Strengthen religious diversity


Kerri Wilson and I hosted a discussion that focused on the possibility of creating an Interfaith Student Council at Rutgers University. Several student leaders from the University's diverse religious community were in attendance, ranging from leaders in the University's Pagan Student Association to the presidents of the Rutgers Hillel and the Jain Association at Rutgers.

Before the meeting had even commenced, Associate Director for Student Centers and Programs Wilson and I had already realized that the exact mission of such a council would ultimately need to be decided and agreed upon by the diverse religious leaders on campus. Nonetheless, we were prepared with a few suggestions about what the organization could look like and do so that we could provide a foundation for a discussion about the structure, purpose and merits of such a council.

We shared our hopes that the council would unite representatives from each of the religious organizations under one umbrella group that could focus on addressing shared organizational needs, offer a chance for religious organizations to work collectively toward a common goal that they may have, and that could serve as a forum for discussion and understanding. Based on the conversation that followed, many of our hopes actually turned out to address the needs of the many religious groups who were represented that day.

Representatives from the Pagan Student Association, for example, highlighted that many students at the University did not know about their organization, and that a major organizational need that they faced was establishing an increased presence despite major funding constraints. Hillel President Hilary Neher noted that she had encountered obstacles in her efforts to contact the leaders of other religious organizations in her organization's attempts to present a united front against the Westboro Baptist Church a few weeks ago. Given that the Westboro Baptist Church's hate was directed at any religion that was not their own, the diverse religious community at the University could have found a common goal in rallying together against a group that, through its blindly directed hate and sheer ignorance, serves to smudge the image of faith as a whole. And President of the Jain Association Shaival Shah explained that his organization had planned an Interfaith Social on Nov. 17 at 8:30 p.m. in the Rutgers Student Center Multi-Purpose Room on the College Avenue campus, which he hopes will allow individuals to engage in a discussion that will allow them to overcome ignorance and take advantage of an opportunity to learn about the many forms of faith in our world and the simple art of "believing," whatever it may be. He went on to discuss how only a few representatives from other faiths had responded to his requests for their presence at the event, and how he did not even have the contact information of other groups who were present at Monday's discussion.

Several legitimate concerns were also raised about the idea of an Interfaith Council. Some pointed out if the council were created, its power should be constrained to prevent it from imposing any obligations that would clash with the beliefs held by a member organization. Another very valid point was made regarding co-sponsorships that such a council would be able to dole out to member organizations. It was suggested that co-sponsorships of one organization over another would serve as an endorsement of one set of beliefs of another. Others representatives feared that the danger exists that the Interfaith Council, in which representative of many different and sometimes conflicting beliefs will be seated, may serve as a wellspring of tension and argument.

Without attempting to question the validity of these concerns, I would like to discuss them. First, it is important to keep in mind that ultimately, the mission statement of and powers held by the council will have to be agreed upon by all of the religious organizations who decide to join it. Because all religious organizations share an organizational need to represent and provide for those of their specific faith, it is clear that all organizations will also agree on a set of restraints that will prevent an Interfaith Council from infringing on the policies and goals of the individual member organizations, while also allowing a representative from every religious organization to serve comfortably within the council and maintain conviction in his or her own faith.

Co-sponsorships also need not be made toward specific organizations, for it is valid to assume that the provision of funding towards the event of one religious organization over the event of another organization may be perceived as an endorsement of one faith over the other. One solution made to address this was to cut out co-sponsorships all together, but I would like to suggest that a more creative and perhaps more beneficial solution would be to provide funding, but only to events that are interfaith in character.

This leads to my final point. It was said that bringing together representatives of faiths that each have different views may lead to difficult conversations and perhaps uncomfortable conflicts. I feel obligated to dissect the expectation that lies beneath this point. If one enters a discussion with the expectation that he or she will alter the religious beliefs of somebody else, the discussion will naturally be difficult. This expectation will serve to stir disagreements about fundamental beliefs, ultimately leading to conflict. In matter of fact, such a discourse is better termed a debate rather than a discussion. But if one expects only to increase knowledge and understanding of the contemporary world's religious and secular traditions and beliefs through dialogue, education, publications and public forums, one will not be dismayed, even in the few instances that the subject of disagreement may arise. This is because one's mission is only to share information, not enforce beliefs. What's more, all religious organizations at the University stand to benefit by increasing knowledge and understanding of themselves and of each other, as this would allow first year students to learn about them and seek them out earlier, while also gaining a greater understanding of themselves.

While I am not an active member of any of the many respectful religious organizations on campus, I am faithfully invested in the idea that diversity is a rare opportunity, and that the University is one of the few places in this country that affords individuals the ability to take advantage of it. Bringing together the religious organizations on campus under one umbrella organization that seeks to bank on this diversity will allow them to collaboratively address shared organizational needs, work collectively toward a common goals, and most importantly, increase knowledge and understanding of the contemporary world's religious and secular traditions and beliefs through dialogue, education, publications and public forums. This is a truly rare and beneficial opportunity, and one that should be realized now.

Ben West is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at benwest@eden.rutgers.edu.


Ben West

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