Op-ed: Suppressed into spiritual silence

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We need to practice what we preach—accepting different beliefs and different viewpoints in all realms of identity. / Illustration by Ally Rzesa

By Diti Kohli, Print Designer

Last week, as my Introduction to College Writing class engaged in a conversation about global religious persecution, my professor urged my classmates and I to narrow our scope—to focus on the opinion of religion on our own campus. My peers’ accounts of mockery and ignorance towards their beliefs surprised me, including their accounts of targeted insults and assumptions about their personalities. Yet, I eventually accepted religious intolerance as an unacknowledged issue at Emerson.

In today’s increasingly polarized world, many people equate liberalism with tolerance. If this were true, Emerson would be a haven for all. We are repeatedly named one of the most liberal colleges in the country—39th on this year’s Niche ranking and the most LGBTQ-friendly campus according to Princeton Review. However, many religious students feel the breadth of this acceptance does not always apply to them.

Clare Jackson, a freshman comedic arts major, said she practices Mormonism.

“I think it’s true that there are parts of identity at Emerson that are not as embraced as others,” Jackson said.

The college worked to prevent racial discrimination with initiatives like DiversityEdu and the promotion of multicultural organizations. Each building contains gender-neutral bathrooms to represent Emerson’s ideals of gender inclusivity. Emerson should apply the same courtesy to instances of religious discrimination on campus.

As a freshman in my second month, I repeatedly hear rumblings from devout students who feel the anti-religious narrative on campus silences them. No one discriminates against students who do not identify strongly with a religion. Regardless of this irreligious atmosphere, religious students should still have the confidence to identify this college as a safe place for spiritual expression. Nonetheless, many students feel compelled to keep quiet.

Madeline Harrant, a freshman journalism major who is exploring the Islamic religion, said she practices privately.

“I just kind of quietly believe in it, especially coming here,” Harrant said. “I’m definitely not going to get up and talk about it.”

Other than this underlying disassociation from religion that suppresses devout voices, students expressed they experienced occurrences of direct oppression.

Jackson, for example, said she witnessed her religion mocked during a seemingly harmless conversation.

“There was an instance where somebody made a joke about, ‘What if they were Mormon?,’ not knowing that I was Mormon, and another person physically scooted away from them,”  Jackson said. “As if to say, ‘If you were a Mormon, I wouldn’t want to be near you.’ That just really hurt me.”

Religious organizations also fail to promote their presence on campus to students.

Lillian Cohen, a sophomore journalism major, said two years ago she only applied to colleges with Hillel, the Jewish student organization. But, time and time again, she said she was disappointed by the low turnout and general unenthusiasm.

“There’s so much funding, but their programs aren’t really good,” Cohen said.

The lack of apparent allies in the administration leaves devout students feeling isolated. Resources at the Center for Spiritual Life and other faculty need to make themselves more accessible to unheard students by saying they accept various faiths and feel willing to have a conversation about these differences. Even though religion is deeply personal, many students seek a community that shares, or at least understands, their belief systems.

“I don’t think there’s really anyone on campus I would feel comfortable talking to,” said freshman Garrett Speller who identifies as Christian Protestant.

The question remains how students and administration can mend this culture of neglect towards religious students. Obviously, we cannot easily fix this isolating attitude since it is cemented into the campus climate. Even devout students themselves disagree over the correct approach.

Speller said he feels fairly comfortable in his religion and urges students to speak about their own.

“I think students need to be more open about their faith if they are faithful,” Speller said.

But not all devout students think they must announce their religious beliefs.

“I think that sometimes it’s private, and it’s a personal experience. I don’t necessarily vocalize my faith,” Harrant said.

Despite these dissenting opinions, many religious students agree the Emerson community must move away from shunning devoutness. We need to practice what we preach—accepting different beliefs and different viewpoints in all realms of identity.

The administration must advocate for religious inclusion from the day freshmen walk into orientation. The school burnt skits against sexual harassment and Mr. Joy, a play that comments on racial tensions, into the minds of many students; yet, Emerson didn’t explicitly teach us to accept religious differences.

“I think that during that orientation week, we talked so much about tolerance, but religion and faith are left out of that conversation,” Jackson said.

The college should also continue to work to fill the position of campus chaplain and director of spiritual and religious life. The position remains vacant since Harrison Blum resigned in late September of this year. Filling this office is the first step in ensuring that devout students have a group with authority and expertise to turn to with questions and struggles. This office also needs to become a major resource.

The answer is simple: ensure Emerson recognizes people of all definable aspects of identity, including spiritual beliefs.