As I write this column I am hurtling through the darkness in a long tin can on rails somewhere in North Carolina. I could talk about anything, but, being a nebbishy traveler, constantly imagining my blazing end down the line, I cannot stop thinking about religion. We discuss it occasionally on campus—the difficulty of keeping faith in a secular institution, the openness and role of religious organizations—but the discourse descends into madness without closure. I make no claim to have a firm grasp on the subject, but I would at least like to explore it before my flaming demise. Most will agree that it is not easy to be religious on this campus. Some, like Eric Hirsch, writer of last year's column "The God Beat," have credited this to an inherent "godless is cool" attitude. But this is a mild phenomenon, delivered only in disparaging remarks on the Quran in CC class or an anonymous Bwog comment, like those about the cross on the steps on April 10, 2009. Rather—I tend to think—religious practice on campus is difficult because we have been uprooted from our communities, our traditions. (And, full disclosure: I am religious and sometimes share this gnawing discomfort.) Seeking community we find fellow practitioners whose ways challenge our own comfortable conceptions. So hedged in with doubt and detractors, we become introspective and soul-searching—even the atheists and agnostics (or at least this was the stated rationale for the 2007 creation of Columbia Atheists and Agnostics). Of course, we are comparatively lucky. We have the resources and the diversity to provide services and societies for all manner of religions—Buddhist to Baha'i, Mormon to Muslim. And our administration has been quite accommodating with religious concerns. Muslims, for example, receive ample support from campus dining during Ramadan fasting, and professors are considerate of the Jewish high holidays. But, even in this city and on this campus, with our diversity and attentiveness to the needs of religious students, we fall short. Increased security measures and new housing policies make life harder for Orthodox Jews, Muslim women are criticized and confronted about their hijabs, and, most notably, courses on Islam have been scheduled during Friday prayer. As was made clear by the University's grudging decision to change the 2010 Commencement date to account for the Jewish holiday Shavuot, it takes great pressure, persistence, and organizational girth to force a secular institution like Columbia to recognize religious concerns. To care for the members of the faith, then, it is in a religious organization's interest to unite members of the faith under one banner, like the Muslim Student Association or the various nondenominational Christian groups on campus. It is also in a group's interest to gain the support and attention of the wider campus community through inclusive programming, which may conveniently be paid for by student life fees. Ahimsa, a Jain group, has been particularly successful in this regard, boasting a massive campus presence and consistently attracting a diverse swath of the student body to events—but the organization has comparatively few members. The University's funding and the wishes of religious groups to be active, understood, and respected incentivize a race towards the middle in which groups focus on, to paraphrase former MSA President Ayesha Syed, BC '03, very basic stuff. Using a common denominator appeal may garner outsider interest and member unity, but it risks oversimplification—it lacks the nuance that makes religion complex, fascinating, and beautiful. I was happy to hear that MSA offered Tajwid (Quran recitation) lessons, but surprised to hear that, at least in 2008, they offered lessons in only one form of Tajwid to members of such diverse Muslim backgrounds. Certainly students may discover their own unique spirituality with minimal guidance, so maybe such nuance and pluralism is not vital. But it is a useful service to the searching faithful and the truly interested outsider—I personally cannot find many mystic practitioners in campus groups. I do not claim they all operate as such. Small and/or unique religious organizations manage to survive but receive little funding, little interest, and only gain recognition through back-breaking efforts. For now, though, our wide-event-based funding incentivizes groups, ironically, to sacrifice possible niche, personal needs of the faithful to be present for the faithful. So how to treat campus religious groups? Just like other groups? To borrow Provost Steele's term, this is a "diversity problem"—a problem of making religions comfortable while also integrated with all groups. Is it a responsibility to generate an informed student body, to further aid in religious pluralism? Probably not. So how do we encourage students to explore small groups that don't aim for inclusive, catch-all programming? I don't know—I present the issue to greater minds for consideration. Mark Hay is a Columbia College sophomore. Unusual, Unseemly, or Unnoticed runs alternate Tuesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff