Elon University prides itself on being a leading school when it comes to religious inclusivity. But at a recent panel discussion, students and faculty were asked whether Elon could do more to support community members with no religious views.
The event was put on by the Spiritual and Religious Life Committee, who posed the following question to those gathered: How can we as a campus better include and support atheists, agnostics and those who indicate “none” for religious preference?
“It’s like asking, ‘What kind of a barber does a bald person need?’” said Tom Arcaro, professor of sociology at Elon, who is not religious. “That’s the nut we’re trying to crack.”
Junior Jensen Roll disagreed with this assessment.
“All students need to have access to similar resources, and creating communities where people feel safe is part of that,” Roll said.
Senior Mary Rouse said, as someone who does not hold religious views, parts of life at Elon can be off-putting.
“Every time there’s a prayer or invocation at an event, I feel excluded because a big assumption is being made about how the people there identify,” Rouse said. “Even if it was non-religious, what do they add that’s so important they need to exist?”
Rouse pointed to the large number of staff other religious groups have on campus, but said she and other classmates of hers who share her views aren’t necessarily looking to join in with other faith-based Elon organizations.
“We see it not so much that we want to be included, but we don’t want to be excluded,” she added.
While student groups like the Student Secular Society exist at Elon to try to create a community for the non-religious — though no members of the group attended the meeting — the committee chair, Diane Ford, said faculty and staff, not students, requested this topic be examined.
Lost in translation
Those who attended the meeting were given sheets asking questions about Elon’s inclusivity for non-religious and secular individuals, like how is Elon already successful in this area and how can Elon improve.
“We could be more purposeful in our inclusion,” said Johanna Janssen, director of clinical education for Elon’s physical therapy department. “When I think of discussing religious and secular issues, I think of the Truitt Center. But it’s all titled ‘inter-faith’ or ‘multi-faith’ and that’s exclusionary.”
Multiple panel members talked about how words like “multi-faith” and “spirituality,” while meant to include atheists and others of a similar worldview at Elon, end up turning people away.
“Nurturing spirit can be a can of worms, but we can do that through belonging to a community,” said Jane Welford, professor of performing arts. “It doesn’t have to have an ethereal quality.”
Diana Abrahams, multi-faith and intern coordinator at the Truitt Center, said faith in particular is a word people have trouble with.
“Other organizations have used terms besides faith that are school-specific, like ‘worldview,’” Abrahams said. “A lot of our issues are language issues.”
Martin Fowler, lecturer of philosophy, said the goal of promoting inclusivity for secular and non-religious members of the Elon family should be to provide the same things religion can bring — a sense of community and respect — without things like ritual, ceremony or faith.
“It’s not impossible, but we need to find a way to bring it across campus,” Fowler said.
And this requires a lot of thinking and ingenuity, as Brian Pennington, director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society and professor of religious studies, pointed out.
“There are ways in which you can define words like spirituality in non-theistic ways, but that doesn’t mean the word doesn’t hold certain connotations,” he said.
Arcaro said there are still parts of Elon’s secular community, like the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem, that make him feel excluded because of their theistic messages.
“It’s off-putting and alienating and to be saying something that doesn’t fit with what I know feels hypocritical,” he said.
However, when discussing the elimination of parts of Elon’s community like invocations at major events, Arcaro said these could take away something from religious people on campus.
“We have a wonderful community of strong believers and anything we do to make them feel uncomfortable is absolutely the wrong approach,” he said.
Ultimately, some discomfort arises from these conversations over religious and secular life not happening, as many meeting members said.
“I think there’s a little fear in the classroom by teachers and students and that could be opened up a little more,” Welford said.
Going forward, the Spiritual and Religious Life Committee will look at the discussion at the meeting and the voice of the community to see how non-religious people want to be included and focus on finding solutions that make everyone in the situation happy.