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Is Religion a Choice?

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Guest post by ObstacleChick

My daughter is a freshman at Vanderbilt University, and my husband and I joined a social media group specifically designed for parents of the class of 2022. Parents were invited by the university to join it as a way to introduce themselves to each other and to provide a forum for parents to post concerns, questions, and comments. For some parents, it has become a place to seek solace as they are missing their children. For others, it is a forum for complaining on behalf of their child (or perhaps not on behalf of the child but about something the parents are concerned about). Still others use it to share information about the best companies that deliver fresh cookies or birthday cakes to campus, or to compare notes on their child’s success using Uber vs. Lyft.

Recently, a parent posted an article from the student news publication regarding religious holidays. The article was written by a Jewish student who wanted to take some days off class for Jewish holidays and was told by her professor that he/she considered the absences unexcused. The student was furious as she canceled her flights home for the holidays. The student appealed to the Director of Religious Life, and he stated that professors have discretion in allowing absences for religious holidays. Unsatisfied with the answer, the student appealed to an Associate Dean, who stated that mature students know how to make the choice between education and religion. The Dean equated being religious to having a musical or athletic obligation – that religion is a choice in the same way that other activities are choices. The student maintains that one’s religion is not a choice and detailed that some of her family members had died in the Holocaust. The student also argued that as academic calendars are usually structured around Christian majority holidays, only those who practice minority religions are affected by the calendar structure and must seek accommodations to practice their religious faith.

The student then appealed to the Title IX Office, which developed a religious obligations form that students can submit requesting religious absences to the Title IX Office at the beginning of the semester. The Title IX Office will submit the form to the professors who then must grant students their requests for religious accommodations.

My first thought was that the university could provide a list of major religious holidays from a broad range of religions to professors at the beginning of each semester so that professors could anticipate conflicts that may occur. However, how extensively should the university go in researching major observances of religions? How many religions? Obviously, we all know the Big Three Abrahamic religions as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. Many have heard of Sikhism, Wicca, and Rastafarianism. But what about other religions that are not so well known, like Jainism, Bahai, Shintoism, Tenrikyo, Juche? I suppose the easiest logistical answer is for professors to excuse anyone for any religious request, but it may be that some professors were concerned with students taking advantage of religious liberty to rack up excessive absences. Perhaps the religious obligations form filed through the Title IX Office is the easiest way to accommodate students on a case by case basis.

Logistics aside, I did take issue with the student’s assertion that religion is not a choice. I think she is confusing the idea that many Jewish people consider themselves to be of Jewish heritage regardless of practice. People do not have a choice regarding their ethnicity, but they do have a choice whether they practice a religion, as many of us deconverts can attest. For example, I was raised in a household that practiced Southern Baptist Christianity, but I no longer consider myself to be a Christian of any sort. I made a choice to stop practicing Southern Baptist Christianity decades ago, switching to a more progressive Christianity for a while, and later to no religion at all, taking the label of agnostic atheist. Perhaps I could claim a Christian heritage, though I do not have a desire to do so at this time. I joke that my children’s last name confers upon them their Irish Catholic heritage, though neither has set foot in a Catholic church more than a handful of times and each takes the label of non-religious (and atheist in certain circles).

One may also make an argument that some people may feel that they have no choice but to practice a certain religion. Certainly in some countries where religious freedom does not exist, one may need to appear to practice a certain religion for one’s safety. In other cases, it may be difficult for one to break from one’s family’s religion, making relationships with family members difficult for the deconvert. Most of the time, children have little say in the matter and must follow whatever religious practices their parents require. But for an adult in a nation with religious freedom, whether one practices a religion or not is one’s choice. It may be inconvenient or place strain upon one’s familial or social relationships, but it is still a choice.

Do you think that practicing religion is a choice or not a choice? What are your thoughts on the way a university which strives to be diverse handled the situation?


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    Of course, religion is a choice. That being said, there should absolutely be accommodations made if one set of religious holidays is already being given off. This is a right, not a sport.

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    Sometimes disagreements about religion can feel like a Yankees- Red Sox rivalry the way people can get bent out of shape about their religious differences though!

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    I have a deeper and more profound question ObstacleChick. Why are Vanderbilt University professors doing roll calls to see who is and is not absent in their classes? This is the year 2018. I was in college 1971-1976, and almost no professors did a roll call. Their basic position was:

    “You are a grownup now. You signed up for this class. No one put a gun to your head to make you do it. If you choose to miss class, that is entirely your business—not mine. If you pass the course–great. If you fail it—no hair off my ass. So, sure. If you want to do your Jewish holiday thing, go do it and catch up best you can after you get back. Borrow and copy another person’s class notes—whatever.”

    That was 50 years ago. It really surprises me that any professor at Vandy would be taking class roll today. And really, you have to have an SAT score that is nearly off the charts to even get into Vandy. Any student that bright could easily make up what was missed.

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      In some classes your presence and participation in class is an important part of getting credit for the class. This includes foreign language as well as labs. Not every class is possible to do from home listening to a lecturer.

      I’m not completely unsympathetic to the student, but the remedy isn’t giving excused absences for religious holidays. Instead the attendance policy should be posted at the beginning of the semester and students can reference the syllabus for exams that might occur during their holidays. And yes if you have a generous attendance policy students will game the religious excuse. I recall when I was in college, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was still a new thing. The University didn’t give the day off (because classes typically are scheduled for an entire week) and some students used it as an excuse to not show up.

      (Also note that the student did ultimately decide that he could miss out on the holidays after all.)

