Last week, I talked about the Interfaith Day of Service that I was publicizing and fundraising for as part of the Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Engagement ExCo. The event took place on Friday and I am happy to report that it was a smashing success!
We were working with a group called Stop Hunger Now that takes food to volunteers, who pack it; Stop Hunger Now then ships it to people who need it. The operation seems to work very well; the representative who came to Oberlin told us that they've got strong partnerships with local groups in the countries they send food to and, perhaps as a result, have never lost a shipment. More than 95% of the food goes to schoolchildren in developing countries; the rest goes to disaster relief in locations all around the world, including, recently, Brooklyn. The volunteers pay for the food, which was what all the fundraising was about (shameless plug: we still need a little more, so if you can donate here, that would be much appreciated. We have more than the indicator shows--at least $1,500). The whole thing is designed to be easy and yet engaging: all everyone had to do was show up and work together for a few hours, and hopefully find it engaging enough to invest more time and energy in hunger relief.
At three-thirty on Friday afternoon, I walked into the Root room. Late afternoon sunshine streamed in through the large south windows. There were already several dozen people in the room, as well as a number of collapsible tables and piles of boxes. Some people had brought donations of canned goods for Oberlin Community Services, and these were stacked on one of the windowsills. As the Stop Hunger Now representative set up some of the packing equipment, the leaders of the Interfaith Student Council gathered the rest of us together. They split us into six groups of ten or so each and had us go through some "speed faithing" questions--what we'd seen lately that was beautiful, why we were here, what in our religious or philosophical backgrounds motivated us to care about hunger, and so on. You answered each question with a different member of your group. It was an interesting exercise, rushed by design, so that we would want to continue our conversations during the food-packing itself.
After the speed-faithing, we divided up again to man the different workstations. There were six large yellow funnels on stands, which we surrounded, five to a funnel. These were the locations where the food actually got put together (we were making a kind of instant soup). One person held a plastic bag under the funnel; another dropped a vitamin packet into it; three more scooped in soy, dried vegetables, and rice. The bag holder placed each full bag in a plastic bin. Once a bin held five bags, everyone in the group yelled "Runner!" and another volunteer would pick up the full bin and take it over to the weighing and sealing operation on the other side of the room. If the bags were within the right weight range, they would be sealed with heat sealers and placed on a giant laminated grid; once the grid was full, more volunteers would put those bags into a box. Every time a thousand meals were packed, someone would ring a gong. We were packing ten thousand meals, but, as we had ninety-one volunteers, we expected it to go pretty quickly.
I was a dried-vegetable scooper. The other four people at my funnel were freshmen from the baseball team. None of them had been people that I'd been "speed-faithing" with. Perhaps as a result, we didn't continue any interfaith discussions, which I feel somewhat responsible for--as a member of the ExCo, I probably should have tried harder to guide the conversation in that direction. It's hard to talk about spirituality at Oberlin without an icebreaker, as I'll discuss later.
That aside, we were a good team and turned out bag after bag of soup while talking about the feel-good music playing, the most efficient way of dropping in the vitamin packet, and everyone's prospective majors. We had a runner who simply hovered around us, waiting for us to finish a bin, which she would then whisk away. After a while, she and the vitamin-dropper switched jobs for a change of pace, and another runner switched with our rice-scooper, who was getting sore from the repetitive movements.
The gong rang twice in a fairly short span of time, greeted by explosive cheers, then once more after a longer time, then stopped--I think we were turning out food faster than the packing volunteers could count it. We reached 10,000 in just under an hour from when the food-packing process actually began, and everyone cheered even louder.
We weren't done yet, though: everyone took a box of meals and carried it down to a large truck parked behind the building. Once these were loaded in, we took down the leftover bins of rice, vegetables, and soy, the funnels, and the sealing machines and put the tables away. The floor was left littered with bits of dehydrated vegetables, grains of rice, and soy dust, but we didn't have to vacuum that up. We felt bad about leaving it that messy, but vacuuming, apparently, is a union job and cannot be taken over by volunteers.
As everyone drifted out, happy and accomplished, the organizers gathered around a large piece of butcher paper. We'd asked people to write why they were volunteering on sticky notes and leave them there. Some were pretty straightforward ("I like to help people"); others were remarkably thought-provoking.
"To give noms to people who don't have noms." This is my favorite. There's something about it that seems innocent, silly, and yet incredibly poignant. Everyone deserves to have food be so frivolous as to be noms.
The faint one says "Because it's not fair."
