DG Roundtable: How is Religious Life at Swarthmore? (Part II)

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This is Part II of the Daily Gazette Roundtable discussion on religion at Swarthmore. Read Part I here.

salmansafir (Salman Safir ’16) [9:33 PM] Heitor is there a way that you use your space in SCF to discuss grappling with the “Swarthmore norm” and other potential beliefs?

heitor (Heitor Santos ’17) [9:41 PM] Absolutely, Salman. And I think it’s the very fact that SCF allowed me to have these discussions that made me want to be more involved with the fellowship. We often have community discussions about the authority of the Bible and the implications of believing in it, and this often reminds me that my religious identity is very personal and it shouldn’t suffer the pressure of what people around me “think” I should be believing.

I think that the fact that we are affiliated with a larger organization also helps with that, because we know that despite certain pressures to abide to this “norm,” we still have a space where we can remember what brought us here in the first place.

jdemree1 (Jacob Demree ’19, Assistant News Editor) [9:44 PM] I think you raise an interesting point here, that has been glanced over before. You describe your religious identity as personal, which I agree with, but also explain that discussing and challenging those personal beliefs in a group is important, which I also agree with. Just as an open question, what do you think the relationship between the personal faith and shared religion is, and how do they complement each other? Or, how much should we challenge our beliefs, and is it okay if they change?

aaron (Aaron Wagener ’17) [9:55 PM] Yeah, talk about Oven of Akhnai 🙂

Jacob, one of the cool things about Swarthmore is that I feel like I have finally found a constructive way of approaching that question. There are a lot of traditions and communally held practices that I struggle with, and it’s tricky to navigate how to engage with them.

heitor [9:58 PM] I have found shared religion to be essential for me to attribute meaning to my personal faith. I never had Christian friends until coming to Swarthmore and my conversations here really helped me to attribute meaning to many personal faith. I think it is important to challenge our beliefs, but I think we shouldn’t assume it’s necessary and we shouldn’t determine what this challenge looks like. It is absolutely OK if they change, as many of my beliefs have changed, but if this change doesn’t happen in a harmonious way, I might also discover that I have been deceiving myself…

jdemree1 [10:00 PM] I think you make a good point, Heitor. But, not to use another Talmud example, but how much is there that we do not understand yet – how many crowns are hung on the traditions of our faith that we fail to comprehend? I think this makes having discussions on religion hard, but necessary. We all have so much to learn from those who share similar beliefs, and even more from those who share different ones, and I think Swarthmore provides the atmosphere to do just that. While we should not determine what a challenge looks like, we should seek them out.

aaron [10:03 PM] Interfaith=awesome.

Jacob, are there any particular things you’ve noticed from your year of engaging with all these other traditions?

jdemree1 [10:06 PM] I should ask  you  that question! You have taken more classes on religion that me. There is just so much to learn.

allisonhrabar (Allison Hrabar ’16, Co-Editor-in-Chief) [10:06 PM] I was very involved with the shared aspects of religion before Swarthmore – I did Sunday school and confirmation lessons as a Catholic, and when I was attending Presbyterian church I spent weeknights going to youth groups, small groups, and taught Sunday school to elementary kids for a year. I loved having a strong religious community, but I do feel like interacting on the interfaith level at Swarthmore (I’ve been to more Shabbat dinners than masses during my four years here) let me challenge and expand my beliefs.

I will say that I run into less-helpful challenges to my faith here too. There are academic approaches to faith, and then there are students who are baffled to find that smart, liberal students are religious.

avishwanath (Arjun Vishwanath ’16, Opinions Editor) [10:10 PM] I want to run off Allison’s last point – have any of you found that people have been less than welcoming of your faith specifically or have made assumptions about religious people? And if so, how do you respond to these situations?

aaron [10:11 PM] Well there was the time that someone told me religion and feminism are incompatible. That was fun.

