Include Christians in diversity conversation

Christopher Hankin

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The class of 2018 has entered Whitman amid backlash at the school for a lack of diversity, both racial and economic. The student body expressed its dissatisfaction with admissions policies by staging protests like the “Créme de la Créme” piece on the steps of Memorial Hall and the Encounters walkout organized by first-year students.

But Whitman’s lack of diversity doesn’t stop here. Whitman is also lacking in religious diversity, with most recent surveys putting the campus between 35-40 percent religious; in comparison, 77 percent of the American population identifies as Christian. Yet we never hear about the lack of religious diversity.

Atheism, sometimes even with mockery of organized religion, is part of the Whitman culture. This is, of course, not a trend unique to Whitman. The Northwest as a whole is less religious than the rest of the country, and college campuses are typically less religious anyway. But the statistics about organized religion at this school are still telling.

Adam Kirtley, the Stuart coordinator of religious and spiritual life at Whitman College, is very aware of our lack of religious diversity.

“Though the college has made moves to recognize religious identity as a category of diversity, I am troubled by periodic reports of religious affiliation not being treated with the respect that would be afforded other groups,” he said. “It seems inconsistent with a campus climate that strives to be inclusive.”

Because Christians make up the vast majority of religious persons in the United States, Christianity is viewed as commonplace. But at Whitman, the Christian perspective is the minority. Sometimes it seems that, although our campus is accepting of people from different cultures who practice religions other than Christianity, we aren’t as accepting of Christians because they aren’t “different enough.” Because we grew up in a culture that surrounds us with Christian images and Christian practices, they quickly become familiar and easily dismissed.

Paul Prevou is a senior from Arlington, Tex. who has struggled with his religious identity at Whitman College. The transition to Whitman can be tough for students who weren’t raised in areas as liberal as the Pacific Northwest, and this was certainly true for Paul, though the results weren’t all bad.

“The greatest and most necessary challenge to my worldview was being surrounded by people who did not identify as religious,” he said. “As friends would ask me probing questions about my beliefs and I would be at a loss for explanation, I quickly realized there was so much about my worldview that had previously been unchallenged. My faith, which had always inspired me and given me so much strength, was crushed. I hated this school for taking away the thing that gave me life. I think deep down I still harbor some hurt feelings towards Whitman.”

Classes like Encounters that require students to read sacred texts from an analytical, secular perspective can pose a challenge for religious students. These classes challenge the religious worldview in a more profound way than they may for non-religious students. To say that challenging worldviews is a bad thing would be to say that college is a bad thing, but it is important to remember simple principles of respect when engaging in discussions about faith.

“There are few students on campus, in my experience, who openly identify as devoutly religious, but every sarcastic, mean-spirited jab at religion has the potential to reach someone who is religious and make them feel isolated from the Whitman community,” said Prevou.

Intolerance of any kind is evil and anti-religious fanaticism is often as damaging as religious fanaticism. This lesson was shown most recently by the murder of three innocent Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Feb. 10. This is obviously an extreme example, but the killer was a self-identified atheist who is presumed to have committed the murders out of hatred for what he described as “radical Islam.” The irony here is of course that his religious affiliation was much more extreme than that of his victims.

This tragic incident serves as a painful reminder of the need for tolerance when discussing issues as sensitive as faith. Religious dialogue is valuable in helping students challenge and refine their own beliefs. If someone tells you they are religious, don’t make it a confrontation. Understand that religion can be and is a positive influence on the lives of people all over the world. If you expect them to open their eyes and question their beliefs, you should do the same.

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