Holy Academia

Whether we are believers or not, one thing that the UVM student body has in common is that, as human beings, we all have some opinion about religion. Regardless of our personal faith or beliefs, religion on campus is not an entirely private ideology. In more ways than the UVM student population might be aware, religion plays a rather prominent role in campus life. Whether in terms of religion as a practice or religion as a field of academic study, UVM offers its students a variety of ways to engage in religious practice, study and conversation. Religion has always been a controversial subject. It is, understandably, an intensely personal matter of discussion. However, its presence on campus is apparent in a very visible way. From the UVM Catholic Center to the Islamic Center to the Religion Club to Hillel to Lifelines Outdoor Ministry, students have the opportunity to pursue their religious and spiritual interests. Religion as a Practice So, how do UVMers who practice a religious faith, or are looking to practice, find what it is they’re looking for? The UVM Catholic Center, located on Redstone Campus, opens its doors to anyone in the area. According to their Web site, any Catamount, Champlain student, Burlington resident or curious visitor is welcome at the Catholic Center. Committed to providing an atmosphere that generates a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith, the Catholic Center has been a comfort zone, safe haven and even a hangout spot for any UVM student. Lauren Buckley, a freshman frequenter of the Catholic Center, takes advantage of the countless opportunities that the Center offers. “I come here Sundays for mass and once a week for Bible Study,” she said. “This afternoon they were making a dinner for the Salvation Army. There’s a guy here from a fraternity who needed some volun?teer hours. It’s a great place to get people who are Catholic together and to people who aren’t, it’s just an open door.” The Catholic Center is a peaceful place for UVMers to retreat to in any state of mind. “You can compare it to people who do yoga to meditate. This is where I go to meditate. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful,” says a UVM freshman, who wished to remain anonymous. In addition to the Catholic Center, Lifelines Outdoor Ministry has offered its services to the UVM student body for two years now, according to Heather Litchfield of Lifelines. A ministry conducive to Vermont’s natural beauty, Lifelines helps students strengthen their relationship with each other and God in an outdoor setting. Students are invited to participate in a number of free outdoor trips – from snowshoeing and sledding in the winter months to kayaking and white water rafting in the spring. “We are like other groups on campus in that we really want to help students grow in relationship with God, but we differ from other groups through our outdoor emphasis and our desire to really serve the whole campus, regardless of where students are spiritually,” said Heather Litchfield. “In fact, only a handful of students that came on trips in the fall would consider themselves followers of Christ. We want to be spiritual guides, but we also want to give students tools to grow regardless of their beliefs.” Then there’s Hillel. The largest Jewish campus organization in the world, Hillel provides Jewish students with various opportunities at over 500 colleges and universities. With more than 1,400 Jewish students on campus, UVM Hillel, located in the Allen house on Main Street, provides students with opportunities to explore their Jewish identity. A social network that connects Jewish students with their faith, UVM Hillel operates as a religious organization as well as a social organization, according to their national Web site. Jeff Roblin, president of UVM Hillel, emphasizes the importance of meeting the needs of each student (there are over 700!). Of course, all of these needs aren’t always easily met – such as the struggle to accommodate those students who keep kosher (no kosher dining facilities on campus!). “Vermont is one of two states that doesn’t have a Jewish federation – a group that gives money to Jewish charities,” says Roblin.”Typically, the Jewish Federation will fund about 40% of Hillel’s budget so we don’t have access to that.” Regardless, from bagel brunches to Hanukkah parties to Friday night services every week, Hillel is an entirely student run group that prides itself on being a cultural organization as well as a religious one. Religion as an Academic Study Students are often surprised when they learn that UVM has a tradition of religious studies–entirely disconnected from religious institutions– that began decades ago. In 1956 the University hired its first full-time religious studies professor with a Ph.D. in comparative religion as the program was now finally recognized as a public institution receiving support from the state, according to the Department’s Web site. UVM’s Religion Department is unique in that it was one of the first universities to offer religion courses taught by religion scholars rather than practicing clergy. Religion professor Bill Paden – who came to UVM in 1965 – suggested that the comparative religion major was created in response to that generation’s desire for something more than just an understanding of Western religions. The program was designed to provide students with the opportunity to study various world religions simply for academic knowledge. According to Paden, UVM’s Religion Department has always been a secular one; it is neither pro-religious nor anti- religious. Rather, the Religion Department aims to bring various religious ideologies to the forefront in an academic setting. And religious studies is increasingly becoming a more popular academic field. “Around the country religion majors increased by something like 30% after September 11th,” said Paden. “Before it was more of a private issue and now it’s more important globally.” Doug Robinson – a junior Religion student – launched the Religion Club last semester. Robinson, who considers religion to be the “cornerstone of the humanities,” created the Religion Club to stimulate student awareness of pressing contemporary issues concerning religion. “You can’t study anything from History to English without recognizing the importance of religion in human society. I think that as a motivator of human desires and as a drive for doing things, religion has done the most work for creating conflict and creating peace.” The Religion Club, which meets Thursdays at 6 p.m. in the Religion Department, provides a comfortable atmosphere for any student to engage in open conversation about these topics. In response to a survey conducted in the fall of 2005, the Committee on Spiritual and Religious Life for the President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion was created last spring. Though the committee is still in its beginning stages, a good number of students have already shown interest in its mission. “About 96% of people in the US believe in a higher power,” says Carol Fournier, chairperson of the Committee. “One of the things we look at is what kind of support they have around them.” The creation of the Religion Department in the ’60s, the various organizations available to students on and off-campus and the birth of the Committee on Spiritual and Religious Life are a testament to UVM’s willingness to provide students with what they need to fill any religious or spiritual void in their daily lives. Religion is a controversial subject but it is rapidly becoming more important publicly where it was once more of a private issue. “We see religion as something that is separate from everyday life and something you can participate in your free time,” says Robinson, “but religion has always been intertwined with everyday life.” Justin Lane contributed to this article