Friday, February 15, 2008

My Own Little Campus Controversy

Last Wednesday, Dartmouth’s daily school paper, The [Daily] Dartmouth, published an op-ed by Lucy Stonehill ’10 titled “See You in Hell.” Stonehill spent a majority of her column attacking an unnamed classmate for what she described as “rigid close-mindedness” in an English course discussion of the Genesis creation story. This student, she said, was a religious zealot “using obscure religious reasoning and citing isolated, irrelevant examples to give the illusion that textual evidence supported his points.” She accused him of living in “denial”, failing to objectively analyze the text, and “frantically[ing] rack his brain in order to regurgitate the memorized snippets of Sunday School ‘fact’ that leave no room for alternate interpretations of God’s benevolence.” Oddly enough, she never actually explained what it was her classmate said to tick her off, implying that the reader should just trust her to be a better judge than her classmate of what is and is not relevant for Biblical understanding. She spent her final few paragraphs arguing the point that religion has no place in the classroom. Her poorly written attack on religion spawned several more op-eds, which you can read here, here, here, and here.

I mention this because I am the student Stonehill attacked. While not technically named, I was described in such a way that made my identity painfully obvious to anyone who knows me well or was in the class. You would expect the editors of The D to have a sense of balance or fair play and allow me to respond, but no such luck. I submitted a reply on Monday afternoon, but according to Editor-in-Chief Katy O’Donnell, “The campus dialogue on this issue has run its course--at least in the Opinion page of The D--and the Opinion editors must also consider space constraints and other logistical minutiae... The campus reaction, though, has been both passionate and responsible--and we have reflected it in our Opinion page.” I do admit that my reply was a little late, I do understand space constraints, and I agree that most of the reaction has been responsible. Nevertheless, I find those poor excuses for The D to deny a man the chance to respond when attacked by their paper. Yes, my identity was technically not revealed, but that is irrelevant as it was still fairly obvious and word travels fast on a small campus.

Here is the Op-Ed The D has refused to publish. My sincere thanks to Christine Tian ’10 at "Dartlog," Zak Moore '09 at "Dartblog", and Matt Nolan ’07 at "the Natural Condition” for helping me publish my defense. I begin by giving the context of the class that Stonehill failed to describe, and then take the opportunity to explore the differences between atheists and people of faith. I struggled to make sure this column was not arrogant or patronizing, and hope that I succeeded.

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Though she was courteous enough not to mention my name, I was the classmate taken to task for “religious zeal” in Lucy Stonehill ‘10’s column “See You in Hell.” Though I was at first surprised – I hardly recognized our discussion from her description – I am now grateful. Her column has given us the chance for a rare but valuable public discussion of religion. With this response, I would like to explain just what was said in class, and examine an unfortunate disconnect between atheists and people of faith.

Stonehill spent much of her column accusing me of “regurgitat[ing] memorized snippets of Sunday School ‘fact’ that leave no room for alternate interpretations” without ever actually telling the reader what my arguments were. It should be understood that the assignment was not just to “read and analyze the Genesis creation story”, but to compare that story with another culture’s creation tale and understand the distinct traditions. Stonehill insisted on a very literal reading of the Biblical text, which, if accepted as the only proper interpretation, would lead students to believe all Christians believe something that they in fact do not. I did not dismiss her literal reading, but I did try to broaden the discussion by adding the metaphorical interpretation held by many mainline Christians and the academic view that Genesis has four authors and two creation stories. This is what Stonehill dismisses as “obscure religious reasoning” and “isolated, irrelevant examples.” How, I ask, can including multiple perspectives be considered “rigid close-mindedness?”

Stonehill’s main argument, that religious zealotry has no place in the classroom, is well taken. Unfortunately, in implying that all religion is religious zealotry and focusing the majority of her column on our discussion, she distorts her otherwise valid point. As has been noted in subsequent opinion pieces, we all have different individual perspectives that shape who we are and how we contribute. This diversity can enrich both academic and cultural discussions. Lucy’s background and beliefs, whatever they may be, are a welcome addition to the classroom, as should be my own Texas roots and Episcopal views.

This brings me to my larger point, that there is an acute lack of understanding between atheists and people of faith. I do not mean to imply that Stonehill is an atheist – I don’t know what her beliefs are – but her article is an effective springboard for the topic. She argues that personal “creeds” should be checked at the classroom door. This suggests that faith is like a winter coat – something that can be worn when appropriate, but shed when things get a little too warm. I beg to differ. My faith is not a lens through which I view the world, but the actual eyes behind that lens, irrevocably attached to the head. I can no more set aside my belief in God than I can set aside my belief that the earth revolves around the sun.

I am reminded of two friends who experienced a painful breakup. Though neither realized it at the time, they grew apart because of faith issues – one was a devote Christian, the other an atheist. The atheist asked the Christian to make certain sacrifices of faith that seemed reasonable, and was offended by the Christian’s refusal to make those sacrifices for the sake of their relationship. The atheist did not realize that the existence of God is not something we choose to believe, but something we see when we look around us, as real as the Collis porch. Spirituality is not another idea in the world, spirituality is the world, and we can’t prioritize anything above that no matter how much we may want. The only difference I see between telling a Professor I slept through a midterm but still expect an A and telling God I forgot about faith for a few hours but still love Him (or perhaps Her) is that God matters more than any professor.

Yet just as there are things atheists do not understand about people of faith, there may well be things I do not understand about atheists. I will happily discuss the topic with anyone so inclined.

I should also note that I have never called myself a “priest-in-training.” While I do hope to become an Episcopal priest, seminary is years away. Given the matter’s seriousness and the unpredictable nature of the future, it is something I try not to talk about very often.

Just as I believe in evolution, I also believe that adherence to a particular faith is not a pre-requisite for a happy afterlife. It is in that spirit that I say, no, Lucy, I will see you in Heaven.

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