Freedom to Speak: A Look at Religion at Tam

By Hannah Yerington

Junior Connie Chong grabs her backpack and walks out of the classroom with her friend, who turns to her.

“Hey Connie, wanna have lunch together?” she asks. Connie shakes her head.

“Sorry, I have Christian club,” she says, shrugging.

“Oh,” her friend says, giving her a strange look.

“They look at me like I’m some kind of foreign person,” said Chong, president of Lights, the Christian Club at Tam. “Everyone…when I say I’m Christian, they cringe away. Because they think that I hate homosexuals and they have this automatic stereotype. They only have knowledge of how religion caused so many wars and so many conflicts in this country, so they really don’t like religion…I feel kinda out of place sometimes.”

blue jewish starChong’s experience is not the only evidence of a lack of religious awareness at Tam. In a Tam News survey of 304 students, 79 percent of respondents stated that they considered Tam’s community not very religious. Yet 45 percent of the student body said they affiliate themselves with a religion. So what is causing this disconnect between perception and reality?

Some students said they felt uncomfortable talking about their religious beliefs. “I don’t really talk about [being Catholic]. It doesn’t really come up in conversation,” said sophomore Keely Batmale. “And I don’t really know what people would think. I know there are some atheists out there, some people in my class talk about it all the time and I don’t really want to come out…I don’t want to offend anyone.” Because students often don’t discuss their faith, there is an idea that religion is not prevalent within our community.

“In Marin, so many people are agnostic or atheist, it’s just easier that way. Most of the people I know aren’t religious,” said senior Anna Lipman, a secular Jew. “And it’s weird, if I learn someone is extremely Christian…It’s weird because I [had]guess[ed] everyone here isn’t religious.”

Assumptions are often made when students are only aware of the extremes of religions. A junior who wished to remain anonymous said, “If I came and introduced myself as a Catholic they would have preconceived notions of who I am as a Catholic, with no exception…But what I try to focus on is the very fundamental roots of Christianity, which happen to be the fundamentals of all religions, which is basically be nice to people. And love God. And that’s it. That’s all.”

The Tam community is full of different religions. The 45 percent of Tam students who consider themselves religious include Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Taoists, Mormons and Shintos, among others. Still, many students remain unaware of this religious diversity.

The lack of religious dialogue has a number of effects. Keeping religious beliefs to oneself, or suppressing conversation about religion can lead to alienation and hurt feelings. “It would be like shutting the door on a huge part of a person’s thinking,” said guidance counselor Sarah Gordon.

The anonymous junior stated he no longer wants to openly call himself a Catholic, though that is the religion with which he affiliates himself. The junior was not the only student interviewed who didn’t feel safe discussing religion with peers.

Is religion appropriate to openly discuss? “I don’t understand how faith can be private, because I believe God is in every part of my life,” said Chong. “There is no way I can be silent, no way I can keep my head down because what I believe is my life. And every action, every thought, is based on what I believe, my faith,” Chong said.

However, some believe that faith should only be brought up in certain situations.

“I believe faith should be completely personal. Not only can it be annoying to hear someone else talk about their God all the time, it can also be offensive. Unless someone explicitly asks to hear about your ideology, I don’t believe we should share it,” senior and Muslim Kel Mandigo-Stoba said.

Being in a community where religion is not dominant has its benefits. “Religion has been known to segregate people and the fact that its not as pronounced in the community means that’s just one less reason for people to form opinionated groups,” junior Stasha Anderson said.

However, a lack of religious dialogue it also has its drawbacks.

Sharing, but not preaching beliefs and practices offers the opportunity to explore with different attitudes and viewpoints. Marie Hicks, World Language teachers said, “If you go to a Latino country they go to church every week, they thank God for the meals that are served. There is this habit of not putting yourself out there first. It’s about friends and family first, then you. And I don’t always see that in our community, in Marin. You can believe in God or not but you can always respect what you have and those around you.”red islamic symbol

Lack of open dialogue about religion also can have educational implications. According to some teachers, students sometimes miss religious context when studying literature or history.

“I think students tend to think if it’s Biblical, then it shouldn’t be read,” English teacher Michael Krause said. “I think there’s a bit of knee jerk reaction, and what I tell my students is that to be more complexly literate in western culture, an understanding of the Biblical stories is important. You don’t need to believe in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean that the Bible and Biblical stories are not informing.”

Such negative reactions may come at a cost for students. Social studies teacher Sharilyn Scharf said, “I would definitely never want any kind of religious intrusion in school. But I think it’s good to know about religious traditions from a historical point of view to understand why people behave the way they do…especially in America, there is such a strong thread of that Judeo-Christian background as a value and how it influenced our belief systems and everything else. And not knowing that puts you at a disadvantage. ”

Many students agree that learning about religion is important to a well rounded education, yet they reported that religion is rarely touched upon within the classroom.

“Religion is such an important part of human history that it can’t be ignored. It is paramount that people learn about other religions in order to be tolerant as well as appropriately educated. I remember a little bit from world history, but I haven’t had many experiences with religion in school, which is the easy route for the school most likely, but for me it’s not ideal,” senior Elliot Dorenbaum said.

Nevertheless, Tam is a public high school. According to The American Civil Liberties Union’s joint statement of current law, which summarizes all current laws on religion in public schools, “Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion.” This does not mean learning about, and freely discussing religion has no place in public schools. “I don’t think that because I’m teaching at a public school that I should limit my students’ knowledge to just one kind of lesson,” said Hicks.

Perhaps Tam could benefit from more open discussion about religion in order to debunk stereotypes or have a greater understanding of many religions. According to CNN, Republicans tend to be more religiously affiliated than Democrats. This correlation between Christians and Republicans often leads to the assumption that all Christians are Republican. Tam students are not always tolerant of Republican viewpoints, so friction can occur.

Faith is personal and should be a self-reflecting experience on a moment to moment basis.

“I think people have falsified opinions and generalities about Christians here,” junior John Elliot said. “I think they tend to think they are kinda gung-ho with being anti-gay and very conservative, compared to what the realities are. There are lot of liberal Christians and lots of conservative Christian.”

Assumptions are not only made about a person’s political affiliation, but their entire belief system. The anonymous junior said that he no longer tells people he is Catholic or affiliates himself with Catholicism because “I was sort of, I guess you could say, ridiculed. People made assumptions on me based on one fact…Some of which I found very saddening. They would immediately assume that I was an anti-Semite or a homophobe, or both. So they would just judge me and that was awful, that just made me feel awful.”

Discrimination may also occur, regardless of religion. “It’s human nature to discriminate against people, junior Aiden Grahame, an atheist said. “And it’s so true that it happens in the opposite direction. I mean I’m guilty of it, in every different color. I’m not a nice person when it comes to my relationship with religion. But I don’t know if I’ve ever just blindly discriminated against someone because for their religion, but I definitely try to engage them based on it. And I don’t know if that can come off as offensive. But I bet it does.”

Grahame often gets annoyed when religious people will not engage in religious conversations with her. “I guess they immediately assume, once they hear I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God, that I think they’re a [jerk]. And I kinda do but I want to know why I shouldn’t. But the conversation never happens,” she said.

Other students believe religion is more of an individual experience.

“I don’t think that religion is something you just are a part of,” junior Joey Domer said. “Christianity is how I base my decisions and how I view the world… [So] in way of our disagreements, we could just accept each other.”

“I think faith is personal and should be a self-reflecting experience on a moment to moment basis.” Senior Elliot Dorenbaum said. “But congregating and sharing with other people your ideas is a powerful thing that is capable of doing a lot of good.”