Cast a gaze from State Street to the grand entrance of Angell Hall. Just above the Doric columns, the words inscribed in stone read, “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Students likely walk past the words that originate from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 without noticing the inscription or thinking twice about the underlying meaning.

Today, the University has no religious affiliation. During its early years, the University dropped its ties to Christianity and emerged as a fledgling research university — striving to establish a reputation. Religious dogma was removed from the school’s curriculum, and since the late 19th century, the University’s religious connections have changed drastically in name and recognition.

Despite a lack of concrete affiliations, in practice and thought, religion still plays an important role on campus, whether in the classroom, a synagogue, mosque or church, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library reflection room or the steps of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library where Diag preachers loudly voice their beliefs.

A historical perspective

The University currently boasts a strong curriculum in religious studies, with renowned scholars in fields such as Judaic Studies, Islamic Studies and courses in the New Testament. Yet there is no formal department of religion, and the Program on Studies in Religion, which was founded in 1966 by Biblical Studies Prof. David Noel Freedman, has been in suspension since 1999.

This minimalist approach to religious study contrasts with the past when students attended compulsory chapel services, and the highest members of the administration were also members of the clergy.

Henry Tappan, the University’s first president, lends his name to Tappan Hall, which houses the University’s History of Art Department. He was also a key figure in the gradual move toward secularization.

The University’s historic definition of separation of church and state on campus meant only that the University did not favor a particular denomination of Christianity. Though it was non-sectarian, the entire school was Christian from 1837 to 1852. The all-male student body woke at 5:30 a.m. Chapel services were at 6 a.m. in the now nonexistent University Hall and the services were overseen by the President of the University.

“In those days, non-sectarian was the progressive notion,” Sociology of Religion Prof. Terence McGinn said. “Private colleges might have been specifically Baptist or specifically Methodist, so the public universities were distinguishing themselves from those sectarian colleges by saying they didn’t support a specific denomination. But of course, they still believed in the importance of religion.”

Tappan took office in 1852 as the first president who did not rise from the University’s clergy and is widely regarded as the University’s first “official” president, though he himself was an ordained Presbyterian minister, according to a study of the University’s first 50 years carried out by McGinn. Part of Tappan’s mission as president was to expand the University’s goals and prestige at home and abroad, and in doing so the University began to move away from the Christian model.

He began to establish the University as an institution devoted more toward research and teaching than it was to shaping the individual. He abolished the University’s non-sectarian stance on the basis that the University should not espouse any religious preference, McGinn explained.

This change marked the end of religious leadership in administrative and academic positions, and as the University grew, certain religious practices were forgotten. Chapel services became optional and were eventually phased out once the student body exceeded University Hall chapel’s 500-person capacity. Tappan’s policies followed the changing contemporary attitudes in higher education around the country.

“I would say the University was right in line with the social norms of its day about the role of religion,” McGinn said. “As these norms shifted over time, so did the University’s practice.”

Even as theology was on its way out from the curriculum, Tappan and his successors still wanted theology schools to be established in and around Ann Arbor for students to keep up with religious studies outside of the University. Once the faculty had expanded to 31 members and the student body to 652 students by 1863, religion and theology were combined with other areas of study — notably philosophy — and theology was no longer taught on its own.

Fast-forward to 2011. The study of religion still resembles Tappan’s model of the 1860s. Students wishing to study religion can do so in departments such as psychology or English. Over the years, religious studies underwent many different incarnations, one of which resulted in a Program on Studies in Religion. However, the planned restructuring of the program was suspended in 1999.

An academic perspective

Scholars from different departments came together to head a Program on Studies in Religion, making the study of religion a concentration readily available to students. According to Ralph Williams, a former program director and English professor, the void left by the program’s discontinuation now makes the field of religious studies a lonelier one to embark upon. Without a set path for students to take, the standard give-and-take among peers is lost.

“It’s enormously useful to have others who are following something of the same curriculum in classes with you, so you can discuss areas of interest, be in seminars together and do courses in methodology together,” Williams said. “Students can do Independent Concentration Projects, but independence is often accompanied by isolation and it takes very great effort on the part of the student and faculty adviser for the ICP to overcome that isolation.”

The program was halted because faculty members could not afford to split time between the program and their home departments. As Williams said, it takes tremendous support on the part of LSA to continue such a program. Similarly, once suspension is enacted, it’s equally as difficult to reactivate a program.

While the program’s suspension may have been the right decision for the University, it is still lamented by Williams and former program scholars.

“I regret (the suspension) deeply,” he said. “I was not myself of the view that it should be suspended. Though given the unwillingness of key faculty to devote their time and the lack of appointments in key areas, the decision was not irrational.”

Over the years the University has struggled to find a balance between a commitment to religion and the study of society through a religious lens, the latter of which, Williams says, is essential for the well-being of any university.

On the other end of the spectrum, external parties have raised questions about the liberal approach in classroom pedagogy. Relying heavily on students’ freedom and understanding, the approach can be construed as hostile by committed religious people and groups outside the University.

“We’re studying religion outside the question of asking for or deriving from commitment,” he said. “We do not attempt to promote or condescend to religion, but simply to understand it. That, for many, could be read as antagonism to it because they are so deeply committed themselves, and they want everyone to believe it too.”

Williams said he believes any difficulties the University encounters when talking about delicate matters like religion correlate to nationally inherent problems. Americans have yet to learn how to share the wisdom and strength of their various traditions in order to live together in harmony, he explained.

“It’s precisely in the context of studies in religion that the modes of our mutual living together can be so deeply important,” he said. “It’s something that we can offer to the society at large.”

