LC students engage with faith despite atheist reputation

“Secular” campus finds spirituality, follows religious tradition, while campus ignores their existence

Illustration of Anges Flanagan Chapel
Emma Ford / The Mossy Log

Lewis & Clark has a reputation for being a non-religious college. In 2008, the Princeton Review listed LC as the least religious school in the nation. How true is this statement? And what is the effect of thinking about the college in this way?

I have been conducting interviews on religion and spirituality with LC students since September 2022 as a personal project. One question I ask students is what their opinion is of the phrase “spiritual but not religious” since many respondents identify with this category.

“I think it makes a lot of sense,” Keshav Eldurkar ’23 said. “I feel like spirituality is more bodied and religion is more ideal.” 

Other students believe the difference between religion and spirituality depends on who is involved with it. For Ivy Marple ’23, religion is hierarchical, with an authority mediating one’s connection to the divine.

Detailing how students view religion and spirituality may explain why the Princeton Review designates LC as one of the least religious schools in the nation — their conclusions are based on student surveys. Other elements of the interviews I conducted, however, will show that there is more religion at LC than one might expect.

Interviewees were sometimes surprised that I asked about their opinions on ghosts, Bigfoot and aliens. I believe that the way non-religious people view these beings demonstrates something about the nature of the category of religion. Although non-religious people may call themselves not religious, aspects of their beliefs and practices can be categorized as such.

Take ghosts as an example. Many students believe in or are open to the existence of ghosts, even those who self-identify as non-religious. For example, Alexis Chomyn ’24 said that although they are not religious, sometimes dead people appear in their dreams in ways they would not have expected.

Although some may not think of the belief in ghosts as a form of religion, I argue otherwise. Ghosts — as well as aliens and cryptozoological creatures like Bigfoot — have a well-formed cosmology surrounding them in America. Religious historian Catherine Albanese calls this concept “metaphysical religion” in her book “A Republic of Mind and Spirit.”

Many LC students exhibit characteristics consistent with metaphysical religion. An interest in the mind and its powers in particular is present at LC. Ruby Keyes ’24 had experiences that they initially thought were ghostly, but now attribute to the powers of the human mind to trick itself. Julia Neumeier ’23 believes that astrology and tarot readings make people subconsciously aware of certain elements of their personality, and people seek out these traits or aspirations as a result, though they have no actual metaphysical effect on the world. These psychological explanations — though sometimes denying a metaphysical effect — show how elements of metaphysical religion are still present.

Conceptions of LC as a non-religious school negatively affect religious expression. Abri Boyd ’23 noted that resources like the Office of Spiritual Life were not advertised well because the campus is marketed or branded as non-religious, but there are people working to change this image. 

Unintentional limits to the expression of religion on campus may disproportionately affect those with non-Christian identities. According to Ollie Feldman ’24, who is part of Hillel’s student leadership, LC is not particularly good at being attentive to Jewish needs on campus. 

One example they mentioned was a student in the Fall 2021 semester who wished to light a Yahrzeit candle to memorialize someone who died, but was unable to because of Campus Living’s no-candle policy. This occurred despite the student’s appeal for a religious exemption. Additionally, Feldman said that last year during Kol Nidre, the first service of Yom Kippur and the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, Campus Living scheduled a fire drill that disrupted the service. 

Although not directly a result of the conception of LC as a non-religious college, many students scoff at religious issues because they believe that it is. Many of those same issues are ones that affect non-Christians, primarily Jews and Muslims. Many LC students have the privilege of ignoring them, which only serves to exacerbate them even more.

LC is full of religion, whether its students call it that or not. Portraying LC as a non-religious campus makes discussing religion and spirituality much more difficult than it should be. 

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