As for me . . . I help because I like to help people, of course, and because I feel a responsibility to share when I'm so lucky, a responsibility that shades over rather easily into guilt. I help because I care about hunger--not sure why I latched onto that cause in particular, but maybe because it's so basic and can be so unifying. And I help because it makes me feel connected, which is one of the words that pops up whenever I try to talk about spirituality.
I was raised non-religious and have a what I would call a mostly secular outlook on the day-to-day aspects of life. But I do find something that I would call sacred in consciousness, compassion, and the creative impulse. Think of it as the ideas the Greeks personified in the Muses (knowledge, art, and creativity) and Athena (who was the patron goddess of wisdom and craft, as well as war). I don't personify it like they did, though; I used to say, half-jokingly, "I'm like some sorta Jedi or something," and today my example is usually "If I were alive in the mid-nineteenth century, I'd probably have been a Deist." This has changed over time, of course, although it's been fairly stable for the last year and a half or so. There are things I'd like to be true, but I don't know how the universe works. When people ask, I say I'm agnostic; that's the quickest answer because it, like my philosophy, boils down to, "Honestly, I haven't got a clue."
So I am functionally an atheist, emotionally an artist or a poet (may I suggest Reformed Bibliophile as a religion, with libraries as sacred spaces?), and intellectually an agnostic. My guess is that's pretty much par for the course at Oberlin. And that is what I'd like to talk about here. 1
Oberlin is mostly secular and rationalist in outlook--not quite what the founders, who wanted a school to train missionaries, intended, but it seems to have been the result of the trend toward progressivism here. One of the elements of progressivism in our society seems to be secularity, the rule of logic and science. This is fine in and of itself, but it can be taken too far and, at Oberlin, arguably is. I think that many students at Oberlin come from backgrounds where atheism/agnosticism was unusual and felt marginalized. Here, they feel freer to express themselves. In doing so, however, they are unintentionally marginalizing others.
Students who identify as religious report prejudice or discomfort, rather to the surprise of non-religious students. I know this mainly because the ExCo discussed it; then, with that in mind, I've started noticing instances of it myself. People tend to make blanket statements about either a specific religion or religions in general, often dismissive ones. Last year's ExCo held a panel about this, entitled "We Are Oberlin: Tolerant Unless You Are . . ." and followed it with a long list of religious identities. I couldn't make it to the talk for some reason, although I remember being intrigued when I saw the posters. This December will have another, similar discussion, and I will be involved this time. Apparently people came with quite strong emotions on all sides of the issue: denying there was any religious prejudice, agreeing that they felt it, and, apparently, arguing that evolution was real. This last is, I think, part of a misconception at Oberlin about what it means to be religious.
DISCLAIMER: I can't really say jack about what it means to be religious because I'm agnostic. I'm interested in religions both for my own, spiritual interest and because, as a social scientist, I find them fascinating. (This is not to belittle religion by turning it into merely something to be studied; I do this to practically every aspect of daily life, from romance to motivation for studying. It's just part of how I think about the world and often part of what makes it special for me.) But I can, in part because I look at things from a social science point of view, make some semi-educated observations.
Oberlin students are all traditional-college-age students. That means that the vast majority of us were born in the 1990s. There might be some fifth-year double-degree students or people who took a gap year, but I am a senior, and I was born in 1991. We are of a generation born into a world without a Berlin Wall (apparently that's a useful reference point for people who can remember said partition).
As such, we are also a generation born into a world where the dominant form of religion in American cultural life was the tail end of Ronald Reagan's Moral Majority movement. As most of us seem to have been, like me, raised non-religious or culturally-but-not-spiritually religious, we have known mainstream American religion through television and news. Thus, we know American religion largely as white conservative evangelical Christianity telling everyone that evolution is a lie and homosexuals are going to hell. Oberlin students are probably responding more to the political end of religion (as we know it) than to any actual beliefs.
So what do non-religious Oberlin students think of religion, if these assumptions are true?
First, they probably grew up feeling very much in the minority about being non-religious. If people have encountered domineering conservative religious forces in the past (likely to be Christian in America), they might reasonably have a poor impression of religions in general (and, again, Christianity in particular). Then, when they come to Oberlin, they suddenly find themselves in the midst of like-minded people and glory in the shared value of reason. Unfortunately, this often comes with the side effect of dismissing all religion as worthless because of cultural control and unreason. It's part Oberlin radicalism, part I'm-not-the-oddball-anymore, and part hell-yeah-science-works. I think this is where Oberlin students make the overgeneralizations we try to hard to avoid with other demographic groups: on some level, we seem to assume religious people are "sheeple," doctrinal literalists, or conservative fundamentalists. This is probably truer of Oberlin attitudes toward Christians than other religious groups, for a number of reasons: not wanting to be like conservative Christians in attitude toward Muslims, for one thing; greater cultural familiarity with conservative Christianity than with other religions, which gives more grounds for debate, for another; general Oberlinesque rebellion against cultural hegemonic forces embodied in conservative commentators, for a third.
