Spirituality on America’s Liberal Campuses
A call for dialogue
by Micah White
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, is a small
prestigious liberal arts school sometimes called “The Kremlin on the Crum”
in reference to its liberal politics and location near the Crum River. I was
drawn to Swarthmore because I hoped that there I might find relief from the
conservative Christian mind-set I had experienced while attending public high
school in Michigan.
When freethinkers consider religion in college, they
typically imagine campuses dominated by vocal, conservative student groups like
Campus Crusade for Christ or the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Many
freethinkers believe that our colleges are under attack by conservative
Christianity, irrationality, and false spiritual beliefs. While this may be true
at many institutions—even Ivy League institutions are being barraged by
conservative Christian activism—going to Swarthmore has taught me that there
is still a type of institution where conservative Christianity is not a vocal
presence on the campus.
Even the most active Christian group on campus, the
Swarthmore Christian Fellowship, seems to spend most of its energy on distancing
itself from the Religious Right. It advertises itself to students as an
alternative to the Religious Right.
Religion on a Liberal Campus
Although large, vocal religious groups are not in evidence,
there are obviously religious students at Swarthmore. Or are there? Accurate
data concerning Swarthmore students’ religious beliefs are hard to come by. In
November, Swarthmore’s student newspaper, the Phoenix, published a story about
religion on campus. Reporters found that in an average week, “approximately 30
students attend Mass, about 30 go to Shabbat services for Ruach, 40 attend SCF
[Swarthmore Christian Fellowship]’s Friday meeting, and 20 attend SPC
[Swarthmore Protestant Community]-led Protestant services.”1
Keeping in mind that Swarthmore has approximately 1,400 students, and that the
same students may attend more than one type of religious meeting, these numbers
It seems that students at liberal institutions are largely
apathetic towards religion, or hold theologically liberal religious views that
they feel do not conflict with rationality. Typical of religious students at
Swarthmore may be Mike Camilleri ’03, who said in his Phoenix interview:
“People just have this stereotype of religious people. I’m not an NRA
member, I don’t hate gay people, and there are a lot of other things that
aren’t me.” This is a remarkable statement, especially because at many other
American colleges and universities, the most vocal Christian students are likely
to be those who dislike gay people, support the NRA, and are a lot of other
things that “aren’t him.”
This suggests an obvious question. If there is a national
rise in religion at most colleges, why is Swarthmore—by extension, the liberal
academy generally—seemingly immune?
I can only answer this question based on my freshman-year
experiences. Still, I think two factors are largely responsible. One, Swarthmore
College has built its reputation as both a small school and as one of the
toughest in the nation.2 Second, Swarthmore
prides itself on its Quaker roots and liberal political environment. The campus
is full of politically active students; the thriving student groups are those
that address liberal political agendas that students feel strongly about. While
it is impossible to generalize to every Swarthmore student, it is safe to say
that Swarthmore does not attract a great many people who would be interested in
joining Campus Crusade for Christ. I assume the same is true of other liberal
At schools that are liberal and politically active, the
most vocal student groups would be strongly opposed to the politics of a
conservative Christian group. This was made clear in an intriguing episode that
took place at Swarthmore near the end of the 2001 academic year. Because of
Swarthmore’s egalitarian Quaker heritage, there is only one dining hall on
campus. There is also a tradition of placing messages, pictures, poems, or art
on the cafeteria trays. Members of the vocal and sometimes militant
gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender club, the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU), had
marked some trays with the words “Be Bisexual!” Later, they found some of
their trays defaced with Christian attacks on homosexuality—phrases such as
“This is so wrong, find Jesus.” SQU activists posted signs all over campus
that depicted a defaced tray and said:
Last week, SQU members found that three of our trays . . .
had been defaced with homophobic statements. SQU does not tolerate hate, and we
hope that publicizing these trays will inspire useful dialogue on campus.
SWAT [Swarthmore] is not free from hate.
While these signs did spark a small campus dialogue, what
is both remarkable (and a further testament to the mind-set of Swarthmore
students) is that the dialogue did not center on religion. Instead, critics
suggested that SQU should tolerate different opinions about homosexuality. The
defacement was not characterized as Christian, merely hateful. Far from
defending a Christian morality that deemed homosexuality a sin, SQU’s
opponents instead championed the rights of individuals to voice anti-homosexual
opinions. Essentially, religion was silent in this dialogue.
The Challenge of the Liberal Academy
A liberal institution may seem the ideal location for a
freethinker’s higher education simply because of the absence of conservative
Christianity. However, the liberal academy poses unique challenges and problems.
