Can We Talk About God?

Is talk about religion taboo at Bryn Mawr, Haverford & Swarthmore?

By Emily Kluver

Bryn Mawr College prides itself on having a diverse and tolerant student body. But to Maryam Elarbi, a sophomore who is Muslim, the college does not offer her an accepting environment.

“I don’t get to have an opinion that doesn’t agree with them,” the 20-year-old says as she looks around at students milling around Haffner dining hall at the suburban Philadelphia school. “Religion is not a welcome topic. It doesn’t go along with the general agenda.”

While students are happy to talk about liberal topics centered on gender and sexuality, Elarbi siad she finds that open discourse on religion is rare and even frowned upon in different social groups.

“You become this ‘other’ when you’re more conservative at all on social or religious things,” Elarbi says, then laughs and shakes her head. “When I do something religious, it’s in its own little bubble, not integrated into campus life.”

As a practicing Muslim, Elarbi does not participate in the party scene on- or off-campus. “I feel like I’ve become very disconnected from the Bryn Mawr community because on a social level, I’m not there with everyone else,” she says.

The Bryn Mawr community is not the only school where students who practice their faith find this gap in acceptance of religion. Students at Swarthmore College and Haverford College see many of the same problems.

Carolyn Anderson, 21, a Presbyterian at Swarthmore says that while she feels comfortable talking to her close friends about religion, not all situations offer the same openness.

“I think the only situations I have been uncomfortable being open about my beliefs were in classes– religion for instance,” the junior says. “It’s very difficult to study your own religion in class because you have to deal with hostile reactions from others about things that are very dear to you.”

Twenty-year-old Robert Homan, a junior at Haverford and practicing Catholic, echoes Anderson’s feelings.

“With those I know well, it’s easier to talk about religion,” Homan says. “That said, in a more public setting it could become difficult. I wouldn’t be as likely to say something.”

Twenty-two-year-old Ben Goossen, a Mennonite at Swarthmore, wishes that people would talk more about their different beliefs.

“No one has ever been opposed to me at least after having a conversation with me,” says the senior,who notes that students often have problems with religion when they assume it connects directly to conservative politics.

Religious = Conservative

Pressures to conform in college are avoided by some students when they choose to go to a religious institution. But while the experience of students at religious colleges differs in the openness of religion, the experience is far from perfect.

Homan sometimes considers what his experience would look like at a religiously affiliated school.

“Perhaps there would have been more of a community around religious life and that could have helped me grow in faith and such,” he says and quickly dismisses the idea. “I wouldn’t trade Haverford for anything, and my experience being religious here has been great even if it had been challenging at times.”

Homan and Anderson have mixed feelings about the openness of students at their respective schools. And both have suggestions on how the attitude toward religion on campus could be improved.

Homan says: “There could perhaps be more willingness to invite religious speakers to campus and to have more dialogues about religion in general, just as one would about other issues like race or class.”

Anderson feels that the individual religious opportunities at Swarthmore are sufficient, but she says, “I would like to see more interfaith events and discussions, and I’d like to see the faith groups on campus having dialogues with the campus community on hard issues as well.”

Professor of Religion at Swarthmore, Steven Hopkins, says that he would like to see the college opening up a religious space open to all students of all faith traditions. He notes that being religious at college can be challenging because students who are confused in their beliefs have nowhere to go to openly question and explore religion.

“Being religious at Swarthmore is difficult because it is not seen as part of the skepticism or spirit of inquiry,” Hopkins says. “I don’t teach that way. I encourage intellectual as well as spiritual journeys.”

Lack of balance

Joyce Tompkins, an independently funded interfaith advisor at Swarthmore, feels that the college has a long way to go in providing avenues for students interested in exploring faith.

Tompkins says, “I think it would be helpful to have an official office of religious and spiritual life because students who are interested in exploring religious practice or spirituality in general really have nowhere to go.”

Tompkins acknowledges that the past eight years at Swarthmore have produced some positive growth toward encouraging religious exploration.

“The Dean’s staff are mostly supportive of my work and seem to appreciate that religion is important to many students,” Tompkins says. “Also, admissions has initiated conversations with me about how to attract and support religiously affiliated students.”

It can be challenging for unaffiliated schools to find ways to facilitate religious exploration on campus, but tolerance is not a one-sided goal.
Students like Maryam Elarbi feel that the college experience focuses so much on being accepting of ideas associated with liberal politics that it shuts down any dialogue about religion, which creates barriers between students. She asks the question, is the extreme tolerance of one group worth the exclusion of another?

“It’s a problem when it becomes about right and wrong, not different,” Elarbi says. “There’s not a balance of views.”