Faith at Dartmouth
At Dartmouth, Rollins Chapel hosts both faith-related and non-related events.
At the beginning of her sophomore summer, Angelina Lionetta ’18 was worried about one of her upcoming classes. The course, a philosophy class called “Reproductive Ethics,” would cover subjects such as genetic enhancement, selective diminishment and abortion.
Lionetta is Catholic, and those issues, especially abortion, are sensitive among members of her religion.
Born into what she calls “an old Italian family” in Andover, Massachusetts, Lionetta grew up as an active member of her church: her parents took her to mass as a baby, she was an altar server and she taught Sunday School for third- through fifth-grade girls. At Dartmouth, Lionetta has continued to be passionate in her religious life, actively participating and organizing social events at Aquinas House, the Catholic student organization on campus.
Lionetta considers herself to be socially liberal, though she leans more conservative on certain issues. She said that as a woman and a pre-med student, she believes that abortion is a public health issue — one that has implications for both the mother and society. As a Catholic, however, she still maintains that life is sacred. For Lionetta, her beliefs on the subject can be challenging, as they differ from those held by some other devout Catholics.
Coming into her “Reproductive Ethics” class, Lionetta said she wondered how students in the class would react to her opinions — would they look down on her for her views? But after having conversations with the professor and engaging in small group discussions with fellow classmates, Lionetta said she realized her concerns were unfounded. In fact, she discovered that the views of her classmates were more diverse than she originally assumed.
Lionetta’s experience is not uncommon among religious students at Dartmouth. While students may face apprehension and misunderstanding of their beliefs, overt acts of prejudice are rare. Dartmouth students’ religious and spiritual experiences are understood best by the nuance used in describing individuals’ beliefs, rather than by attempting to generalize students into like-minded groups.
For some students, religion and spirituality does not play a prominent role in their Dartmouth experience. A recent poll of students conducted by The Dartmouth found that 43 percent of students identify as either atheist, agnostic or having no religion in particular, and 62 percent of students consider religion as either “not too important” or “not important at all.” But truly identifying an individual’s sense of spirituality involves more than asking those kinds of questions, Tucker Center dean and chaplain Rabbi Daveen Litwin said.
“I think what’s true about Dartmouth … is that while the language of religion is perhaps not, unfortunately, politically correct language these days, the questions that people ask [regarding identification of faith] are using a different kind of a framework,” said Litwin, giving the example that the word “religion” may mean an unquestionable belief in God for one person, but could simply mean a gathering place of family and community for another,.
Although religion as a practice may not be the central focus of academic institutions, Litwin believes that Dartmouth is rooted in religious and spiritual traditions. Dartmouth may not like to use the word “ritual,” she said, but it certainly has many rituals. And these rituals, while not ostensibly religious, often align closely with religious traditions, she said.
As an example, Litwin said, Green Key weekend may not on the surface seem like a religious event. Yet many religions have significant holidays during the spring to celebrate the awakenings of the season. Likewise, Litwin added, Green Key represents an opportunity for Dartmouth students to go outdoors and experience that renewal after enduring a cold, harsh winter.
At the Tucker Center, Litwin oversees 24 recognized religious groups on campus, which encompass all five of the world’s major religions. Tucker Center multi-faith advisor Leah Torrey estimates that usually half of the students who participate in such programs identify as atheist or agnostic.
“Often times people think of Tucker as a place for people who are religious, who meet some kind of litmus test around religious life,” Torrey said. “But it’s really students who are trying to better understand their own sense of ethics, their own sense of values, [and] their own sense of goodness in the world.”
One of those students is Emily Carter ’19. Raised in a non-denominational, evangelical Christian household in Washington state, Carter attended private Christian schools through middle school. When she reached high school, however, she said she realized that she did not feel the assurance of salvation that she had expected from her faith, nor did she find her emerging political views to be in line with her religious views.
