Georgetown is praised for having a solid platform for interfaith dialogue, and rightly so. From Campus Ministry to chaplains-in-residence in undergraduate dormitories, the university offers room for spiritual dialogue while also providing a thorough academic theology curriculum. Different faith communities on campus continuously work to engage each other in dialogue. Students in classes and clubs, from the Jewish Student Association to the Muslim Student Association, are able to sit down and contemplate the theological and social features of the doctrines they live by, making for a vibrant community. Believers of all faiths are welcomed to engage in this conversation, but what about those that do not belong to a doctrine and live without a god in their life?
Religion is almost inevitably going to be part of a person’s life. In most cases, religious influences in society during one’s upbringing are strong. Religious institutions affect most communities and political scenes. Even though there may be a separation between church and state, the religious beliefs of a population and those in office will always affect the social norms of a country. Faith, however, is not always part of one’s worldview. While religious institutions may influence your community, faith is an entirely personal endeavor.
According to a national survey released by Pew Research in 2012, Americans who list “nothing in particular” as their religious association have doubled over the past twenty years. 33 million Americans have no religious affiliation and 13 million of these say they are atheists or agnostics. As we see a demographic increase in the number of people who do not identify themselves as religious in the United States, we must develop a way to engage in dialogue with one another across an unprecedented number of positions on faith and religion. Most importantly, we need to be able to include those who are passionate about religious conversation, but who do not abide by any doctrine in the dialogue the Georgetown community prides itself on.
Georgetown certainly has the potential to include these voices.
Just like many other Italians, I was raised a Catholic. However, a mixture of intellectual growth and institutional disdain toward the Vatican brought me away from both faith and the religious community. Arriving at Georgetown a part of me still feared that I would have been a misfit. Senselessly enough, I preempted my fear by showing strong intellectual arrogance against religious belief. I quickly realized I had made a big mistake. The Georgetown community is open-minded and I sensed no marginalization simply because I did not believe in God.
A fantastic theology professor made me understand how, regardless of our ideological and religious beliefs, we all have a necessity to dive into philosophical and theological questions. We need to ask ourselves these important questions if we ever want to understand how we relate to one another and in order to develop our sense of right or wrong. The great questions in life, whether they are related to human nature, morality, or metaphysics, cannot be monopolized by institutionalized religion alone. Everyone should have a say, and if somebody has had the courage to step out of the mainstream and move away from a doctrine or belief-system, he or she probably has a lot to contribute to the discussion.
This idea is not limited to atheists. Agnostics, secularists, humanists, and other groups that do not fit into conventional religious doctrines must all be part of the conversation. Even the increasing number of individuals who consider themselves to be “nothing in particular” in the context of religion must contribute to the discussion. Our inability to fill in the box for “religious affiliation” during college applications should not be a weakness, but a valuable distinction.
Georgetown has an academic approach that can integrate people who do not belong to mainstream religious thought into interfaith dialogues. Even in the most traditional and catechist theology courses offered at the university there is little room for taboos, from marriage to contraceptives, across a variety of contemporary social issues. It is now the time for this predisposition to inclusivity to be translated into real action.
Participating in the development of the newly founded Georgetown Secular Student Alliance has been a great example of how the community can set the premise for good dialogue. In the next years we will engage all branches of the Georgetown community in order to have good, respectful, and prolific conversation on religion and faith. People who are afraid to take part to conversations about the fundamental questions that surround life must step up, and people who are hesitant to allow non-religious individuals into the debate must realize that this group of people has valuable insights to share.
To share our ideas is both a right and a duty, as it determines social discourse on questions that do not always have one right answer.