Today In Opinion: Religion and the Columbia Intellectual

In his column yesterday, Eric Hirsch started out with a discussion of Hillel’s new blog, which devolved into generally bashing the “narrow-mindedness” of “secular intellectuals” at Columbia. Because I understand how many religious individuals at Columbia might feel alienated (it was not long ago that a fellow student declared all religion to be “rubbish” in one of my classes), I think this topic deserves discussion.

While the complaint that religious students at Columbia might not feel entirely at home is, I feel, justified, I have to take issue with a number of the points that Eric makes. First, I’m not entirely convinced that, as he claims, the text on “And Thou Shalt Blog” that bursts forth in all sorts of colors and sizes and fonts on one’s computer screen should be necessarily interpreted as “enthusiasm ... for ... religious [identity].” In fact, instead of thinking that the ensuing “hipster eye-rolling” is simply the disapproval of religion, I think it would be more accurate to say that it is, instead, a classic disapproval of enthusiasm for, well, anything. Another guess is that most people on this campus don’t take issue with others being excited about their religion. Instead, I propose that the problem arises from the unnecessary use of exclamation points and, more importantly, large text with bright colors which, not surprisingly, actually hurts one’s eyes, especially in the wee hours of morning in Butler.

Eric then lambasts “the secular intellectual” at Columbia for being tolerant of, but not embracing, religious groups. My question is this: why do secular intellectuals have a responsibility to actually embrace religious groups? As someone who attends services every week, I really don’t see any reason or obligation for any of my secular friends to share my excitement about Shabbat services. I am happy to disagree with others, even on fundamental principles, as long as they tolerate me and respect my opinion.

Given Eric’s enthusiasm for tolerance and what seems to be a belief that “secular intellectuals” on campus should be forced to abandon their views that religious organizations are about “indoctrination, conformity, [and] intolerance,” I wonder if he thinks that the more socially conservative members of these groups should similarly embrace—not simply tolerate—organizations such as the Columbia Queer Alliance or change their views about homosexuality. I am almost certain that this is not something of which he—or the members of those groups—would approve. I mention this because when the Catholic Church advances the careers of anti-Semitic bishops, or when the American Baptist Association puts out a statement saying that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching,” how comfortable can a Jew be in a Catholic group or an LGBT person be in a Baptist group, regardless of how accepting the individuals of those groups might be?

A key to any intellectual community is tolerance. For debate to flourish, there needs to be tolerance—though not necessarily an embracement—of others’ ideals and beliefs. Perhaps the key issue here is respect. During my time at Columbia, I have become an incredibly cynical person—far more so than I could have imagined my senior year of high school. From what I’ve heard, many other students at Columbia (but elsewhere as well) have gone through a similar transformation. Sometimes this cynicism can be outright offensive. Other times, it can simply make others feel awkward.

At the same time, I don’t think that it would be fair to say that the only way to make others feel at home is to make those “eye-rolling hipsters” and “secular intellectuals” go to meetings of religious groups or even necessarily change their minds. That religious students might experience the campus culture at Columbia as unwelcoming or awkward is problematic, but it is a problem that needs to be confronted by all of us. Instead of being intolerant of those claiming to be intolerant of intolerance, why not, instead, simply try to argue through practice? This places a responsibility not only on the less religious to respect, even if they still fundamentally disagree with, the more religious, but also on the more religious to correctly identify what is, in fact, an attack on them and what is actually an attack on their font choices.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is the co-editor of the Commentariat, the official blog of Spectator Opinion.

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