Recently graduated senior Kelsey Miles ’16 spent much of her time at Athenian exploring issues around religion and spirituality. During her senior year, she had an opportunity to take a Journalism seminar and dig deeper into this issue, both at Athenian and at independent schools in general. Read Kelsey’s well-researched article, which she completed as an Honors assignment, in which she astutely critiques Athenian’s current environment around spirituality and offers insights into the possibilities of incorporating more spirituality into the school’s focus. Given current world events, it’s important for all of us to think about the ways we are (or are not) inclusive of religion and spirituality. Thank you to Kelsey for initiating these conversations at Athenian and for elevating an often less focused on issue into our collective consciousness. We can and will do better!
Originally published in The Pillar, Athenian’s student newspaper by Kelsey Miles ’16
The majority of members in the Athenian community know about Dyke Brown’s mandala, as Brown is the founder of the school. Yet how many people know his mandala talks about church attendance and courses on religion?
Although spirituality was one of the seven aspects Brown deemed the core of his mandala, this aspect currently does not play a large part in Athenian life or culture.
“There’s not a lot of understanding around religious faiths and the culture behind it,” Andrew Kocins ’16 said. “I don’t think it’s just Athenian but our generation is questioning it. We’re not a religious school, so it’s not a [big] part of the curriculum, so it’s not discussed… it’s not acknowledged very often.”
Similarly, Priya Canzius ’16 said faith is not a common topic of conversation among students at Athenian. However, in the rare instances the topic of faith arises, non-religious students do not often speak about the issue in a positive light.
“I feel like there’s an assumption there that no one believes in what we [as students] are saying, so we’re more inclined to put religion down,” Canzius said.
Although students often talk about faith in this manner, according to Xenia Danylyszyn ’16, their comments are often unintentionally destructive, as students do not realize their words are offensive to others.
“They’re not trying to be hurtful or make a mockery, but there’s students on campus who make comments to parody religion that I consider inappropriate…they’re trying to be funny but it’s not,” Danylyszyn said. According to Simona Shur ’18, when these instances occur, the comment is often not addressed out of fear. Thus, students do not realize their words are creating a negative impact because no one is willing to stand apart and bring up the issue.
“I feel like non-religious students say some hurtful comments and they don’t realize what they’re talking about,” Shur said. “People are too afraid to speak up because they’re afraid of being judged. Because we’re so close knit, the majority will think the same way, so if you don’t think the same way it’ll make you feel uncomfortable.”
Consequently, many students who do not affiliate with a religion are not aware that their peers are hiding their faith because religion and spirituality is not a topic the community often addresses.
“In some ways, I would [feel included] if I was [a student of faith] because of certain clubs that support it,” Julia van Warmerdam ’17 said. “But it’s not part of our curriculum at all, so I don’t really know.”
[Note: World religions are a part of the Middle School humanities curriculum as well as the Upper School 9th grade World Cultures classes and select seminars.]
While students of faith say they notice the lack of conversation around the issue, the scarcity of talk about faith is something even students who do not affiliate with a religion notice, and they are not the only ones who do. Balaven, as the Dean of Equity and Inclusion, not only recognizes this absence of discussion, but he works on supporting students of faith who feel ostracized in the community and creating a support mechanism for students.
“First I listen, and then I try to strategize around how to prevent [the situation] from happening in the future, while at the same time remedying the immediate hurt,” Balaven said. “It might be something like having interfaith as club, or having a student do an interfaith independent study, to create an interfaith space on campus, to really be able to answer the needs of the students before they have the need.”
According to Akshay Padmanabhan ’17, plenty of students are either unaware of or do not understand the networks being created for them, such as the Interfaith Club and the Interfaith space.
“I know we have a Christian Club… I feel like the intentions of the club are to let anyone learn, but not being Christian myself I don’t feel comfortable going there,” Padmanabhan said. “I didn’t know we had an Interfaith Club… I think we’re moving in the right direction based on what you’re telling me.”
Similar to student’s lack of awareness about the Interfaith Club, the Interfaith space upstairs in the Main Hall is not publicized, thus, few students know of its existence.
“We have a room back here reserved for prayers,” Dick Bradford, Dean of the Upper School, said. “So what we try to do is to make sure people feel like they can express themselves openly… we recognize spirituality and its importance, and faith is part of that… but I don’t see us becoming a religious institution.”
According to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, as spirituality becomes increasingly popular, it can be used as a vehicle for “mitigating interfaith difference within American culture” because it is more “universal, accommodating, inclusive, and personally empowering” than religion. While religion is an organized belief system, spirituality is individualistic, yet both recognize the existence of a higher power.
While spirituality has the potency to keep people from being oblivious to the beliefs of other religions, Athenian could be doing more to fulfill this core aspect of the institution.
“I think the school could do a better job of incorporating spirituality in the curriculum by facilitating more discussion about the differences and similarities about what people believe about life… not a debate but a sharing about beliefs,” Arnold said. “It would make people feel more comfortable about sharing their beliefs.”
One of the ways the administration addresses faith is through the observance of religious holidays. Although the school cannot take off every religious holiday because students would be missing too much school, students who participate in a holiday have the freedom to take school off for the day.
“Every year I send out notices to faculty of what we do if people are absent for observance of religious holidays,” Bradford said. “Students are excused from class, I talk a little bit about the holiday and what it is, and then recognizing that they may not be in a position to do any work, and to stagger the work so nothing is due after the holiday.”
