Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Nation's Largest Catholic School...

Pick one. Pick two, pick three, pick four, however many more.

University. College. Major. Career. DECISIONS.

When I stumbled my way through lists upon lists of universities, I initially crossed out every single college with a religious background, opting mainly for public schools. I was worried that as a young atheist, my thoughts and feelings would be disrespected and trivialized in a profoundly religious environment. Unfortunately, that didn't leave me with very many affordable and respectable options left. I slowly began to open up the doors and consider some of religiously affiliated schools in my nearby home of Chicago. I decided that in a modern city, most schools, even religiously affiliated, must have a pretty strong diversity of people.

I visited a couple schools in the city that I found to be all around lackluster. Then I got to DePaul. I was wary at first, knowing it was the nation's largest catholic university. As I would soon learn, DePaul does not hold this title because of its proportion of catholic students, but rather it's total number of students.

When I visited the campus, I fell in love. I had scheduled an over night stay. As it turned out, my host was a MAJOR supporter of GLBTQ rights, an issue that spoke strongly with me. She was wonderfully liberal and fun, and she wasn't the only one. In fact, she fell within the blissful majority at DePaul. During my overnight stay I found something endlessly appealing in the irony of a catholic school situated right next to Boystown, but I also found more: I found a community. DePaul categorizes itself as Vincentian, a particular division of the Catholic church that stresses the importance of diversity and service towards the common man. As someone who has always been in service, especially for underprivileged and marginalized groups of people, I felt like I could really fit in at DePaul, regardless of my religious identity - or rather, lack there of.

Fast forward a year. Here I am, DePaul student, having just finished my first quarter. I was right. I'm not alone on campus. There are lots of people who share parts of my identity, including my theological one. I am comfortable here, and proud of my school for supporting so many ideals that I share. I think this is the first time in my life that I'm experiencing actual school spirit. SHOCK AND HORROR!

But I mean, I'm still a minority. There is a large portion of the student body who does not identify as Catholic, but there is not nearly so large a portion who identifies as non-spiritual. DePaul doesn't discriminate towards me or force me to take part in religious/spiritual acts, for which I am grateful. But there is definitely something about the language floating around DePaul that holds a religious bias.

In one attempt to assure some classmates and I of DePaul's fondness for religious diversity, a faculty member asserted [I paraphrase] that "All faiths are welcome at DePaul. After all, if you are connected to your faith, your humanity, and your service towards others, you are connecting to God, whoever He may be, and that is all that matters."

While the sentiment of these statements was admirable and harmless, the wording really made me think. Obviously it was a pretty open-minded and accepting statement to make about other religions. But it entirely ignored even the slightest concept or idea that that other group (yanno, the atheists) could be right. I'm not really complaining since the staff in question was part of the Ministry dept. and that's sort of their dig, but it just strikes me as something that flows strongly within most of DePaul's language. DePaul is beyond accepting of all spiritualities, and it doesn't hate on atheists or anything, but I don't feel as if they are really recognized. Even most of the agnostic individuals I meet at DePaul still say they connect to some kind of unidentifiable spirituality. I think in some ways, DePaul sort of expects some kind of spirituality - and DePaul doesn't really do anything serious to indicate that not feeling spiritual is wrong, but it does sometimes lead to one feeling that maybe they are a little more alone in that field than they thought.

Atheism and a focus on science and the tangible as opposed to the romance and comfort of the intangible are just starting to rise in this world. Perhaps this is a reaction to the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the times when out-of-body and out-of-mind experiences were valued above actual ones. Or perhaps it is a reflection of the accomplishments our country continues to make in science and our expanded knowledge. Whichever you are so inclined to believe, the elements of the past linger on in even the most forward-thinking of places. I would say that DePaul is extremely progressive and hyper-sensitive to society's changing attribute and needs. But there are still hints of the nineteen-fifties-esque assumption that God is real, everyone believes in God, and those who don't are crazy old Scrooges. I'm not arguing here whether religion is right or wrong bla bla bla age old debate. But I mean, if I were to ask the professor I mentioned earlier if he meant that since service is connected to God, my service as an atheist isn't as meaningful as a christian's might be, even though his words did establish a connection between the two ideas, he would've been aghast and told me that wasn't what he meant at all. I understand that. But the wording that we use regularly, colloquially... It still has those strong ties to religion, even though specification of what religion that is appears to have grown less and less important these days.

This leads me to wonder what our language will be like in ten years. Twenty? Thirty? I feel like one of the biggest indicators society has of its own judgments towards groups is the language it uses.

BUT I DIGRESS. Being an atheist at the nation's largest catholic university is a constantly rewarding experience. I love being exposed to things that make others happy. I love learning about the faith's of others. I have a very inquisitive nature, and even though I am fairly confident in my own beliefs, I like to observe the ways people practice theirs, and the influence on it in their lives. I fancy myself an outsider looking in sometimes, and I like that position, to look, and observe, and find little quirks about language and things that don't particularly bother me, but intrigue me. And of course, on such a big campus in such a big city, when I'm tired of being the observer and want to be the insider, it isn't hard to find a community of like minded individuals.

I feel comfortable at DePaul. It suits me intellectually, politically, motivationally, geographically... well, the list goes on. I wouldn't have my undergraduate experience any other way.

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