Religious students on liberal campus find community

Religious LC students encounter misconceptions about religious identity

This year, Lewis & Clark College was ranked number ten on the Princeton Review’s list of 20 colleges with the least religious student body. However, while they may be in the minority at LC, there are still many religious students from a variety of different backgrounds on campus.

Dan Smith* is a practicing Sunni Muslim who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. He prays five times a day, at morning, noon, afternoon, dusk and evening. Smith prays in the direction of the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in the Islamic faith (he has an app on his phone that points him in the right direction). The Kaaba is located at the center of a mosque in the holy city of Mecca.

Smith also uses a prayer mat when he prays, in order “to be sure that the place is clean and immaculate.” The mats prevent Smith from being in contact with urine or animal matter that might be on the ground during a prayer. If Smith goes to the bathroom before praying, he washes his hands, face, mouth, nose and hair before beginning his next prayer.  

Smith is attending LC as part of the Academic English Studies program. He lives with a host family and doesn’t have a specific prayer room in his home, so he often prays in a special prayer space in the northeast corner of the Watzek Library. “Some people don’t know about muslims, and about how they pray,” Smith said, “The prayer space is a good thing, I think, for this culture … It’s good to have specific place where Muslim students can always pray.”

Smith said that people at LC are usually respectful of his religious background. “I didn’t see anyone treating me differently because I’m a Muslim,” he said, “People are friendly and they don’t care about your religion or your behavior. All I’ve found is that people are friendly.”

Unlike Smith, sophomore John Rogers* has had experiences of LC students reacting inappropriately upon learning that he was raised in a religious household, even though Rogers now identifies as an atheist and said that he doesn’t believe in God. However, Rogers was raised in a Reform Jewish family, and he identifies as culturally Jewish even though he is not religious.

“I prefer the cultural aspect of Judaism, rather than the religious aspect. I really enjoy celebrating holidays with other Jews and creating a sense of community. I don’t pray to a higher being, so that’s why I would consider myself an atheist while also still very culturally Jewish,” Roger said.  

Rogers said that many LC students carry preconceived notions about what it means to be Jewish. “The biggest misconception is that religious judaism and cultural judaism have to be together, and they don’t. I’m not religious at all.”

Rogers said that LC students often react strangely when they find out that he was raised in a Jewish household. “People make assumptions about me, or they say things that are kind of questionable, like ‘Oh, you’re such a good Jew for celebrating a holiday.’ or ‘Are you sure? You don’t look Jewish.’ A lot of people just focus on the stereotypical aspects, like, ‘Oh, he’s Jewish! He must have curly hair and a big nose!’ as opposed to what it actually means to be Jewish.”

Last year, one of Rogers’ professors was talking about Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the professor asked whether anyone in the class had ever read the author’s work  before. Rogers’ hand shot up — he loved Arendt’s writing and hoped to reread it. However, upon seeing Rogers raise his hand, one of his classmates commented: “Oh, typical good Jew, reading about the good Jewish people.”

These kinds of comments are frustrating for Rogers. “I don’t represent all Jews. We’re all really different, and we all choose to identify as Jewish in our own way. You can go around to any Jewish person here and they’ll have a different view on what Judaism means.”

Similarly, sophomore Anne Matthews* has experienced a variety of different sects of her religion. However, unlike Rogers and Smith, Matthews is a non-denominational Christian who went to several different churches when she was growing up, including Lutheran and Baptist congregations. “You don’t have to conform to any one interpretation of what [your faith] should be,” Matthews said.

Matthews has yet to join a church near LC, but she still listens to online sermons on most Sundays. “One of the reasons I came to Lewis & Clark is that I knew it would challenge my faith,” said Matthews. “I’m from a conservative city where you were assumed to be Christian. Whereas up here, it’s the exact opposite.”

Matthews said that LC students are often surprised when they learn that she’s religious.

“It usually catches a lot of people off guard,” Matthews said, “I haven’t experienced it that people treat me directly differently once they found out, especially if they’re agnostic. Instead of an immediate resistance, I’ve found that people make a lot of assumptions about me.”

For example, LC students often assume that Matthews is politically conservative because of her Christian background.

“Instead of saying, ‘What is your opinion on this issue,’ people say, ‘Oh right, your opinion must be this, because you’re a Christian.”

Nonetheless, Matthews said that leaving her home town and coming to LC made her realize how important Christianity is to her.

“I realized that I feel really attached to this faith, and that that is who I am.”

*Names have been changed

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