Opinion | Columns

The censored classroom: religious intolerance at Columbia

It wasn’t necessarily a statement of dogma. Nor was it a purely religious declaration. Instead, what Governor Tim Pawlenty said during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference was more of a mention of what influenced his view of American liberties. In a list of what he considered to be critical conservative ideals, the first item he mentioned was that “God is in charge.” Continuing on, he reminded the audience of right-wingers that the Declaration of Independence asserts that our rights are “endowed by our Creator.” As the applause from the audience grew, I felt myself do what any self-respecting Columbian would do in that situation. I reacted impulsively against the idea of bringing God into the discussion. After all, this was a political conference—not some religious congregation looking for teachings from above.

I say that this reaction was impulsive because, after enough time at Columbia, we all seem to unwittingly adopt a mindset that religious belief belongs only in the restrictive realm of personal life, regardless of the strength of our conviction. So long as these beliefs remain comfortably in the private sphere, they can be accepted. If not, then the ever-thinning acceptance quickly turns to intolerance of what is deemed publicly irrelevant. The reality is that these tacit expectations of restraint, as tame as they may seem, actually serve as aggressive regulators of belief on this campus.

So why cringe at a comment like Pawlenty’s? From my experiences here, I can guess that my response had less to do with what he was saying than with where he was saying it. He was in a political environment but failed to stick to our approved system of separating “real” parts of life from the more “unreal” parts like religion. He brought in a topic that we would consider inappropriate to the discussion—an unwelcome intruder from a separate social dimension. Instead of sticking to a sober combination of policy and secular persuasion, he was invoking “religion.” This appeal, whether by politicians or anyone else, finds no acceptance at Columbia.

Granted, not every environment at Columbia is hostile toward faith. In a religion class or a service, perspective informed by faith is embraced. If you are a religious person in such a class, your viewpoint is thoughtfully considered. In this limited way, Columbia is quite supportive when it comes to religious life. Outside of these very specific situations, however, faith is an unwanted interloper.

When Columbia’s strict social boundary between academic and religious identity begins to blur, people get uncomfortable—especially when the latter makes surprise appearances into the former’s territory. Don’t buy it? Think back to a time when this overlap happened. Recall when, in Frontiers of Science, a student mentioned that she believes in some variant of Divine agency in creation. Remember an instance when a classmate refuted Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery by asserting a belief in an equal dignity given by a Creator. Consider that moment when a fellow anthropology student mentioned that he didn’t believe a certain cultural practice was morally acceptable.

Can’t think of any instances of that happening? No? That’s probably because, like most Columbians, you would consider such a scene laughable. Even the religious students among us realize this and have forced themselves to suppress their convictions. They realize that at Columbia, religion has no place in the classroom except as a subject of cultural examination.

Chesterton put it this way: “You are free in our time to say that God does not exist; you are free to say that He exists and is evil. … But if you speak of God as a fact, as a thing like a tiger, as a reason for changing one’s conduct, then the modern world will stop you somehow if it can. We are long past talking about whether an unbeliever should be punished for being irreverent. It is now thought irreverent to be a believer.”

To someone devoted to his faith, there is no part of life that is somehow separate from personal beliefs. To leave his religious convictions at the door of a classroom is as ridiculous as the prospect of leaving other philosophical opinions or life experiences there as well. Faith is not the same as having a cultural food that you like to eat or a type of clothing that you prefer to wear. Faith is a framework for life itself—it affects everything. It’s a worldview. Relegating faith to outside the classroom implies an attempt to create a faith-free zone, when in fact the classroom already teems with faith of every sort. My hope is that Columbia can recognize this silent judgment against religious thought and condemn it for what it is: an atrocious censoring of identity.

Derek Turner is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in anthropology and political science. Opening Remarks runs alternate Thursdays.

