By: Elad Gilo
After passing the half way mark of my domestic exchange semester at Vassar College, I think it appropriate to reflect upon secularism and “non-theism” as handled within its community. Vassar in many ways fulfills the quintessential notion of a small liberal arts college. The small student body which is broken into much smaller class sizes, a predominantly homogeneous middle and upper-middle class demographic combined with a generally liberal-minded and idealistic student body, makes it a suitable place for free thought and general discontent with dogma and established patriarchal institutions seen to be forces of oppression.
My experience however, has been all too similar to most places I visit and in some ways similar to Reed College. Vassar’s 5 religious student organizations compared to Reed’s one religious organization (Vassar has nearly 1000 students more than Reed) shows the proportional disparity of religious organization at Vassar compared to Reed. Despite the relatively high number of religious groups that exist, the vast majority of individuals that I have encountered proclaim themselves to be soft secularists and a large number even express themselves to be Atheists. While all of this is merely anecdotal, the underlying non-theistic world view of the student body prevails. As I sat in on an ethics class, the teacher jovially poked fun at Vassar’s ever prominent and increasing atheistic student body, which in this case inhibited students from providing religious doctrine as basis for ethical and moral authority in the course. All of this is encouraging from a secular point of view.
While clearly not possessing Reed’s staunch and ostentatious atheist culture, Vassar seems to be indicative of many comparable liberal arts colleges whose student body shies away from mainstream religion and even if more agnostic than atheist are not prepared to accept conventional conceptions of god. The difficultly, like at Reed has been to convince people of the pressing need for an organized secular movement. Had I been at Vassar for a longer period of time I would have started a Vassar Secular Alliance which currently does not exist. When speaking to people about such a group it is hard to find resounding support. People who may be completely onboard in terms of their own personal convictions fail to see the need for such a secular organization to exist, particularly because so much of their objection to religion is mass organization itself. This is a pressing problem all over, at Reed as well and one that must be battled on the ground, talking to people one by one explaining the need for such organization. Nonetheless my discussions are usually met with soft agreement but not acknowledgement of the pressing urgency. Despite being disappointed at the lack of will to organize, I am also incredibly optimistic by the level of non-theism that currently exists on the campus and that constantly reminds me of the endless number of individuals who think similarly but go under the radar for not subscribing to a visible group; they are the silent warriors.