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?