In an interview, science teacher Molly Gowen, said she finds understanding different religions and religious holidays important in teaching because the knowledge gives her context for what her students are doing.
“If I have a student who is participating in Ramadan, and if I understand the way the holiday works, I might be able to have more empathy as a teacher and be more flexible,” Gowen said. “So students who are participating in the fasting might be tired during the day, and I might be more willing to understand where they’re coming from, otherwise I might just think ‘why aren’t they paying attention in class?’”
As people in a community, there is importance in being cognizant of other religions because the lack of knowledge about religious beliefs can lead to misunderstanding and harmful stereotypes that are not true to a person. This issue has become even more relevant from the recent ISIS attacks in Paris which have furthered the spread of Islamophobia.
“In order to be an informed person, it’s good to understand other religions,” Kocins said. “A good example is 9/11 because it’s not good to make conclusions about religions as a whole based on specific events, but on interacting with other people.”
According to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, “the experience of seeing another faith in worship… helps students to overcome the stereotyped images portrayed in the media.” The article describes a program where all students worship together, all in their own ways according to their religion: “‘I think when I see my peers doing these things, and me showing to them, it’s not, that’s a Muslim. That’s Omar. That’s Michael … you get the people.’”
While the topic of faith impacts students, they are not alone. Teachers are facing issues around faith, yet in different ways. Their faith can influence the conversations they do or do not have with each other and how they interact at colleague social gatherings.
“I have to be perfectly honest, I’m barely aware of another teacher’s faith,” Gowen said. “My experience is that I haven’t encountered [the faith of my colleagues] very much and that could speak to people not feeling comfortable sharing their religious tendencies, or just the fact that I am held up at the science building and don’t get to interact with my coworkers as much as I’d like to.”
Humanities teacher Emily Howland, said that while faith is not a common topic of conversation, spirituality through mindfulness is an aspect of the school that she incorporates into her classes.
“I haven’t had a lot of conversations with people about faith, but as someone in the mindfulness class, I definitely think about spirituality and the value of having silent time to look inwardly, which I think is often associated with some sort of prayer or meditation,” Howland said. “In a way, mindfulness is akin to spirituality, and that’s where I’m having conversations.”
Among the faculty and staff, their comfort level in talking about their faith depends on the person. For some, they freely talk about their religion and religious activities because they do not feel there is a difference between teachers of faith and those who do not associate with a religion.
“I feel comfortable talking about [Hinduism] even if nobody talks about it… I wish [religion] was more addressed. Conversations on the subject of religion should be conducted with consideration and respect because everyone’s faith is so sacred and personal,” Susan Zic, Annual Fund and Database Manager, said.
However, for others, the lack of conversation keeps them from bringing up the subject, especially if theirs is not a well-known faith.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable, but because I don’t really hear too many conversations happening, I don’t think it’s something I’d want to interject if it’s not already on the table,” said a teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s a place where people leave their spiritual beliefs at home… I’ve heard talk of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism but I haven’t heard of others… because of being the ‘other’, I can’t add onto the conversation in the same way.”
Faith not only impacts faculty and staff in the conversations they have with their colleagues but also in their social circles at Athenian.
“I don’t go to social events amongst the faculty that involve alcohol, for religious reasons, and that might affect me being around and having the same social connections other colleagues have with each other,” Balaven said. “I think people understand why I don’t, so I think I get around that. Amongst the adult community, it’s a more welcoming and open space [than the student community], at least, in my perception.”
If faith becomes a more integrated part of the Athenian culture through conversations both in and out of the classroom, there are some possible difficulties.
“If we privilege the goal of inclusiveness and seek to bring a wide diversity of groups together in a spirit of understanding and cooperation, it is likely that we will not all be able to agree on justice issues,” states the magazine, Cross Currents.
However, problems could arise if some religious faiths are more prominent than others, which could cause faculty, staff, and students of less common faiths to feel excluded.
“If we privilege the goal of justice, take positions on issues and create interfaith coalitions to wage campaigns, it is likely that many religious groups will not participate, and moreover, feel as if their theology is being negatively judged,” states the magazine Cross Currents.
Efforts to make Athenian more inclusive to students, faculty, and staff of all faiths have been spurred in recent years and is significantly increasing this year.
A few years ago, Balaven created a space for Muslim students to pray, who came to him with the need. This year, it has become an interfaith space to invite students of all religious backgrounds.
In addition, Athenian now has three religious clubs for students to participate in. The school has a Christian Club as well as the newly re-formed Jew Crew and Interfaith Club which all meet during lunches. For students interested in discussing the general topic of faith, the Interfaith Club, which meets in House three every Thursday, can be a resource.
This year, the school has begun making strides towards specifically making Athenian more welcoming to all religious students, which will hopefully expand to faculty and staff as well.
If Athenian becomes the campus Brown imagined in his mandala 50 years ago, with spirituality as a core aspect of the school, the Athenian culture could be impacted for the next 50 years. However, the school has more work in store to reach this potential in creating empathy and understanding around the subject of faith.
“Athenian is an inclusive place by design… you will feel less marginalized here than other places,” Bruce Hamren, science teacher, said. “But we have our own brand of Kool-Aid. People here aren’t any different, they still like to hold onto something about what they believe, but we look flexible on the outside. We are riled about people who aren’t like us, if they’re closed minded or secularistic.”