“I ended up leaving religion because I realized ... it was something I was taught to [believe], not really because I had looked at it objectively and determined that that was what I thought I should [believe],” Carter said.
For Carter, coming to Dartmouth was an opportunity to explore her developing value system as an atheist and secular humanist, especially by taking philosophy classes and engaging in programs at the Tucker Center.
“At Dartmouth, it seems like people are more open to talking with and being friends with people who have beliefs that are different from theirs,” Carter said. “And that’s been sort of a good thing for me, to learn to be humble and accept other’s beliefs.”
Torrey said that college is an important time for students to develop their own value systems, especially since they no longer are influenced by their families and home communities on an everyday basis.
“Operating in an independent context takes strength, practice, thought, reflection and prayer,” Torrey said.
An example of this concept in action is the Interfaith Floor, a living learning community sponsored by the Tucker Center, which brings students together from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Anirudh Udutha ’18, who is the floor’s undergraduate advisor, said that residents write spiritual autobiographies describing their spiritual journeys at Dartmouth as well as participate in alternative worship services. He said that the benefits of these experiences include exposure to a diversity of thought and an open, communal atmosphere.
“Rather than having something in common ... your commonality is your interest in these questions,” Udutha said.
As an Indian-American who grew up in the Atlanta, Georgia area, Udutha knows what it is like to be a member of a religious and ethnic minority. At Dartmouth, Udutha has been an active member of the Hindu community, participating in the student group Shanti and helping plan major events such as the holidays Diwali and Holi.
For Udutha, being Hindu primarily involves the spiritual aspect of the faith, though he does participate in the ritualistic and cultural aspects as well. As a neuroscience major on a pre-med track, Udutha finds that Hinduism represents a way to tie his own sense of spirituality to his beliefs on social justice, community organizing and global health.
“Faith is usually tied to the concept of organized religion – like, a sense of God or something – and spirituality is a much more internal, personal thing,” Udutha said. “They’re connected, but not always the same.”
Udutha said that while Dartmouth has a significant amount of diversity – even within smaller groups like Shanti – people still tend to not be as aware of the customs and beliefs of others as they should. Although Udutha said he doesn’t find his spiritual beliefs to conflict with what he learns in the classroom, there are occasions in which people with whom he shares his identity as a Hindu have misconceptions about his faith and culture.
For Jacob Casale ’17, misconceptions about his faith have also been an issue he has faced at Dartmouth. As a former co-president of the Christian Union student group, Casale’s faith is a significant part of his life, both before and during his time at Dartmouth. Casale said that often acquaintances are at first not sure how to react when they find this out about him.
“When [my faith] is put on the table as the reality … people don’t necessarily really know what to do with that,” Casale said. “It’s just kind of like, ‘Oh, well that’s nice.’ And you kind of feel a little bit like an anthropological oddity.”
But Casale added that he sees this issue as a healthy challenge, and that meeting new people with different backgrounds and beliefs gives him the opportunity to constantly develop his own viewpoints.
Growing up in Seattle, Washington, Casale was raised by parents with Methodist upbringings, but never felt tied to one denomination of Christianity. He currently identifies as non-denominational Protestant, and believes that the specific sect of Christianity matter less than the individual’s personal relationship to God.
Casale said that being at Dartmouth has forced him to reckon with difficult questions regarding his faith such as the historical veracity and coherence of the Bible, as well as the intersection between faith and scientific reasoning.
“Christianity actually has a rich intellectual history, and has always welcomed intellectual engagement,” Casale said. “I think the Bible does hold together remarkably well.”
As a psychology major and geography minor, Casale admits that there are times when his beliefs do not perfectly align with the academic standard – for example, he believes that scientific processes and reasoning cannot answer some of the deeper, fundamental questions of life – but that this process of intellectual engagement with faith is beneficial.
“You can grow as a Christian in the classroom when your beliefs are kind of openly challenged – or even just in terms of thinking about what you’re studying in the lens of your faith,” Casale said.