scurried through White Plaza, groups of clip-board clad, well dressed surveyors
sought out targets for their questionnaire. “May I ask you a few questions?”
one woman began, and then politely queried: “Do you believe in God, why/why
not? Are you happy with your faith?
. . .” Then she asked if the surveyee would join her prayer group, and,
continued, “if you are not interested, what would draw you in?” She proceeded
to list a few very secular options, such as chair massage. Yes. Instead of
espousing the merits of the faith, her group was recruiting people to follow
Christ through massage.
As the woman with the clip-board jotted down responses, gently probing deeper in to the soul of her subject, students darted to class around them, brightly-colored synthetic yoga mats poking from backpacks, or stashed in bike baskets. Are these Hindu students racing to a bit of spiritual uplift between classes? Few are. Yoga PE classes fill up rapidly; but, according to The Stanford Daily, instructors say that few students who take the classes care little about the spiritual origination of the physical postures.
Stanford, like universities across the country, is both grounds for students to openly explore different aspects of religions, and for evangelicals to project their messages. In both instances, the draw, ironically is not God or spirituality, but material/cultural/academic aspects. In the case of yoga, the postures -- not Hinduism -- are the draw; in the case of the Evangelicals, the massage was the theoretical “hook”. Other religions, such as Judaism and Islam are also being expressed through secular and academic venues. Are these “watered down” religious activities achieving the goals of the adherents, or is the true meaning of these ancient religions being forgotten? Do students progress spiritually even if they don’t understand Yoga? Can someone who joins a Bible study for free food be saved? These questions are prevalent in our society as a whole -- do people think of Christ on Christmas? Or just grab for the toys? Just as people might, at Christmas become greedy consumers, and at the same time, Christ-like givers, the issues at Stanford are more complex than simple bribes, or mindless trendy exploration into others’ religions.
That religious groups would unabashedly offer what appeared to be almost bribes at first looks like a desperate ploy for converts, but, it is actually more nuanced. At the Graduate Student Activities fair at least half of the groups represented were Christian, from the Evangelical, United in Christ, to the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. The Stanford Daily reports that there are 13 Protestant groups at Stanford, as well as Mormon, Orthodox and Catholic organizations. With all these groups essentially competing for membership, it is no wonder that most offered food, candy or Frisbees to draw people to their table. In the case of the chair massage, the motivation appeared to be an “underhanded missionary” approach. But, are Stanford students really as susceptible to the sways of missionaries’ resources, as say, poor Pakistani kids, happily studying in Madrasas, in order to eat? With Stanford’s relatively affluent population, freebies do not have the same life or death significance, however, and thus must serve a separate function. On the most basic level, without enough participants, an organization will no longer receive Stanford funding. But for many, a sense of community is most important. As Matt Harnack, a half Jewish, half Protestant graduate student explained, he felt alienated as a child from his religious heritage, it was the community aspects of a Jewish group, rather than a strict religious doctrine, that drew him in that direction. Thus, the small bribes could arguably be used to demonstrate the open-minded, fun/social aspects of a certain group. A free meal could enable a wavering student justification to try out a new group, and then decide for himself.
Nor is it all a numbers game or all about socializing – in many religions the idea of solidarity is itself and important aspect of religious life. Across campus -- from free falafels offered by Hillel during Israeli Pride Week, to prasad (blessed sweets) at Hindu prayers -- many groups attempt to use food to welcome outsiders, and to strengthen the unity of their own members. An empty prayer hall is depressing, the songs/chants/prayers don’t have as much energy. With fewer people, there are fewer ideas on scriptural interpretation. Also, aside from evangelical impulses, a sense of brotherhood is taught in most religious – how can one have “fellowship” without members? And why not try to draw members in through a back door? Further, especially in the case of some religious minorities that may feel threatened – a strong culture is believed to be a safeguard to open practice of religion. Thus, there are enumerable reasons for religious groups to seek to expand themselves, even if it means become slightly less doctrinal.
Though a non-proselytizing faith, Jewish groups nevertheless work hard to involve non-practicing Jews. Like the Christian groups, these efforts are made for a variety of reasons. Stanford’s chapter of Hillel (which describes itself as, “The largest Jewish campus organization in the world … provides opportunities for Jewish students at more than 500 colleges and universities . . .”) unabashedly promotes non-religious activities in its programming. Their website says, “Social programming through Hillel at Stanford offers students a variety of avenues to meet new friends, grow personally, and expand their Jewish networks at Stanford. From our monthly bagel brunches, to our camping trips, to our Israeli club nights, to Oakland A's baseball excursions, Stanford students can find a plethora of fun, innovative social opportunities . . .” Hillel’s social incentives and activities range from the “Yoga with a Jewish Twist” to Hebrew classes to Israeli Dance parties. In some cases they appear to be, like the chair massage, incentives to lead to more “Jewish” activities, but, for many people, “Jewish culture” is itself complete without direct religious aspects (like discussing God/Torah reading). Israel’s founding Zionists were in fact split between the secular and the religious. Thus, socializing over bagels, for example is not necessarily a means to an end, but is itself part of the group’s mission, which includes a fostering of Jewish heritage.
