By Jesse Lopez-Cepero
Several weeks ago I attended, along with Professor Natalie Gummer and Assistant Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood, a conference examining the issue of secularity at liberal arts institutions. The conference was held at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York and brought together representatives from eight other liberal arts colleges that all participated in a workshop last fall entitled “Re-conceiving the Secular Liberal Arts.” While each college that attended this conference had used the same workshop curriculum at their own colleges (Beloit’s “secularism workshop” was held on November 19 and attended by over 20 students, professors and administrators), each college came to the conference with a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Some schools were in the process of renegotiating their religious affiliation; others were in the precarious situation of having to regulate the aggressive conversion tactics of Christian and Jewish student groups. Most were in a position like Beloit College where secularism is firmly established as our cultural norm and non-secular students are at the social and intellectual margins.
As representatives of Beloit College, we were hoping to learn strategies to move forward with our own unique experience of secularity. The results of our own workshop revealed a disturbing trend of religious students regularly experiencing intellectual dismissal and silencing in the classroom on account of their faith commitment. The flip side of the issue is that many students at Beloit coming from a largely secular background have been able to remain in a position of excessive intellectual comfort. Their assumptions, privileges and modes of being in the world are often left unexamined (which leads many to the misconception that the secular position isn’t a position at all but how everyone just is).
One approach for addressing the problem that campus secularism poses for schools like Beloit College was suggested by Jonathan Kahn, professor of religious studies at Vassar College. He likened the issue to that of whiteness and white privilege. Like whiteness, secularity is an invisible normative culture that is linked to racism, classism, hetero-normativity, gender normativity and the exercise of power that is involved in the production of knowledge. After some discussion about recent scholarship on secularity and its position in the liberal arts, we moved on to practical strategies for how to constructively challenge common views among students and faculty of the incompatibility of faith and reason and the status of secularity as an unexamined experience. As Cecil, Natalie and myself return to campus, we are hoping to engage with a diversity of students on this issue in the hopes of enlivening the dialogue among students, faculty and administrators and bring Beloit into the wider conversation colleges are having across the country.