According to Williams, one should be wary when using the term secular to describe the University’s stance on the study of religion because this could be interpreted to mean “programmatically atheist.” Such a position could potentially alienate students of differing beliefs who wish to study religion. He emphasized that the opportunity for students to form their own beliefs is crucial, and should not be influenced by the academic curriculum.

“We should be open to positions of Atheism and non-theism, but we shouldn’t adopt a position of already set against one of the two,” he said. “It’s about learning to see things through other eyes besides one’s own and developing a form of understanding and sympathy that may not have been there before.”

How external parties view the study of religion

Currently, it’s unclear whether a religious studies program will resurface any time soon, though courses such as Sociology 375: Intergroup Conflict and Coexistence: Religion, Ethnicity and Culture, Islamic Studies 201: Introduction to World Religions, Arabic, Armenian and Turkish remain popular among students.

Outside of academics, students and professionals work to create a safe and hospitable environment for religion to be practiced and investigated by all students. Many student religious groups are affiliated with, but are not directly tied to the University.

“I think (the University) is a very hospitable place to religion,” said Brendan Dailey, an Engineering senior and president of the Catholic Students’ Association. “I think it’s really easy to live your faith on campus, and it’s remarkable to see the great diversity of faiths here and how open everyone is to everything.”

While the lack of a formal religion department does not directly affect campus organizations, classes do not have a spiritual focus, which potentially limits students who wish to study of theology after graduation. At other schools, namely private institutions or those receiving religious funding, classes may be offered with a more spiritual or theological perspective. On the other hand, the need to craft a personal major to pursue these interests could lead to increased creativity within the field, Dailey explained.

Students who undertake ICPs with a religious focus have the chance to craft a tailor-made concentration. One is Religion and Sexuality, which ranges from sociology to women’s studies courses.

LSA’s course offerings stay rooted in the socio-historical perspective. But according to Gaia Stenson, a deaconess at New Life Church Ann Arbor, students who do their research understand and accept that they can have a religious education at the University. It just won’t happen in the classroom.

“Because it is a secular University, we don’t expect people to teach things from a religious point of view,” Stenson said. “By the nature of religious studies courses here they have to take the supernatural and the miracles out of the equation. And I think students understand that.”

Stenson also expressed a desire to see the University’s religion courses collected in a single academic unit, due to the difficulty of understanding a religion without the benefit of context. Similar to reading the Bible as literature to provide an English major necessary context for further studies, a religious studies program could provide the tools to understand religion on a macroscopic level.

A religious education outside of the classroom

Today, there are 84 different religious groups on campus, offering everything from community outreach to guidance and support. And for many students, the leadership and educational opportunities available through independent organizations serve as a balance to the more critical approach to religious studies taught in University courses.

One-third of New Life Church’s congregation serves in leadership positions. One type of leader is the residence hall prayer leader — a student who leads fellow students in scripture and spiritual reflection.

“What we emphasize with students is that they’re going to be leading in some capacity in their lives, whether it be in the work place or in the family,” Stenson said. “So we say even if you’re not going to lead in a formal capacity in New Life, we’d still like you to lead in some way because it’ll be good for your life regardless.”

There are more than 50 student groups sponsored by Hillel, including an a cappella group, a performance group and a literary magazine. As Tilly Shames, associate director of Hillel, explained, this accompanies Hillel’s mission of promoting and contributing to the vibrancy of Jewish life as well as the greater campus community.

“There are many different ways in which Judaism defines itself,” she said. “One way is diverse and the other is pluralistic. It’s important to span the spectrum, but we first and foremost see ourselves as being integral to the campus community.”

Hillel also collaborates with the Muslim Students’ Association to improve Muslim and Jewish students’ understanding of the other’s religion. Events like MuJew, a co-sponsored project between MSA and Hillel, unite Muslim and Jewish students in comfortable settings to work on strengthening ties between the two faiths and ameliorating stereotypes — both real and perceived.

On its own, MSA plays a part in educating students about Islam and creates a space for Muslims to pray and practice their faith in a safe and hospitable environment on campus. From Dawah tables in Mason Hall, where MSA representatives make themselves available to impart knowledge about Islam on campus, to reflection rooms in the Michigan League and the UGLi, MSA helps to make Islam a visible and accepted presence at the University.

Muslim students say more involvement with student organizations and increased ties to academic programs such as Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish and Islamic studies would be welcome because of the guidance that Muslim professors could provide for students in a minority religion.

“It would be really great to develop a stronger relationship with Islamic Studies,” said Annie Sajid, LSA senior and MSA external vice president. “There was a professor of Islam, Dr. Sherman Jackson, who provided a lot of guidance to students in MSA. He was really helpful, but he’s no longer around. It would be great to have someone to fill that void and act as a religious adviser to us, which is something we don’t have.”

A continuing dialogue

The University has long abandoned mandatory chapel services, yet students need only to visit New Life Church on Washtenaw Ave., the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor on Plymouth Rd., Canterbury House on East Huron Street, or Hillel on Hill Street to see firsthand the thriving religious atmosphere surrounding campus.

Campus religious groups and religion classes may be exclusive, but the need for and understanding between faiths connects mosques and churches, synagogues and lecture halls.

While the University is not a religious institution and has not espoused religion for over a century. It does espouse the open discussion of and exposure to varied religious practices.

In the eyes of Reid Hamilton, president of the Association of Religious Counselors and chaplain of the Canterbury House, it’s not a question of what a student chooses to study or practice when it comes to religion. It’s about figuring out what’s important and then taking the next step and making a logical choice as to how students wish to spend their time.

“It’s important for us to learn as much as we can about as many religions as we can discover and know what feels like a natural path for ourselves,” he said.

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