• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Religion Is as Important as Ever

Some thoughts about including religion in the campus/young adult diversity discourse.

January 9, 2019

I’m always struck by pieces that point out that religion is still missing in the diversity discourse. Here is a recent one from Donna Freitas in The New York Times Book Review.       

Freitas, both a young adult novelist and a writer/professor/researcher about issues of sex and faith on campus (and a colleague on the Washington Post’s On Faith section from years back), highlights that writing about sexuality or race in young adult novels is much more readily accepted than writing about faith. Religion, she says, is the last taboo in young adult literature – the identity about which we ought not speak.     

Here is Freitas detailing the situation: “… few Y.A. protagonists identify with a particular faith tradition or claim a spirituality as something of interest. Even fewer pray occasionally, or attend services with their families, or wonder about God, or struggle with doubt and faith alongside the rest of the things they do – play sports, go to school, fall in love, have sex, come out.”    

This is a shame, Freitas insists, not only because faith is in fact a part of many young people’s lives, and therefore the omission in Y.A. literature leaves them, or at least that dimension of them, out. But also because, as she writes, “To ignore religion in Y.A. cedes the entire conversation about religion and spirituality, and all that it stands for, to exactly the kind of intolerant voices that Y.A. publishing has fought so hard against.”

In other words, Y.A. literature is both about young people finding themselves reflected in literature, and about offering the possibility of creating new worlds.

Like Y.A. novels, many campuses continue to leave faith out of the conversation.

One of my favorite questions to ask college administrators when I visit a campus is, “How much of your first-year orientation is given over to diversity and identity issues?”

The answer is typically about half.

I then follow up by asking how much of that is devoted to religion.

People think for a while and then slowly say something like, “A few minutes, if that.”

We’ve got to do better. It’s partly because religious identity is a piece of lots of people’s lives, and like race or gender or sexuality, they ought to see that dimension represented, both to reflect on their current identity and also to consider future possibilities.

But faith identity is not just about an individual’s personal life, it’s also a civic issue, part of our common life together.   

For me that theme is powerfully illustrated in Rachel Aviv’s exceptional New Yorker piece about a working class, black, Christian family (the McMaths) who insisted their daughter, Jahi, is still alive even while the hospital declares her gone.

I suspect a lot of campus discussions on this piece would highlight the race and class dimensions, and these are of course hugely important. But the religious identity and diversity issues are also central and undeniable.

Jahi’s blanket is embroidered with the line “I believe in miracles” and “Mark 11:24”. Amongst the groups who most supported the McMath family were black pastors in the Bay Area and the deeply Christian Terry Schiavo, Life and Hope Network. After the California hospital that first treated Jahi threatened to cut off further care, she was airlifted to a Catholic hospital in New Jersey, one of two U.S. states that wrote ‘definition of death’ laws that accommodated Orthodox Jews, some of whom believe that the presence of breath signifies life, even if a brain scan has flatlined, the standard definition of death in most American hospitals.

Consider this passage from the article:

(Alan Weisbard) said, “I think that the people who have done the deep and conceptual thinking about brain death are people with high I.Q.s, who tremendously value their cognitive abilities—people who believe that the ability to think, to plan, and to act in the world are what make for meaningful lives. But there is a different tradition that looks much more to the body.” The notion of brain death has been rejected by some Native Americans, Muslims, and evangelical Protestants, in addition to Orthodox Jews. The concept is also treated with skepticism in Japan, owing in part to distrust of medical authority. Japan’s first heart transplant, in 1968, became a national scandal—it was unclear that the donor was beyond recovery, or that the recipient (who died shortly after the transplant) needed a new heart—and, afterward, the country never adopted a comprehensive law equating brain death with the death of a human being. Weisbard, a religious Jew, said that he didn’t think “minority communities should be forced into a definition of death that violates their belief structures and practices and their primary senses.”     

When to declare someone dead is an issue that is cosmic and commonplace, personal and civic all at the same time. It involves the laws of a state, the historic identity and mission of a hospital, the writings of medical ethicists, the diverse faiths of the individual on the hospital bed, the friends and family that surround that individual and the health care practitioners seeking to offer treatment and care. As our society gets more religiously diverse, challenging situations increase in both frequency and complexity.

Isn’t it obvious that familiarity in religious identity and diversity issues ought to be a standard part of the definition of an educated person, and that everything from Y.A. literature to first-year orientation programs in college ought to view it as central to the conversation?    

 (For more on how I suggest we approach such issues, see here.)    


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