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    Charles, I agree with you 100%. When I was a Vandy student (class of 1992) I don’t recall ever being in a class with roll call. In language classes or was painfully obvious which students were habitually absent as conversation in the language was a priority, and I distinctly remember 2 students telling the instructor the day after Rosh Hashanah why they were absent the day before, and she didn’t mind.

    There’s a lot more …… making sure the students are Ok now than there was back in our day. The freshmen at Vandy are put into groups of about 20 students with a student mentor and faculty mentor. They are required to meet once a week and must make sure their schedules don’t include a conflict. Ny daughter refers to it as touchy feely meeting so they can make sure no one is suicidal or whatever due to the intense academic pressure. My daughter makes fun of it all saying, we were all academic powerhouses before and knew what we were getting into when we applied to a top academic school so deal… but then again, she was raised by parents who tried to prepare her with skills to face Real Life. Lots of parents haven’t prepared their kids as well, as evidenced by some of these parents’ comments and concerns in the parent groups.

    But yeah, if you miss a class, you get notes from another student and deal. If you miss a test or quiz, you work out a makeup time to take the test. Grow up and handle it beforehand is my philosophy.

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    I am going with choice on this one but do remember that the word has oh so many meanings! For instance, in my childhood flavor of viral belief, a child is covered from going to hell till about age 7 or so….(Depends who ask and how the holy MEN interpret scripture but after you reach the ‘maturity’ decided, you then make the choice to be happy forever or burn forever.) By the time we reach post-secondary levels, we are normally able to articulate our chosen delusions quite well, even if we are unable to give any reasonable backing for the ideas. Belief is not a matter of reason but of emotions overwhelming reason. Therefore, I think schools should honor all religious delusions equally and not bully with patriarchy and Reason to force youngsters into the professor’s comfort zone. The Bahai faith or any other less known strain of virus is just as worthy of recognition as mainstream Christian flu. Unless we allow freedom to choose and honor it, we run the danger of preventing open discussion and the free flow of ideas. One does not learn one’s way out of belief but talking and reading and listening to others is very important in providing the emotional freedom to choose to walk away. Personally, I speak of most religious belief as a virus but I try to be careful person to person among those under the influence, to avoid sacasm or bully ways…. I know that you would never know it from the way I talk on this blog but I do try!
    I would say that Charles’ point about taking attendance reveals the bully side of educational institutions quite well. The student is the adversary. The professor is entitled to bully, has attained the institutional status!

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    Religion, culture, family, community…these are all intertwined choices, especially for someone in the usual undergraduate age range. They shouldn’t have to choose completely between religious practice and being successful in class. But it shouldn’t be necessary to leave the university and fly to a far away home, either. But this might require the student to accept the unpleasant reality that in adu!t life, one can’t always drop all responsibilities and take off for days for religious observance, weddings, funerals, and other important life events of one’s family and friends. I watched many classmates struggle with this, as well as trying to explain the situation to family who just didn’t get it.

    Of course, professors can be bullies. When I went back to school to study geology, I had to catch up with several undergraduate classes. Most geology classes had field trips, often starting on Friday or even Thursday with a return late Sunday. All the geology instructors knew the field trip schedules, and organized exams around them. Students who had conflicts with other classes usually worked out something with those professors. But I recall one trip, an important one, where a student would miss a math exam. She asked to take the test early. No. Could she take the make-up for people who missed the exam. Not without a doctor’s note. Her geology professor tried to intervene, without succes. So did our department head. In the end, she missed the field trip.

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    I think the professor was unnecessarily unkind to this freshman student. Some college professors are like this. They take advantage of rigid high school environments to intimidate their students into thinking they must ask permission to be absent. They are often the same ones who assign work as if theirs was the only class the student was taking.

    Another professor might have said something different, like “Well I do expect my students to be in class, you will be gone for what amounts to a week of class so missing any more as the semester goes on will begin to affect your performance and possibly your grade. So if you do go, keep that in mind the rest of the semester.” It’s kind of a veiled threat, yes, but it’s similar to what might be said at a new job if you need family time almost immediately.

    This is all said in the framework of a freshman’s first semester. As things progress a student needs to look at the whole picture. Nursing students, for example, need to view missing clinical experience VERY carefully. In my nursing school you’d better be damn near dead not to show up to clinical. The up side was that if you were a walking germ bomb they sent you home with credit for having dragged yourself in there.

    Our society generally needs a stronger dose of “Mean people suck, don’t be a d*ck!”

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      “Mean people suck, don’t be a d*ck!”
      Well said!
      I do wish that preachers and evangelical believers (well, all extremist believers of all faiths) could take a bit of this fine direction. The Christian religion purports to be a way of Love but in practice it does not challenge mean people but directs and supports their personal lack so that they become bullies for a new cause, soul-winners who prey on hurting people.
      With regard to teachers, I found many many more bullies than I did inspiring mentors. Those few made up for all the rest of them. I rmember one English teacher in early high school inspiring the heck out of us by allowing to follow our interests, encuraging personal freedom and direction, supporting passion. It was so so unusal.

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    Tim McGaha

    I’m with Charles on this one. My experience both as a student and instructor are from the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s. Instructors were only required to take roll once, to verify that the “official” roll matched who was showing up. Beyond that, if the student had to miss class for a religious obligation, an extra shift, a tractor pull — they needed to tag up with someone who was there to get notes and assignments.

    And they needed to be sure they were missing the REVIEW for the test, and not the test… I made that mistake once, but never again.

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