Finding God and/or Morality on Campus
Dr. Jennifer Howe Peace has been an interfaith organizer and educator since the 1990s. She was the first associate professor of Interfaith Studies at Andover Newton Theological School where she co-founded and co-directed the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) a joint program between ANTS and the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. She became interim University Chaplain at Tufts University in August 2019, where she leads the University Chaplaincy team in supporting all religious, spiritual, and philosophical life at Tufts; educates about spiritual and ethical issues in society and the world; and coordinates pastoral care, multifaith initiatives, and strategic partnerships around the university and beyond.
In a phone conversation with Interfaith America’s Silma Suba, Peace discussed whether belief in God is necessary to be moral, and how campus life plays a role in the formation of moral values. Their discussion was sparked by Pew Research Center’s report, The Global God Divide, where 38,426 people across 34 countries were asked whether belief in God is necessary to have good values. The responses varied by people's economic status, age, and education.
Q. Do you believe that belief in God is necessary to have moral or ‘good’ values?
I would strongly argue that belief in God is not the defining characteristic of what's required for moral living or ethical decision making. We have a Humanist chaplain on the team, and my husband is a Humanist, and those personal relationships alone have given me sort of all the evidence I need to know that some of the most ethical, some of the most morally upstanding folks I know, don't explicitly live with the idea of God, or the experience of God as part of their religious or philosophical belief system.
There is something fascinating about thinking through them what it means to have these anchor points for what constitutes ethical behavior. In my husband's case, a lot of that comes from his upbringing. His parents weren't explicitly religious either, but they did have strong community-oriented values around helping others being honest, and working hard. All those values were conveyed to my husband through his lived experience, but they weren't part of a belief in God or a religious system. They were just part of what it means to be an ethical member of the community.
Q. As a university chaplain, how have you witnessed your college students navigate morality and their belief in God or their faith in their campus life?
Moving to college is one of the most important parts of an individual’s life because they are moving away from their known family and community, and whatever that means in terms of their religious exposure or participation or lack thereof. Then they’re moving into this new space where they're going to encounter people, possibly for the first time, who think and act and believe very differently than they do. At college, they're going to be faced with a series of decisions about whether they want to dive deeper into the traditions that they were raised with, or step away from those and let them go, or reject them outright. And I see students really wrestling with that set of decisions, consciously and subconsciously.
When they end up rejecting what they had been brought up with, the question emerges -- what are my sources of authority? What do I believe if I don't believe that? I frankly think that that's the evolution of one's sensibilities and theology, and a direction that I think is very healthy. But there are other students who don't feel the permission to replace their faith with anything -- they're faced with the choice of either this version of a personified God in the sky or nothing. I see people feeling a little unmoored and feeling a little unsure that if these things are not true, then what is guiding my behavior? There’s a lot of learning from trial and error. They either start forming a deeper relationship with God, one that’s guided by their reason and meaningfulness, or they find another route.
And so, maybe, you know they're starting to learn in different ways. They're learning from a series of experiences, and in some ways, shaping a new morality out of them. Some are pieces of what they inherited, and others are bits and pieces of what they're experiencing. I wouldn't judge any of those trajectories, I think we each learn and discover who we are, what we really believe in, in so many ways. We must trust the path that the students are taking and be there for them in those points of confusion.
Q. So how can campus spaces, especially those not associated with the offices of spiritual and religious life, play a role in the formation of morality in students?
I think the learning they're doing around morality and ethics is so essential and vital, and what they need is a space to have these reflections and conversations. Whether it’s having a mandatory multifaith council or having professors who are available to guide these conversations, I think it’s a lovely trend to imagine campuses having the spaces for students to embark on this journey together. It doesn’t need to be a space specifically designated for religious life, because there are so many places on campus from where they learn and form their opinions, and it’s those interactions that push them to reevaluate their relationship with their faith or understanding of ethics and morality and how that guides their life.
When I joined my role on campus, I was saddened by the number of students I encountered who felt so lost, and said they didn’t know where to turn to for support, because the places they traditionally turned to no longer served them or wouldn’t speak to them. We all have a need for anchor points, for a sense of meaning, a need to hitch ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. You can imagine how disorienting it is to be in that space for a student who feels lost. In my role, I try to offer assurance to these students, that yes, the journey to be who you are meant to be is long and convoluted but trust the process, and yourself. I think that as students learn and grow into themselves, there are moments where they feel lost in the wilderness and can spiral into hopelessness, which is often where they lose sight of what is ethical and moral to them – I believe those are the moments we as educators need to meet them. To give them hope, because everybody needs a little hope that there’s something greater waiting for us.
And I try to do so without imposing my religious identity into the conversation, and I think that’s very important. Being religious and embarking on my journey as a Christian allowed me to find an understanding of life – but that doesn’t mean that’s the only path to finding the good in you. Any religious or nonreligious educator on campus can impact the transformative journey of a student when they respect them and offer them the space for learning and reflections, and often it’s their behavior, that helps the students the most.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.