Where Does Religion Belong
at a Secular School?
By Isabella W. & McKenna B.
February 26, 2018
Westridge has students with various backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs, so how can Westridge, a school that prides itself on this, continue to support the complex religious identities of its students?
“Near the very top of values we try to promote is that Westridge is a safe place for students to express themselves, be who they are, and care about what they care about. That goes for religion, politics, social issues—everything,” said Gary Baldwin, Upper School Director. However, do the experiences of religious students at Westridge always align with this sentiment?
Micaela M., ’19, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and co-head of Coexist (an affinity for religious minorities on campus), and Lucy K., ’19, co-head of Jewish affinity, each explained their understanding of religion’s place at Westridge.
“Religion is not talked about a lot, but I don’t expect it to be because the school doesn’t directly identify with any [religion]. I don’t think it would be fair of me to say they need to represent us more,” said Lucy. She explained that as a secular school, the representation of religion is not definitively necessary.
However, Micaela would argue that a secular school should still be held accountable for the representation of religions on its campus; however, what that accountability looks like is up for discussion. “Even though we are a secular school, we should have more of an understanding and accommodation towards all religious students in order to show our respect towards them,” said Micaela.
The contrast between Lucy’s and Micaela’s views creates tension in our understanding of religion and where it should be on our campus. According to the Westridge Student Parent Handbook, “[Westridge] considers belief in a particular religion to be a matter of personal conviction and therefore the school program does not promote any specific belief system at school.” Therefore, Westridge believes the distinction between an individual’s and community’s religious convictions must be maintained.
However, Gigi Bizar, Middle School Cultural Studies teacher, emphasized the importance of talking about your beliefs. “In religious discussions, we can learn to empathize with each other,” said Bizar. She explained how the importance of empathy itself, especially now, can be seen in the ways we interact with people who are different, especially on campus.
Lucy noted that the lack of religious representation at Westridge, whether or not it is acceptable, can lead to misunderstanding, and, therefore, ignorance. “I think the discussion of religion is necessary because a lot of people don’t understand religion because of recent political events—not even relating to exclusively Judaism—but a lot of religions are villainized in the media and there are so many students who are greatly affected by these assumptions. On the other side of that, I think there are students who accept those assumptions and stereotypes and the school doesn’t talk about it,” continued Lucy.
Kimi A., ’19, a Catholic and co-head of Christian affinity, also described the danger of the ignorance prevalent in our community. “Having ignorance everywhere is not the best thing, and I think if Westridge could clear up certain misconceptions about religion, we could be more accepting in general,” she said.
Zaynab E., ’20, and Erisa R., ’21, explained how the representation of their religions on campus would make them, and other religious minorities, more comfortable in everyday situations. “I don’t feel as represented in issues that are important to me. For example, Ramadan is during finals and I have to postpone my religious practices until I get home because religious accommodations are not granted here,” explained Zaynab, a Muslim. Zaynab is not the only student on campus who faces a lack of representation—a number of students have to go out of their way to obtain religious accommodations, including Erisa, another Muslim student. “There are no Halal or Kosher options in the commons, which is an example of the lack of representation of religious minorities at Westridge,” explained Erisa.
According to some, this result of a lack of representation puts a significant amount of responsibility on the students. “We have to be the educator when we are the minority,” said, Zara A., ’19. Westridge students must ensure their religion is seen as it should be. “In a sense, I have to represent the face of my religion here at Westridge. Hopefully, I make a good impression through my actions,” continued Kimi.
The experiences of these students lead to a larger question: As a community, does Westridge do enough to recognize the differences throughout the student body, teachers, and administration?
“People need to be aware of other people’s identities. It doesn’t mean they need to convert, but it means they can understand the lives of other people,” stated Lucy.
In order to truly understand different religions, Salome A., ’19, attempts to learn as much about different religions as she can by experiencing them through her peers’ traditions. “I usually ask my friends of different religions to join them in their celebration of a religious holiday,” said Salome. Amy S., ’19, a Universal Unitarian, echoes this sentiment. “Because a lot of my religion is learning about other religions, I think being in an environment where everyone co-exists together has taught me a lot about religion and what religion means to other people and how it can mean something to me,” she explained.
Comparative Religions, taught by Bill Harrison, is the only course at Westridge that is dedicated to religious study. “Oh, I think it’s perfect for a secular school, because, again, it’s history—it’s the history of ideas, and people should know these things. It’s part of being literate, culturally literate, the same way you should know about music and literature,” explained Harrison.
According to the Westridge Course Catalogue, Comparative Religions “examines and explores Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism as students attempt to grapple with what constitutes an ethical life and the personal and communal implications of believing in the idea of God, soul, evil, and good.”
“Part of [the class] is to just know the ideas that form the basis of these religions, so this is how people around the world think about things. The other part is about [the students] taking religious thinking seriously because it’s easy for people to dismiss it as ‘fantasy’ or ‘unreal’, but if it is or isn’t is beside the point—it is to understand what’s engaging and compelling about these ideas,” continued Harrison.
When analyzing the curriculum of Westridge classes as a whole, Zara and Amy noticed the ways in which religion should be present. “I think it’s important to start the conversation about religion in the classroom by studying the ways religion has impacted global events and the way it has influenced society. In class specifically, we tend to discuss the basics of religions, but we never get into deep conversations about religion,” explained Zara. Some religious students feel, as a result of the separation of religion and religious identity in the classroom, they are often left with unanswered questions about religion. “I’m curious about what other people’s points of view are, especially people of under-represented religions that you don’t really learn about,” said Amy.
Kali Reider, Student Leadership Assistant and Christian pastor, noticed religious holidays aren’t often discussed at faculty and staff meetings. “As a school, I think we are nervous to talk about religion … , which makes sense because there is a lot of pain that comes with religion for some people,” said Reider.
However, according to the administration, Westridge strives to allow the discussions that the community needs to happen. “I think that the discussions that happen at Westridge should be the ones students, faculty, and administrators want and need to have, regardless of topic. In other words, if you create the right kind of environment— one in which everyone feels supported to express what they care about—even if others do not agree, then you don’t need to dictate the topics,” concluded Baldwin.