It all began with a makeshift dodgeball court. As I stood in the basement of Sheil Catholic Center, I looked across the field at the other team. Leaning against the white wall, the opponents laughed and slapped each other’s hands, relishing in victory. They outmatched us. Without a doubt.
Six dodgeballs split the court in half, separating the winners from the losers. On this day, I was, unfortunately, a loser.
Staring at the line of separation, I could not help but think about what I was doing here in the first place. For the past 14 years, I had attended a Catholic school, followed Catholic traditions and acted in a responsible Christian manner. I thought back on the times when Mom and I went to church every Sunday, the moments of contemplation when I just stared at the pastor, mesmerized by the eloquence of his sermon and enraptured in his certainty.
But for some reason, I felt uncomfortable. Ever since I entered college, I questioned traditional values and opened my mind to different possibilities. Some students continue to pursue their faith; others question its validity. The questions bounced back and forth in my mind. I fought them off with an answer from the past.
Is there a God?
How do you know?
Because I believe in Him.
The answers replayed in my head like a broken record. Now, at the beginning of my college journey, I decided it was time to keep an open mind.
It was time to question belief.
It was time to try disbelief.
“[Being at Sheil] pushes me to be a better person and keeps me grounded during college,” McCormick senior Andrew Hutton says, “a time where you go through a lot of changing. It keeps me humble at times where you could just lose sight of everything and live in the moment.”
According to Northwestern professor of religious studies Cristina Traina, college students go through a “liminal” period, in which they engage in a four-year ritual preparation to adulthood to establish an identity. With the abundance of religious student groups on campus, students can explore different perspectives on faith, allowing them to find their place within the larger community.
I decided to walk the line of dodgeballs and check out the other side. One Sunday afternoon, I stepped into the piano lounge at Shepard Hall. A sign was taped to the window, bearing a symbol of the fish commonly used on “WWJD” logos, though such would not fit on the back of a car bumper. Within its interior, the fish read “SHIFT.” Shift your thinking, it read below the fish.
I knocked on the door and was greeted by SHIFT president Cassandra Byrne. Her black and red attire draped down to her ankles, swaying back and forth with each step toward me. She extended her hand.
“Treating each other as equals is the outcome of these type of interactions,” she said. “It’s important for both sides of the big debate to see each other that way.”
As I looked at her, I noticed her carefully groomed eyebrows, sharp at the corners, slightly raised above her reddish eyeshadow. Her graceful appearance startled me for a moment; it was definitely an unexpected welcoming.
But as I read the sign once more, I stared at the first two letters. SH. Secular humanist. It felt so alien to me, it almost slipped my mind. I knew an atheist back home, but for the first time, I had heard this term.
“An atheist or agnostic does not necessarily mean a secular humanist,” says Traina. “If I’m committed to secular humanism, I’m committed to careful, critical, philosophical examination of questions. I’m committed to finding the sociological evidence.”
Byrne and four other students founded the group in October 2009 after noticing the absence of secular humanist representation on campus. With the help of Facebook, the freethinkers’ group has expanded to 129 members as of April 2010. Though members vary week to week, the core group finds comfort around a table filled with goldfish, Twinkies and soda every Sunday.
Rest assured, says SHIFT member Michael Sklar, the meeting time has no significant meaning. For members, the meeting becomes communal rather than a blatant message. Just a convenient time and date.
As I sat in the piano lounge, I listened to the discussion erupt after an old YouTube video on President Obama’s views on religion. Back and forth the banter went. Discussion flowed from chord to chord as if a symphony played in the background, each person willing to share their beliefs without condescension. Each argument stabbed the hearts of others and broke through the palpable silence. For the first 20 minutes, I couldn’t handle it — honestly. Though what they said was in fact true, I simply could not grasp the cacophonous banter that enveloped the piano lounge. They questioned a life without religion, a life I could never imagine. One member slashed religion as a crutch, while another labeled it as a way for believers to resist questioning.
I cringed in my seat.