Hence, I am guessing, the student who showed up at a panel on religious acceptance at Oberlin to talk about evolution being true. Their idea of "religious" may have included "believes science should be repressed" and felt that they should strenuously object to allowing that kind of viewpoint full acceptance and validity at Oberlin. But I seriously doubt that any Oberlin student, no matter how religious, would dream of denying the scientific fact of evolution.
I'm speculating and generalizing, here, remember, but I don't think I'm totally off-base. If you've grown up with little contact with lived religion, what you know of it will be what's in the news: a divisive force, easily manipulated by power-hungry maniacs to control the deluded masses, being used to promote ignorance and hate. And this is sad, because even I can tell religion--real religion--is more than that. Even as a geopolitical force, it's not inherently bad; religious communities accomplish a lot of good on a local scale; and as a personal experience, it actually sounds really nice.
What Oberlin as a whole needs to realize is that there is more to religion than doctrine. Someone can be religious without believing everything the institutionalized religion holds true. They can be religious and be perfectly capable of thinking critically. And for God's sake (charged phrase fully intended), they can be religious and socially or politically liberal!
Religion--even, yes, evangelical Christianity--has not always been a force for control and repression. "Liberal theology" is not inherently a contradiction in terms. Even "mainstream liberal Christian theology" isn't. A lot of the heroes of progressivism have been religious, even Christians--consider this guy or this lady.The Civil Rights movement was fueled by religious organizations and ran on religious arguments. The founders of Oberlin admitted African-American students in part because of their religious convictions (also in part because they needed the students and staff that agreeing to admit black students would bring, which spoils the mythos somewhat, but the point is that even the relatively stodgy, teetotaling, non-coffee-drinking founders were progressive at least in part because they were Christian, not despite it). The fact that liberal religion, specifically liberal Christianity, isn't making as strong a showing today doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I read a very interesting article the other day that suggests Stephen Colbert could be "this generation's hot radical priest." It goes on: "Colbert attempts to extricate what he sees as the essential message of Christianity from the piles of intellectual rot and political carpet bags that have been piled on and around it in the last 10 years."
So think about that, guys. Martin Luther King, Jr. was religious and a pretty progressive dude. So's Colbert. Dorothy Day was a hippie and an advocate for workers' rights who just got canonized as a saint. And I'll stop now, or I'll end up saying something like "from what I can tell, Jesus would totally have been at Occupy," and that's arguably inappropriate, and then people will get mad at me.
The dismissal of religion as mere ceremony or superstition, as unimportant to daily life or to a person's identity, is a kind of cultural imperialism that most Obies seem to consider acceptable as an attempt to enlighten the other person, or something. One could argue that since many Obies aren't religious, so we can't see how religious identity could become such a central part of someone else's. But we don't act like that about gender or sexual identity. It is as difficult for some of us to understand religion being a central part of a person's identity as it is for other people to understand how an atheist can have a moral code. (I doubt that's true of anyone at Oberlin; it's just an example I've come across far too frequently online.) This happens from time to time, when the basic assumptions of your life and the basic assumptions of someone else's are totally orthogonal to each other; it's one of those cases where you have to stare blankly at each other and say, "I don't get how you can't get that." And then you have to try to explain, and to understand, because you are Obies, and this is what you do.
(And the social-science geek in me does a little happy dance and starts taking notes, because this is what she does. How do you explain what you take for granted? How do you figure things out? How do you make an idea that wasn't there before? Knowing things, finding things out, expressing them so others will understand . . . there is no Muse of Sociology. But I salute her anyway.)
One last thing: This was in the bulletin I got from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life today. It seems relevant.
Why Atheists Should Do Interfaith Work
with Chris Stedman, Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy and Faithiest
Thursday, 12/6, 7:30 pm, Wilder 101
Sponsored by the Mead Swing Lectureship Committee and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
EDIT: If you liked this post, you may also find this speech, by not-yet-even-a-presidential-candidate Obama, of interest.
I am, however, quite happy to ramble on about my worldview; if you're interested, drop me a line. I like discussing Big Deep Questions when I'm reasonably certain no one will judge me. I'm writing this partly because I think those discussions need to happen more frequently.