When they returned to school after fall break, students were greeted by a cohort of Bible thumpers shouting anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist sentiments in the heart of campus. Among other transgressions, these Christians made religion look ugly. Students with no religious background could be forgiven for assuming that most religious communities behave this way. They would be wrong. However, in some ways, these Christians are not as atypical as we would like to think — the social communities of our secular University turn out to be rife with the most common pitfalls of religious life.
College students, whether they are secular or religious, are religious. That is, they have dogmas, cults, temples, scriptures, proof texts, prophets, methods of absolution and methods of excommunication. Their loyalty to the group and its doctrine is often about the reward of belonging to a culture and a community. But inside their institutions of faith and ritual, they pursue the good life that their gods prescribe.
Orthodoxies abound: the temple of the Democrats and the Republicans, the progressives and libertarians and conservatives, the radicals of the left and the radicals of the right. The ideological and political substance of these various parties and communities differ, of course. But it increasingly seems that the structure is the same. They all delight in ideological packages. This isn't new, it’s human – or rather, it’s religious. We have always had a weakness for comprehensive explanations from holy sources. Perhaps these new religious practitioners don’t recognize the religious rhetoric of their systems because they haven’t heard it before. Most didn’t grow up in or around religious families, so they don’t recognize that what they are subscribing to is just another orthodoxy.
I was raised in an Orthodox community and recognized the religiosity and the piety. But I must note a significant difference. My denomination of Judaism, which calls itself Modern Orthodoxy, allowed for students to ask why we think what we think and why we do what we do. We were permitted to speak skeptically and express doubt: “Why must we memorize and obey this immense code of law so complex and evolved no God could have bothered to construct it?” (Granted, we still had to keep performing the practices, despite the overwhelming stream of underwhelming answers). The spiritual leaders — the good ones, anyway — are trained in a dialectical tradition, and they must show that they have mastered the vast and quarrelsome literature of the rabbis before they can claim, and are given, authority. They are trained to hold long, complicated conversations about hard questions.
So it was surprising for me to discover secular orthodoxies that are even more insular and disciplined than religious ones. The secular faiths that I see on campus demand certainty about questions that are too complex and too broad for certainty to be possible. They do not allow for questioning. According to each, you cannot admit uncertainty about global warming or health care or foreign policy. Regardless of which side of the aisle your answers come from, you must respond firmly. But can it really be the case that every person, Republican or Democrat, who thinks about these problems honestly comes to the prescribed conclusion as their party dictates that they must? Why do each side’s views on all the issues always seem to add up? Where is the healthy skepticism that the Cold War with the Soviet Union gifted our fathers and mothers? Memory is short.
Aldous Huxley was right: we are lazy and loud. In our debates, our vernaculars keep shrinking. We reuse words as if they are talismans, and move them around like tokens on a board. We mistake talking for thinking, as each side mechanically repeats its favorite slogans and points. But thinking is not the same as memorizing internally consistent propositions. Forget the talking points you’ve been given. Forget the eye rolls over coffee, the back pats and collective groans. Think seriously for a moment about the things you talk about. Aren’t they scarier than you remember? Don’t you know less about them than you need to know? Why do they never make you feel overwhelmed and uneasy? The big issues should humble and isolate you. They should make you pause, read and think hard.
The intellectual certainties often come with social cruelties. Apostasy is every bit as exhausting and lonely as it sounds. Where there are orthodoxies, there are pariahs. But apostasy has its blessings, too. At least you won’t suffer from that defensive feeling — that slightly nauseating suspicion of your own phoniness — that you get when you speak with authority about something you haven’t really mastered. Away from the sects, with their parroted beliefs and mechanical actions, there is oxygen — clearer minds and cleaner consciences. Anyway, some friends are worth losing.
CELESTE MARCUS is a College junior from Lower Merion, Pa., studying intellectual history.
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