Even though Swarthmore is a welcoming place, I don’t usually talk about the Jew things I do when I first meet someone here. Probably something to work through on my part… It does come down to a fear of assumptions.

allisonhrabar [10:15 PM] I don’t have many anecdotes like Aaron’s (which I am thankful for) but I have heard a lot of indirect digs at religion. I’ve heard non-religious classmates equate religion with everything from conservative social stances to straight up prejudice to “stupidity,” which makes me hesitant to talk about my faith or faith in general with them.

Maybe it is just a fear on my part, but I do worry that people will find me naive or self-hating for being a Catholic woman.

salmansafir [10:19 PM] I feel this from a more institutional level, something that seems like it is beginning to change slowly. The Interfaith Center and Office of Religious and Spiritual Life is highly understaffed and under-resourced. The College, in my time, has not given due importance to religious and spiritual life. I feel like this can affect the students that choose to attend the College. I think this follows from Allison’s astute point that people can be surprised that someone is religious. I feel there is a culture that exists in which spirituality and intellectualism are viewed as mutually exclusive. Something that is very, very untrue. Thankfully, the religious communities that exist are incredibly supportive and wonderful! The staff that are there from the interns to advisors are beyond amazing!

heitor [10:21 PM] Yeah, I also haven’t had many anecdotes, although I did hear people at Swarthmore express surprise with the fact that smart religious people exist. I think the Interfaith Center has done a great job with the few resources it has to make sure that religious students have their space in this school.

avishwanath [10:23 PM] Salman’s point feeds into the last one I wanted to raise before we finish for the night – how do you feel about the institutional resources the school provides? There was an issue last year or the year before with the lack of a Muslim advisor, and I have heard varying complaints about the lack of resources, but I’ve also heard that this is changing. What are your thoughts on this, and how can we improve as a school in terms of creating a space for students to practice religion?

heitor [10:24 PM] I have met with several prospective students who asked me about religious life at Swarthmore and whether they would “lose” their faith after coming to such a liberal place. I am glad that the IFC has helped to demystify this idea on campus by creating more space to have religious practices validated by our fellow students and by the administration.

allisonhrabar [10:28 PM] I’ve been frustrated with the lack of institutional support for religious groups on campus. They are all funded by SBC, and in tight budgeting years can really suffer. This means less money for weekly Shabbat dinners, or needing to cut Newman’s Spanish masses. Our religious advisors are (to my knowledge) not paid by the school, which can limit the resources religious students have.

jdemree1 [10:30 PM] When I came to TriCo before Orientation, I was amazed to discover that religion was considered a valid identity, and not simply a set of beliefs or views. That is, I was shocked, but excited, to discover that religion was seen as something that is truly real to people, even in an academic environment. Maybe this is the anthropological side of me speaking, but I think we need to keep showing students that their experiences are significant and do matter. Also, I just started reading Studs Terkel’s Working, so I may be biased, but I think normalizing religious discussion on campus is a great and crucial step forward.

aaron [10:31 PM] Jacob you are great.

Joyce Thompkins is also great. She is working really hard to make things better on this front for all religious students.

salmansafir [10:33 PM] Joyce is amazing!

aaron [10:33 PM] As I understand it it’s quite the battle. Everyone should send her flowers.

jdemree1 [10:34 PM] I agree!

aaron [10:35 PM] Friends, I gotta finish my simplicial homology. Okay if I depart soon?

salmansafir [10:36 PM] I also have to go! But thank you all so much for this! You are all so wonderful! 🙂

jdemree1 [10:36 PM] Same here! Thank you for a really great discussion! Very fascinating.

avishwanath [10:37 PM] Thanks so much everyone for participating! Good night!

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The Daily Gazette is Swarthmore’s daily newspaper. The Gazette is sent out every work-day to more than 2,500 people, and has thousands of readers from across the world.

The Daily Gazette was organized during Fall semester 1996 by Sam Schulhofer-Wohl ’98. The goal: to provide timely coverage of campus news and Garnet sports while maintaining complete independence from the administration and student government.

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