive, and widely appreciated once people found the condiments bar again. However, such prominent displays of faith on campus are rare. Although mentions of Quaker values are as routine in school functions as the “God Bless America” at the end of the State of the Union, students have noted that more in-depth discussions of spiritual matters are generally avoided.
“It’s not something that you talk about,” said Suness Jones ’16, who is the Tri-Co president of the Newman Club, an organization for Catholic students. “You talk about your sexuality, maybe your political beliefs, but rarely is [spirituality] amongst those questions.”
Joyce Tompkins, the interfaith coordinator, observed the same. “The default is secular, so there’s an assumption that you’re not religious unless you come out as a religious person.” Borrowing language from the gay rights movement, she praised the openness newly possible in conversations about sex and gender, but said that “religion’s kind of still in the closet. It’s…the last bastion of that old way.
Some of the prevailing arguments for secularism rely on a perceived dichotomy between faith and science; the full acceptance of a belief without supporting facts seems counter to academic logic. Secularism allows students to discuss “spiritual” questions of the meaning of life without any attached religious baggage.
Usually Swarthmore’s Quaker values are considered within the secular framework. However, Professor Mark Wallace of the religion department suggested that college founders’ incorporation of their faith into the school’s structure leaves it an “undercurrent” in student life. He sees intent in the open layout of the campus. Because “nature is really the dominant feature,” Swarthmore physically reflects the Quaker focus on “interior life, finding your own spiritual life…[It] really tries to be a sort of secular monastery, where students can pursue their own path intellectually and spiritually,” Wallace said.
Religion classes are not meant to serve as a conduit to spiritual experience, so they attract students from everywhere on the spectrum between skeptical and devout. Wallace said that most of his students do not come from a strong faith orientation. Those who do are often challenged by the switch to a detached, academic approach. Students generally “keep the two parts, [personal beliefs and class learning], in watertight compartments,” Wallace said.
Jones, who struggled to navigate a religion class during her freshman fall, deplored the necessity of this distinction. “I think it’s completely intertwined…the more I learn here, the more I’m able to see God in everything,” she said.
For Salman Safir ’16, an intern at the Interfaith Center and the director of the Muslim Students Association, the distance between academic and traditional experiences of faith becomes problematic when it goes unrecognized. Classes may provide analysis of the impact of faith on culture and politics, but according to Safir, true “religious literacy” is best gained firsthand.
Most faith groups, including those managed by Safir and Jones, are open to students regardless of their background. Safir believes that aside from supporting their members, religious communities can provide an educational service to the campus as a whole. “It’s our responsibility to put a real non-academic spin on it: this is what it means to be Muslim in a post-9/11 world. You have the more academic side [from the classes] and also a more personal side,” Safir said.
Safir is a founding member of Swarthmore’s Muslim Students Association. When he arrived last year, its previous incarnation had been disbanded due to a lack of interest. All religious organizers interviewed spoke of the ongoing struggle to achieve critical mass. Tompkins cited a lack of the resources which might attract more religious students as one factor which has led to low participation on campus. Less commonly practiced religions, such as Islam and Buddhism, have functioned largely without the administrative support Tompkins would have liked to see. It was a major victory for her to secure the hiring of a part-time Muslim student advisor, who will begin work next term.
Leaders are hoping to strengthen the small groups associated with their specific traditions, and on a larger scale, they are engaging in interfaith dialogue.
Kelilah Miller, Swarthmore’s Jewish life coordinator, believes that these community building efforts are very relevant to the school as a whole. “I’m interested in helping students think deeply about what it means to be part of a community. What does it require of you? What can you expect of it? When it gets hard, what do you do? When there’s conflict, what do you do?” she asked.
According to Miller, religious communities can serve as models, but not everyone will view them as such. “People have radically different understandings of community, which are somewhat culturally determined,” she said.
Quaker values have lately been cited as the impetus for campus-wide community-building discussions. However, Miller feels that their focus on universalism is not always productive. Religious communities are bound by their particulars, while Quaker tradition prefers to remove boundaries and de-emphasize ritual. “Quaker values are a normalizing force,” Miller said. “To have [multiculturalism], we need to have multiple cultures.”
The existence of a secular norm makes students of faith uneasy when it allows others to dismiss a part of their identity. While the silence on religion outside of Bond Hall may give an impression of homogeneity, great diversity exists in spiritual views and religious expression at Swarthmore. Over time, perhaps it will become more openly celebrated.