__Campus Faith Series: In this first installment of a three part series on faith at the College of William and Mary, an athiest, a Christian and a Jewish student discuss religion as a college student. Next week, the story continues with a redefined Muslim and self-defined apathetic.__
College is an intellectual playground. As limits are pushed and boundaries are broken, new ideas come into play. Maybe you came to college thinking narrators never lie. Maybe you came “knowing” you exist. Maybe you came thinking Pluto was a planet. If anything is for certain, it’s that nothing is for certain.
Here at the College of William and Mary, it’s not different. What does that mean for student faith? Does learning that humans and chimpanzees are less than 5 percent genetically different affect one’s belief in creation? How does learning about female genital mutilation affect one’s belief in cultural relativism and human rights? Does it? Interviews with seven students provide some insight.
Hillel president Allison Mickel ’11 found that the critical nature of college matched that of her faith.
“I think that it’s hard to get through a liberal arts university without getting some degree of cynicism, and if you do, then you failed — there’s something wrong,” she said. “It asks you to challenge the beliefs that you’ve had and look at the world critically, in general, and I think that you have to realize whether or not that’s compliant with your faith, and for me it happened to be.”
Mickel considers herself reformed Jewish.
“Not super traditional, you’re encouraged to question things, kind of figure things out for yourself,” she said. “That’s how I would still define myself, but I’ve taken it to the extreme. I’m Jewish, but it’s a very personal conception of the tenants of Judaism. I don’t get my ideas necessarily from the Torah … I have my own beliefs, and they happen to match up with what you find in Judaism.”
Mickel has found that her classroom experiences have complemented her beliefs without affecting her faith.
“My faith would only be vulnerable if I didn’t see Judaism as something coming from historical circumstances in the first place,” she said. “I’m not necessarily someone who believes in magical or fantastical elements of the religion. For me it was elucidating and reinforcing the idea that my beliefs are grounded in past experiences of the human condition.”
Joe Kendra ’11, who defines himself as an atheist, also found that his academic experience reinforced his beliefs.
“Science in general, biology, I suppose, [has] the biggest effect on my atheism, especially with the study of evolution,” he said.
Raised Catholic, Kendra began questioning his beliefs in high school, and gradually moved further afield.
“There wasn’t a big epiphany moment; you just slowly start to realize you don’t have any basis or good reason to believe it — no evidence for the supernatural,” he said. “At the same time, I’m a biology major, so you start to learn about the perfect or even more natural reasons that someone would come into being. It’s kind of replacing religion with science.”
Kendra explores his atheism with the Freethought Alliance, a group which — according to their Facebook page — aims to “establish a positive social environment for students of the College of William and Mary who are rationalists, non-theists, agnostics, deists, humanists or skeptics.” Compared to his experience at home, Kendra appreciates the rarity of the discourse in this group.
“The unique experience of college offers you what you won’t get anywhere else,” he said. “You’re going to be surrounded by a very, very diverse amount of people with equal intelligence, making them very receptive to discourse and conversations. Within your family, you have beliefs, and out in public it’s kind of bizarre to strike up a conversation with people about the deeper meaning of life.”
Like Kendra, Dustin Glasner ’10 is also a biology major. Unlike his classmate, Glasner has not found that science has replaced his religion.
“I’ve always been interested in science, and I’ve always been a spiritual person, so growing up I would explore both sides of it, and throughout high school, I’ve come to the fact that you can definitely reconcile the two,” Glasner said. “You can be a Christian, strong in his faith, and also a scientist who believes in evolution. Evolution is just one big piece of the puzzle. But I have a couple friends who don’t hold the same views I do when it comes to science, and I know it’s been a different experience for them.”
Glasner was surprised to find that college strengthened his Christian beliefs. He described his faith as becoming stronger once he came to the College because of the people he’s been involved with in Greek Impact and Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity.
“There have been a lot of people who’ve helped me grow spiritually,” he said. “I’m definitely closer with God and the people around me, and the connections [with God] I have are stronger than when I came to college.”
Despite what he’d seen in the classic college movie “Animal House,” Glasner was never concerned his Christianity would disappear in college.
“I wasn’t worried that I would lose it, but I wasn’t also optimistic that it would grow in college,” he said. “Coming in, I kind of figured my faith would be my faith, and it would always be who I was, but I didn’t expect to find an organization that would help it grow.”
For Glasner, Kendra and Mickel, experiences at William and Mary reinforced the beliefs they had since freshman year. But not all students find classroom discussions and new friendships compatible with former beliefs.