They compelled me to think about the doubts I had previously resisted without engaging to me directly. My pen scribbled frantically as I tried to keep up with the key points. With each point came a counterpoint, no matter the issue. After a while, I stopped writing and listened. I glanced over to a member sitting beside me. He held his head between his hands. After a moment, he belted out a philosophical rebuttal sound in evidence gathered from his cognitive science studies.
The debate continued for two hours. For SHIFT, this was a normal Sunday afternoon, a walk in the park.
SHIFT Publicity Chair Angela Potter says the group wants to engage in intellectually stimulating discussions with other religious groups.
“I’m able to process things better by working through them, by talking with others,” she says. “I think it’s more about asking questions than getting answers.”
Potter and several members talked about their riveting discussions with Campus Crusade for Christ, an Evangelical Christian group on campus. When Cru arose in discussion, the group chuckled. Medill graduate student and SHIFT member Michael Depland says the two groups are clearly philosophically polarized in their approach to issues, but talks were “healthy.”
“I gained a lot of respect for their beliefs while talking to them because a lot of thought had come into the conclusions they had,” says Potter. “We jokingly make fun of them because most of us cannot imagine believing what they believe in.”
Suddenly, the discussion ended.
As I spoke with SHIFT member Leah Krevitt at Norris, she seemed almost stoic. With each question, she closed her eyes, pondered and let the silent moment clarify each remark. As she talked about her scientific approach to ideas, I noticed a tinge of understanding within her words. Though she felt how she felt, she understood the other side of the coin. In her discussions within SHIFT and with her roommate, Krevitt reflected just as she had now, closing her eyes and letting the moment take its course. She says she felt a jolt when arriving at Northwestern in the fall to find people dedicated to their religion and felt “community-less.”
“Meetings with SHIFT are intellectually stimulating,” she says, “but they also fill this need for community where I don’t have to be polite and worry that I’m going to offend someone’s religious beliefs by speaking my mind.”
“A lot of times, when I consider my lack of faith, I find myself defending it against Christianity rather than Judaism, which is rather bizarre,” she says.
She then referred to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, saying, “Everyone is an atheist about everyone else’s god, I just take it one god further.”
She paused. I took a sip of green tea.
“I guess they’re the ones I’ve heard telling me I should believe what they believe,” she says.
Within their room in Shepard Hall, Weinberg freshmen Krevitt and her roommate Belgie Wang discuss topics ranging from what it means to be Christian to evolution, engaging in the sort of intellectual discussion found within the piano lounge.
“She seems interested,” Wang says. “The things I’ve known all my life, she’s never heard about.”
Each came from different backgrounds. Krevitt grew up indifferent about faith within a Jewish community, while Wang adapted to the Christian south after moving to the U.S. at age 10. As she engages in worship and weekly Bible study with Asian American Intervarsity, Wang says she is unfamiliar with SHIFT, only hearing about it from her roommate. But for her, talking with Krevitt is not only about learning but also about self-reflection.
“We’ve been pretty open and accepting of each other’s differences,” she says. “It’s a just learning process. I try to understand her view and she’ll do the same for me.”
To Wang, when people believe in something wholeheartedly, all they can do is express themselves with the same vigor.
“When we truly believe in this God who loves us, we’re going to try and tell you,” she says. “It’s like when there is some big deal at a store. You’re going to tell people about it. It’s out of love for you. Who cares if you go to Hell or not? Because we love you, as a friend or family member, that’s why we try to tell you.”
As I walked home that night, I thought back on the dodgeball court. Despite the separation, I still crossed the line with my chest held out, chin up, looking into the horizon — or at least the white wall. I remembered the intense discussion in the piano lounge.
I thought about Angela, Michael, Leah, Belgie, even Andrew; I thought about the man pondering to himself in the comfortable chair as well as the militant atheist. But through it all, one thing remained certain: no matter the faith, no matter the outcome, I still felt welcomed in a community. Sure, we have conflicting ideas that sometimes get us into trouble, but under the bright lights in Evanston, we are still one campus.
“College is a time of seeking, of self-definition and self-identification,” says Professor Traina.
Though I walk along the dark confines of Sheridan Road, I see no separation, for there are the streetlights illuminating the path as I walk toward my home, my university.