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Mark_H posted on

Hum … interesting point, Derek, but as a very religious person who tries to keep his faith in mind at all times and adheres with great stricture to his beliefs I have to say I’ve never experienced this. I think this might be a phenomenon of dual creation. It’s always seemed to me that people from different walks and even different schools of academia just talk in a different language. When you approach these people and places speaking in a purely religious initiation, of course they will look at you like a tiger. You might as well be speaking jibberish. So I’ve always thought there was some tension towards religion in academia on the academic side because the religious folks tend to speak only in the language of religion, which is as much the religious person’s fault for walking into another’s homeland and yelling loud and slow in a foreign tongue. Then they react accordingly, it makes the religious person feel isolated and so he/she develops a bit of a martyr complex, which is to anyone not on the explicit side of the religious person quite distasteful to view. The martyr complex creates a frightening dialogue that is really just abrasive and unproductive and just keeps on fortifying each side’s prejudices against the others. It’s a perpetually expanding problem because you’re not talking to each other, you’re talking at each other and past each other in different dialects of the same basic language. Here’s a core doctrine from my faith – the truth is the truth and we all accept it, but it must simply be communicated separately to every individual, as we all speak in our own languages. Therefore the burden, in my faith, is upon the believer to learn to speak of his faith in the language of that person with a differing faith or a lack of faith. It may seem unfair to you, but try it for once – change your dialogue and start speaking in the language of academia about religion. It’s not impossible, and to say that it would be would be restrictive to the powers of faith, and it’s actually far more productive than backing against a wall and making an accusation of implicit censorship. It’s just mutually aggravating miscommunication.
Or, at least, that's how I've always seen the situation, and by addressing it in this manner I've never had the problems you're describing. Food for thought.

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Mark_H posted on

Might actually be due to the fact that our faiths are, I'm guessing, different as well. Really probably not fair or correct from an academic or a religious point of view to speak of all religious beliefs as resulting in or suffering from the same problems.

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Wilbrad posted on

Derek, thanks for bringing up Aristotle's theory of natural slavery. I'd never heard of it, so after you brought it to my attention I googled it. Aristotle's words in support of slavery underscore the point that there is no universal moral code; morals have to come from somewhere, and they have to be evaluated and accepted or rejected.

The Founding Fathers did believe, just as Pawlenty said, that we are "endowed by our Creator" with what are nowadays called "human rights." They got the idea from John Locke, who got it from the Bible. There's a good page on the subject at the HistoryHalf site: http://historyhalf.com/endowed...

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Wilbrad posted on

Derek, thanks for bringing up Aristotle's theory of natural slavery. I'd never heard of it, so after you brought it to my attention I googled it. Aristotle's words in support of slavery underscore the point that there is no universal moral code; morals have to come from somewhere, and they have to be evaluated and accepted or rejected.

The Founding Fathers did believe, just as Pawlenty said, that we are "endowed by our Creator" with what are nowadays called "human rights." They got the idea from John Locke, who got it from the Bible. There's a good page on the subject at the HistoryHalf website.

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sickandtiredofthisbs posted on

sir, you have the most serious persecution complex I have ever encountered. There are logical reasons for why the vast majority of biologists don't buy "divine agency" as an explanation, let alone nonsense like intelligent design and creationism. Please consider this instead of wrapping yourself in the flag of offense.

I don't anyone has ever tried to physical harm you for being religious at this university. They've at worst only criticized your beliefs.

In the spirit of academic camaraderie, I shall now do this: you only believe in this nonsense because your parents gave you some book that at every turn is either morally questionable or logically inane. It's pages are filled with the ignorance of nomads who could not imagine the knowledge we've accumulated today. The only reason you're Christian is because you were born of Christian parents. If you were born in Calcutta, you would just as firmly be Hindu or Muslim.

Well, was that intolerant? You may think so, but it's just open dialogue that academics should participate in. Intolerant? Maybe you should consider the history surrounding of your own great religion. Please grow up.

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Anonymous posted on

In the spirit of academic camaraderie, consider this: the majority of Christians in this world were converted from some other belief, be it atheism, Buddhism, etc. In fact, the Christian faith took root not in religious Israel, but pagan Europe. Besides, even if Derek were born into a Christian family and acquainted with the Bible at a young age, would you say that he lacks the mental capacity to judge and uncover truth in this modern age, especially being a CC student? Surely if the Bible were so unreasonable, one as intelligent as a CC student would be able in some way to disprove it.

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Anonymous posted on

Really? The genetic fallacy? At Columbia?

Consider this.

Growing up, my parents taught me chemistry instead of alchemy. And had I grown up elsewhere, with a different set of parents, I may have been taught alchemy. Is that therefore some argument against chemistry?

And there lies the hidden presumption in your argument. Like a Trojan horse your spirit of academic camaraderie has, most likely unintentionally, ushered in the genetic fallacy.

No, sir, it wasn't intolerant -- only fallacious and lacking finesse.

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