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Critical thinking shapes religious experience on campus

Stanford’s religious culture is in many ways defined by its commitment to diversity: the University is overseen by three different chaplains, boasts over 30 student religious organizations and was founded as a non-religious institution. Stanford’s commitment to a liberal arts education, however, has also shaped the religious experience on campus by emphasizing critical thinking and open dialogue, according to campus religious leaders.

“I would argue that—with a liberal arts education—you want to question all of the assumptions that you arrive with and hold to some of them more deeply because of it,” said Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean for religious life. “I think that religions worth their salt aren’t afraid of the intellect or afraid of scientific inquiry, but welcome them.”

It is this focus on inquiry and questioning that surrounds Stanford’s religious culture and that has led some to reevaluate their beliefs.

“Coming [to Stanford], the way I have always thought of it, it is definitely a crucible of faith,” said Cale Strong ‘16. “It either refines your faith and makes it very strong or it burns it up and destroys it.”

For Strong, who grew up as a devout Mormon in Utah, the varying perspectives of his freshman dormmates, in addition to his peers’ desire to question and engage in debate, allowed him to reevaluate his belief structure.

“It wasn’t necessarily them trying to bring me down, it was just curiosity, I guess,” Strong said. “With them asking me questions, I realized I didn’t necessarily agree with everything that the church told me…I think I’m a better person now and more sure of my own beliefs.”

For others, such as Kate Bridges-Lyman, a masters student in Religious Studies and a converted Muslim, the questioning culture allowed her to become stronger in her faith and her study of religion.

“I personally believe that everything you come to believe should be challenged and that critical thinking is a good strategy that we should be learning as part of being students,” Bridges-Lyman said. “I don’t think this is limited to a religious context. I think this is just living in the world and encountering people that are different from you. The college environment as a whole is a place to nurture those challenges and to facilitate critical thinking.”

For some students, however, dialogue about religion occurs less with people that are different from them and more within their own religious communities. Preet Kaur ‘16, who said that she is the only female at Stanford that she knows of that wears a Sikh turban or a dastaar, said that she has never once been asked at Stanford what faith she represents.

“I would think that my outward appearance would probe those questions, but it hasn’t so far,” Kaur said. “I’m not sure if that represents acceptance or indifference…I think the questions are there but people don’t know the avenue in which to ask them.”

Kaur explained that from her experience, religion is a topic that takes a bit longer to come up in conversation, but that when it has, she has had positive and productive dialogues.

“Once people are engaged in conversations they will carry on; it’s just that initiation which is the troubling part,” she said.

Bridges-Lyman, who wears an abaya — a long, flowing dress common in the Muslim world — said she also has rarely been asked about her appearance, especially by non-Muslims. Both Kaur and Bridges-Lyman expressed appreciation that their appearance and religion didn’t elicit stares or constant interrogations at Stanford, but they also shared a desire for more dialogue and more questions.

“I personally think that having those conversations reflects a deeper level of acceptance…[because] acceptance reflects a personal involvement,” Bridges-Lyman said. “Whereas tolerance is more of letting something happen on the side and not being engaged with it. I don’t think tolerance is bad, but I personally think acceptance is better. I think it’s better to reach out to people and see where they are coming from.”

Tyler Karahalios ‘16 said that she feels being religious can be a very taboo thing to own up to at Stanford.

“I think that being spiritual is more accepted because it’s associated with exploration and academic pursuit and a line of questioning, whereas adopting religion has a connotation of blind following,” Karahalios, who was raised Catholic and is now a self-described “religious seeker,” said.

Haley Herring ‘15, who is Catholic, said that at times she felt stereotyped as “the brainwashed girl that has grown up with religion.”

“A lot of people here think religion is for people who aren’t critically thinking, or for people who just take what others say without asking questions about it—I think that’s what most people assume,” Herring said.

Bridges-Lyman added that that this tension can also be attributed to the focus on success at Stanford and the fear of admitting one might not know the answer.

“Within every religious context, at some point there is a leap of faith—some admission that things are greater than I understand,” Bridges-Lyman said. “In a context that is so success-driven…think people trying to avoid seeming religious is tied to not seeming vulnerable in some contexts.”

Kate Mosle ‘16, a member of a Christian fellowship group on campus, said she has not experienced this sentiment at Stanford.

“There is this stereotype about elite academic institutions scoffing at religion because people think that you have to be silly to believe in some supernatural thing,” Mosle explained. “That has not been the case at all. I have had a really positive experience both within the Christian community and in dialogue with other people.”

Strong said that while questioning can occur, he believes it stems from Stanford’s commitment to truth and rational thinking, and not from a place of malice.

“[People] are not ever trying to go around and bash other people’s beliefs…people here are too accepting and too diverse for any of that to be around,” Strong said. “The atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to religious thought, just because a lot of religious things are based on faith or belief in really old books, and when there is scientific evidence or another way of thinking, people generally fall into that realm of thought.”

Despite coming from various backgrounds and perspectives, students said that, in general, people on campus were open to learning about others’ beliefs and passions.

“I think what it comes down to is: Do people feel comfortable sharing what they know and what they practice and what they do?” Karlin-Neumann said. “The more people are willing to share what they do, I think the more curiosity it engenders, and in general, respect. From what I’ve seen, it seems like there’s a fair amount of respect here.”

 Contact Lucy Svoboda at lsvoboda ‘at’ stanford.edu.