Swarthmore is secular in every sense of the word, but it is also a school that
allows students to continue holding unsound religious beliefs uncritically—in
part, precisely because there is so little critical dialogue on religion. The
religion of students here is no more refined than anywhere else: more liberal,
perhaps, but no more logical. The absence of religious debate has created an
environment where religious students simply are not challenged, and thus never
offered the opportunity to put their religious ideas to the test of dialogue.
One of my earliest memories of Swarthmore puts this point in focus.
Having just come from high school in Michigan, I was
excited to debate religion with individuals whom I assumed would be much more
intellectual than my high school peers. I had been discussing various topics
with a friend from my hall, and decided to accompany her to a Swarthmore
Christian Fellowship introductory meeting. While there, I struck up a
conversation with several students after having announced that I was an atheist.
Their arguments in favor of belief were disappointing. It was immediately clear
that these students had never been exposed to good atheist arguments. One
student even presented me with a version of Pascal’s Wager, less as an
argument than as something he’d once heard, and asked how I’d respond to it.
I provided him with arguments from the atheist perspective, then even supplied
the counter-arguments a Christian debater might offer in rebuttal. Later, I
wound up discussing Pascal’s Wager in detail with this student, as it turned
out to be his primary way of intellectualizing why he was a Christian.
The point of this story is not to say that religious
students at liberal colleges are poor thinkers, but instead to focus on the fact
that freethinkers offer a long list of critiques to religion that students are
unlikely to be exposed to unless they engage in critical dialogue about
religion. Where there is no critical dialogue, there is a perpetuation of weak
Christian arguments—and weak atheist ones, too.
I see two primary reasons liberal campuses lack critical
dialogue on religion. The first is simply that students don’t place much
importance in such debates. Since there are few, if any, conservative Christians
on campus condemning homosexuality or trying to build memorials to the Ten
Commandments, students who focus on tangible political problems like the
environment or animal rights just don’t pay attention to religion. It’s a
moot issue to them. The second reason, and probably the most important, is the
discourse of tolerance that is such an important aspect of liberal campus life.
Think back to those cafeteria trays: it was largely Swarthmore’s culture of
tolerance that kept that issue from becoming a religious debate. Students regard
religion as a personal choice and therefore not something open to criticism.
And yet there is a climate of intellectual vigor on liberal
campuses that I can’t help thinking makes them ripe for critical dialogues. I
have yet to meet a student at Swarthmore who was unwilling to discuss his or her
religion. It may be simply the fault of freethinkers that students holding the
kinds of religious belief prevalent at Swarthmore seldom find themselves engaged
in intelligent dialogue.
There is another type of student who I have been neglecting
thus far: the nonbeliever who was never exposed to the rich philosophy of
secular humanism or atheist debating. This is the type of student I am most
interested in talking to as a campus activist. I think the ideal way for
freethinkers to organize at a school like Swarthmore is to begin by appealing
almost exclusively to nonreligious students, and to begin informing them of
America’s freethought heritage and organizations. To do this I hosted a radio
show that had a guest, such as Dr. Paul Kurtz, each week who would share his or
her thoughts on religion. I must admit the response to the show wasn’t as high
as I would have liked; this seems to be the consequence of trying to speak
critically about religion in a setting where most people simply dismiss it.
Why Dialogue Matters
My experience at Swarthmore provides a platform from which
to explore issues of religion and inventory my own hopes for the future. At
Swarthmore-as-it-is, the religions of the world are silent outside of their own
meetings. Nonbelief is assumed; it is surprising to find someone exhibiting
explicitly religious behavior. In part as a consequence, neither believers nor
nonbelievers have formulated clear defenses of their positions. Hypothetical
Swarthmore, Swarthmore as it could be with an influx of religious debate, would
be a different place. If religion became a more important part of students’
identities, people would engage the subject more seriously. More vocal Christian
groups might arise, be they liberal or conservative; religion would no longer be
silent. Individuals’ religious beliefs would be put to the test, as would the
beliefs of many weak atheists.
Would this hypothetical Swarthmore be a better place? I
believe that it would. Conservative Christianity is going to be in America for
years to come, and it will fall to the students of today to protect church-state
separation tomorrow. Liberal schools like Swarthmore may be ill-preparing
students for these future battles, perhaps imbuing them with a false sense of
security. Never exposed to conservative Christianity, never really required to
defend what they believe, students may graduate from these liberal institutions
with no clear sense of the reasons for their faith or lack of it. Provoking
critical dialogues about religion on liberal campuses, therefore, should be of
paramount importance to freethinkers young and old.
2. According to the Princeton Review,
Swarthmore is the second most studious school in the nation, behind CalTech (see