Is Hillel’s promotion of non-religious activities a new trend? Like most of the examples, the answer is yes and no. Combining social and secular aspects with religion, in this case Judaism is as old as the religion, but at Stanford, Hillel’s reach is expanding. The group started in the 1950’s but now has more participants than in any past year and sponsors or co-sponsors some 300 events annually.
Aside from the organizing a sense of community, Hillel, and other religious groups seek to foster various social missions, which, while derived from the tenants of their faith, are now manifest without religious undertones. Hillel’s website has a link to Tzadakah, meaning charitable giving/service, and displays the quotation, " ‘Do not separate yourself from your community.’ - Pirkei Avot 2:4”. Their activities include Katrina relief spring break trips and opportunities to volunteer with youth. Hillel has links to “Venture philanthropy” organizations, GLBT advocacy groups and many other “non-traditional” avenues.
From a strategic point of view, in terms of drawing minimally practicing students to Judaism, they seem to have the right approach. The Jews I spoke to often do embrace many of the cultural aspects, including “watered down” holidays, but have trouble relating to more strict teachings. Melanie Levy, a grad student in the Art department, brought her Gentile boyfriend to a Sedar for Passover– the Hagadah, or prayer book claimed to be “a secular Hagadah”- rather than a number of prayers praising God for freeing the Israelites from their Egyptian captures, the service was mostly an explanation of the holiday in very rational terms. For Melanie, just the act of participating in a sedar, which reminded her of her family was important, rather than how “religious” its contents were. Her boyfriend felt welcomed though he was unfamiliar with the prayers. Hillel is tapping into the sense of culture that many Jews want, while being careful not to use the religious aspects coercively.
The Islamic Society of Stanford University (ISSU) was founded in 1958 originally as an organization to support Muslims who wanted to come together and pray. While prayer and religious practice is still at the heart of the organization, it is, like other groups on campus, expanding its’ programs. Recently ISSU hosted a series of academic lectures entitled, “Our Jihad, the struggle to reform our faith.” Though based on religious texts, the series was advertised widely and meant for both Muslims and non Muslims. The lectures included “Sharia Law, theocracy or Democracy?” by Sherman Jackson; other topics included suicide bombing/radical Islam and working towards coexistence. In this case the group was not directly seeking new members, but rather seeking to facilitate understanding and education on their religion.
Dr. Hina Azzaz’s lecture about patriarchy, exemplified the innovative use of religious texts to present a very approachable, scientific argument for increased women’s rights – perhaps trying to open the minds of conservative Muslims while demonstrating to non-Muslims how progressive they can be. To a mixed audience, she explained that Islamic society has chosen to emphasize certain aspects of the scriptures to favor men – that it is the interpretation, rather than objective fact that has skewed the society against woman. She quoted Koranic passages to argue against polygamy and went into a long discussion about woman’s sexual rights compared to men’s. Her rather explicit language, including, “male intercourse is considered an important part of life, . . . but I want to expand the way that we think about sexuality . . .” appeared to be met with surprise and enthusiasm by the audience.
Ironically, just as Judaism and Christianity have long had broad definitions of what constitutes “religious activity”, Dr. Azzaz’s lecture, which argues that woman should be seen as individuals, not objects, were not all that radical. She argued that her points were not new, or un-Islamic, but rather that society had been misinterpreting religion. So, to follow her argument, what might appear as an academic lecture only based peripherally in religion, was actually a religious lecture based peripherally in academia. This case exemplifies that even amongst religious scholars, it is difficult to understand where religious boundaries are drawn.
So, to answer the question posed earlier, is “watered down” religion on campuses a waste of time, a way for posh students to feel “deep” after yoga, or for evangelicals to pat themselves on the back for drawing in members? The answer is a matter of opinion – the groups obviously use various tactics to their advantage, and students are flocking to new activities, but zealouts within faiths, and those who wish to be left alone, still might not agree with the secularization of religion. For most religious groups, any form of their faith is beneficial. The Islamic group could argue that academic discussions about their religion are just as important as praying. Jews say that building Jewish culture and community is itself a responsibility. The Christians could say that free stuff is only an entrée to people seeing the Truth. And, as for Yoga, Svagatam, The Hindu Students’ Council, offers a “Yoga class [that] focuses on breathing and meditation in addition to stretching postures, unlike any other Yoga class at Stanford”. But, the instructor first “teaches his students to do is the sit erect and then how to breathe correctly. He believes that yoga, particularly breathing (Pranayama) can help relieve stress, and thereby many related ailments”. Therefore, even the students who care not for a Hindu practice, will in fact be benefiting at some level, simply from deep breathing during “dead man’s pose” or “downward dog.”