For about a month, I had a job doing door-to-door sales/marketing (a funny post on this might be coming soon), and a couple weeks ago I spent a long time standing in a driveway talking to a really nice older gentleman who was a retired college admissions officer. When I told him I just graduated from Georgetown he replied “Nice! Good school!” …Then, in what can only be described as a hiss, he added “even if they’ve become atheists.” It was perfectly clear from his tone of voice how he felt about atheists.
Since I myself am an atheist — and am generally opposed to disliking people based solely on their religious beliefs (or lack of) — it took a decent amount of will power to stand there smiling. Normally, I would have embraced the teaching moment. I love telling people they are wrong, and this man was wrong about both Georgetown and atheists. Plus, it’s never too late (or too early) to teach someone to be more accepting of other people. But I was there to sell him on a free estimate for exterior home projects, and I get paid on commission, so I prioritized my self interest by smiling and giving this man my most ambiguous “ah huh.” (When I was a Senate intern answering constituent phone calls, I picked up the skill of making sounds that can be interpreted as anything from full-hearted agreement to “wow you are so insane it’s not even worth telling you how absolutely wrong you are.”)
We continued chatting amicably, and the man even offered to do a free estimate just so I could get paid. But later the conversation made its way back to colleges, and this white-haired fellow said rather matter-of-factually “Georgetown is an abomination.” He smirked a little. “You want to know why?” he added.
Yes, please explain.
“They invited the head of Planned Parenthood to speak! On campus!”
Ahh, should have guessed.
“Oh ya, I heard that” I answered, omitting the fact that I’d been absolutely thrilled when Cecile Richards came to the Hilltop, or that I’d only missed her event because I had a class where attendance counted toward my grade, or that I really wish Georgetown didn’t have to make such a big deal of providing disclaimers about pro-choice groups and events being 100% student-run and not reflecting official policy. Instead I said something along the lines of “Ya, people are able to hear a variety of opinions on campus, but the school does make a point of distancing itself from some of these.”
He just shook his head, and we moved on to another topic before I politely ended the conversation to get back to work. As I walked off, my brain filed this exchange under “funny stories about interactions with strangers.” But a couple days later I was reminded again of my relationship with religion at Georgetown, and I started to think of all the things I could have said while standing in that man’s driveway, beginning with: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
Somewhat ironically, two of my favorite courses at Georgetown were theology ones: Biblical Literature and The Book of Genesis, both taught by the hilarious Professor Linafelt. One of the many things I learned in these courses was that you can never take the vocabulary of the bible for granted. It was written in another language by people in a different historical/political/cultural/linguistic context from ours. When you read even the best English translation (and some of the most popular ones are quite terrible), you are already missing some key details, and you are sure to bring additional biases to your reading.
The word “abomination” is a good example of this. When bigots shout stupid things like “homosexuality is an abomination!” what they don’t realize is that someone at some point – many years after the bible’s original authors had died – decided to use this word in a new translation. I’m no biblical scholar, and I don’t know Hebrew, but according to Professor Linafelt the original word actually had a much less harsh connotation than one might imagine today. Beyond the fact that (to my knowledge) the bible says nothing about abortion much less Planned Parenthood, I wonder if that man who called Georgetown an abomination knew anything about the complexity of the word he used. Certainly for a former college admissions officer he seemed to understand surprisingly little about what education should do – namely, that it should introduce students to new points of view and make them question their assumptions about the world. (Note: if it seems like the points of view I’m talking about introducing here are only my own, I would like to point out that even as Georgetown gave me new tools with which to criticize certain elements of Christianity, it also gave me a new academic respect for the bible and personal respect for people who use it as a holy text.)
Once I finished pontificating about vocabulary, education, and open-mindedness, I would also tell the man how I believe Georgetown often exemplifies the best religion has to offer.
That reminder I received about religion at Georgetown came in the form of an email from Campus Ministry. I had forgotten that back in April or May I applied for a post-grad service grant to help me pay back student loans while I’m making virtually no money with the Peace Corps. Someone from Campus Ministry emailed to inform me that I (as well as everyone else who applied) would get a decent sized check from donations received at Dahlgren Chapel and the Baccalaureate Mass. The money itself was very helpful, but it meant even more to the sentimental side of me that people donated this money to any and all seniors who would be doing service work. No one asked me if I was Catholic or be working for a Catholic organization. It makes me hopeful that there are people who believe any work which helps our planet and the people on it is done “for the greater glory of God”regardless of the beliefs held by those doing this work.
I’m saying this as someone who has no qualms about criticizing any and all religious traditions. Too often, religious beliefs, practices, and leaders instill fear and hatred in followers instead of love and peace. They claim that only one way of life and of thinking is permissible. Sometimes, they say that what a person believes matters more than what they do to other people. They damn even good people to Hell, and they undervalue our time on Earth (though personally I don’t think anyone will have to find out that they wasted their one life in preparation for the next).
Now, I knew before coming to Georgetown that these were generalizations, and that even when every one of these criticisms apply, people can still do good through religion. I have always been fascinated by religions and places of worship, and I wrote my college essay about the unifying questions asked by everyone regardless of religious tradition. I even love going to church (mostly my own Unitarian Universalist Society, but I’m generally glad of the opportunity to visit others).
…But I never wanted to go to a religiously affiliated school. In fact, when I got college brochures in the mail as a high schooler, I had a folder titled “colleges I will never ever consider” which included three categories: religious schools, all-women colleges, and anything in Florida. (No offense to anyone who falls into these categories, they just weren’t for me.)
I made an exception when applying to Georgetown – twice. In the end, I’m sort of ambivalent about my college experience overall, but I am glad I transferred to Georgetown, and I never felt out of place as a non-theist (though perhaps coming from a Christian cultural background helps – I don’t want to assume my experience is universal). I am often amazed that Georgetown’s Jesuit identity was one of my favorite things about the 5 semesters I spent on the Hilltop. I enjoyed the conversations it inspired and the occasional reminder that we are all here for something bigger than a diploma (even if I don’t think that bigger thing is God). Perhaps most of the students at Georgetown are appalled by A-minuses and don’t leave any time for the Ignatius “examine” of their day (or time for sleeping/eating/leaving the library), but the university itself provided space for me to figure out what was important and to exercise my love of learning (even if my wonderful roommate regularly expressed her opinion that I was insane for being so casual and cheerful about schoolwork). I found space for reflection – beginning at ESCAPE (the optional new student retreat) and continuing in open houses with Chaplins in Residence. Shout out to Marc and Liz Rugani and to Father Carnes for their delicious baked goods and comfortable couches, and for the conversations and sense of community they inspired!
Of course, none of what I have written is directly relevant to my conversation with that old man, but I was feeling sentimental when I wrote most of this (weeks ago). Despite all the areas with ample room left for improvement, Georgetown is far from an abomination (by any definition), and I wanted to make that perfectly clear.
(But stay tuned for a post where I explain why the college experience is entirely overrated.)