Spirituality fosters inclusive community

Talia Rudee

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Whitman is a secular school. However, for many Whitties, religion and spirituality are important in their personal development and contributions to campus life.

The college website states: “A Whitman education involves deep and lasting learning in an academic community comprised of people with varied experiences and global perspectives.” With this mission in mind, admitting students with religious affiliation is inevitable.

“Religious diversity at Whitman is actually a response to the college’s diversity overall,” said Stuart Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life Adam Kirtley.

An endorsed statement of the Board of Trustees also responds to the presence of diversity, stating: “Diversity is fundamentally important to the character and mission of Whitman College.”

“Religious identity is a form of an individual’s sense of self . . . and a college that takes seriously accommodating diverse identities will have to take seriously accommodating diverse religions as well,” said Kirtley.

Kirtley points out, however, that some members of the Whitman community believe the college does not fully accept students’ religious beliefs.

“There is a perception by some that Whitman maintains a hostile posture relative to the expression of religion on campus,” he said.

Religious life proves to be very important among some members of the student body, often encompassing cultural heritage passed down from generation to generation within a student’s family.According to Kirtley, these personal identities that stem from religion make Whitman diverse.

“By and large, the college is trending toward a position of welcoming religious diversity on campus,” he said.

This religious diversity is apparent through religiously or spiritually focused groups on campus such as Hillel-Shalom, the Whitman Christian Fellowship and Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA).

“Although I was raised in a reform synagogue, learning about my father’s background has helped me appreciate and understand what it means to be a minority,” said first-year Miriam Moran, the president-in-training of Hillel-Shalom, Whitman’s Jewish group on campus.

Moran’s father, from Egypt, was part of a smaller sect of Judaism that independently separated from traditional Judaism. It is because of this knowledge of her heritage that Moran feels she has a stronger connection to her cultural background as a Whitman student.

Moran’s evolving appreciation of her Jewish background has also fostered new respect for other religious beliefs.

“[Learning about my father’s background] encouraged my respect for different religious and cultural practices,” she said.

Whitman students have undoubtedly shown respect and appreciation for diverse spiritual and religious identities.   Along with the school’s recognition of religious diversity, there is also a trend toward students recognizing and appreciating one another’s diverse backgrounds, according to Kirtley.

“Most people at Whitman are secular in a sense that they’re really open and understanding,” said senior Michael Rogers, a religion major and member of the Whitman Christian Fellowship.

Rogers grew up in a practicing Christian household.   His father is a pastor, and he always went to church identified as “the pastor’s kid.” Rogers redefines “secular,” emphasizing the religious inclusiveness present among students at a secular institution.   Rogers argues that Whitman is a school where people have open minds and don’t exclusively think in terms of one religion, which he learned to appreciate during his time here.

“I find myself interacting more deeply with questions that even the church debates, which really helps me personally to grow,” said Rogers.

For instance, homosexuality is one issue that may not be accepted in a traditional, strict Christian background according to Rogers. Growing up, he never knew or encountered anyone who identified as gay. Upon coming to Whitman, frequent discussions of homosexuality caused Rogers to step back, think and even challenge the beliefs he grew up with.

Rogers’ definition of “secular” is also seen through the group   Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA).

Sophomore Maggie Eismeier, an active member of AHA, notes that the first-year Encounters program encourages scholarly engagement with religion. Students receive various perspectives through this course, in which they read the Tanakh, the Qu’ran, the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita, all texts of different religions.

“Reading the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita is good for me to understand the philosophy,” she said.

As a part of AHA, Eismeier still recognizes the presence of spirituality in the group.

“I know people who say that they don’t believe in God, but they believe in a soul,” she said.

Associate Professor of Religion Melissa Wilcox expanded on this belief in a higher being. According to Wilcox, even people who label themselves as nonreligious often still look toward a larger, non-physical being.

Wilcox alludes to spirituality here as a larger trend in the country that extends far beyond Whitman. Spirituality is a means to try and find something bigger in oneself than they had before.

“Around 90 percent of Americans believe in a higher being,” said Associate Professor of Religion Melissa Wilcox, chair of the religion department at Whitman.

Rogers also emphasized this presence of spirituality in the search for something bigger.

“A lot of people who come to Whitman are searching for something deeper and how to do things better,” said Rogers.

Through spirituality, culture and some religiosity, Whitman is more involved in religious life than its label as a secular school may imply.

“A fallacy is translating secular to being anti-religious,” said Wilcox.