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As a community, we need to find a way to talk about religion. Growing up, my sheltered existence as a secular Jew in New York and Boston stymied any contact with religious people, much less dialogue about their faith. I could not count a single religious person among my close friends. That all changed when I came to Harvard. At the College, it seems that people of faith are both present and open about their religious beliefs, and for me and many other students, it is the first time we have been exposed to a proud religious community that touches our own lives.
I openly admit that I have absolutely no understanding of religion. Having been raised in a life completely devoid of it, seeing it now for the first time marks it as some kind of alien force. However, it is precisely this sense of distance and failure to comprehend religion that makes dialogue between secular and religious communities beneficial along two primary dimensions.
Firstly, dialogue between religious groups and secular people will help make groups of faith feel respected and understood. I have heard multiple religious people talk about the difficulty of existing as a proud person of faith within a mainly secular campus. This feeling may feed into a larger pattern of political polarization of the religious community across the nation, as white Evangelicals and Catholics have become steadily more devoted to the Republican party and the religiously unaffiliated have gone from just over 50% Democratic to nearly 70 percent Democratic since 1994. While we alone cannot fix the nationwide problem, a genuine demonstration on the part of secular students to try to hear, even if it isn’t possible to understand, the experience of religious students can begin to heal that divide within our own community.
Secondly, Harvard strives to produce graduates who will go out into the world and exhibit leadership. America remains over 75 percent religious, so those who hope to hold leadership positions in the U.S. must expect to have religious employees or have dealings with religious groups. If Harvard truly means to prepare students for life outside its walls as productive members of communities across the U.S. and the world, it must equip us with a basic understanding of a way of life central to the lives of a majority of Americans.
There is no one right way to implement such a commitment to dialogue. Whether it be through facilitating optional discussions, bringing programming into orientation programs, administration-mediated outreach by religious organizations, or other methods, the College is equipped with passionate and curious people on both sides willing to participate in discussion. All that remains is to create a space in which that conversation can blossom.
In doing so, it is important to ensure that commitment to educating secular students about religion and getting them to speak with their religious classmates does not stray into proselytizing. While secular students make the step of recognizing the importance of their classmates’ faith, religious students must commit to a spirit of dialogue that is not moralizing in tone, but welcoming and appreciative of the interest and respect shown by secular students.
However, my own experience trying to understand religion at Harvard has taught me that balance in this discussion is not easy. Having arrived as a freshman completely devoid of any religious experience or contact with people of faith, I was inappropriately dismissive of it. However, thanks to many long conversations, and the patience of my religious friends, I came to see some people of faith not just for their religion but as close companions for whom faith contributes to their identity, but does not define it. That process made me curious to hear more about their spirituality, and while I do not feel religious experience of the kind they describe, I have grown to understand that it is a real feeling, a genuine experience felt by people of faith that makes them feel connected to a higher power.
That insight has been as much a part of my education at Harvard as Expos or Ec10. After all, if we are teaching leadership, should we not teach empathy just as much as economics, or conversation and listening just as much as test-taking? When we talk with people who are different than we are, we prepare ourselves for life in the real world. Harvard should cherish that spirit of dialogue and exploration and take advantage of the fact that we have students from so many different backgrounds to build a community where, no matter what we concentrate in, we live in dialogue.
Ari E. Benkler ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House.
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