Mohsen Kadivar, an Ayatollah, dissident and Iranian exile who now teaches at Duke, dedicated his first book to his father. “A humble teacher,” Kadivar calls him, “practicing reason, religiosity, and Azagadi,” the last of which Kadivar translated to Towerview’s Connor Southard as “liberal-mindedness.” Kadivar, a cleric, embodies these values as an influential proponent of democracy in monarchic Iran. To Americans this association might seem bizarre. Today, we rarely consider religious leaders “liberally minded.”
Yet religion is still a strong presence in this nation. The majority of Americans ascribe to a faith. Only 15 percent did not adhere to a specific religion in a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau survey of more than 200,000. Religion is perhaps less abundant at Duke, though it has “Christian-Methodist foundations” and an always-lit Chapel as its icon, as Brian Contratto reminds you in his feature piece. Thirty-seven percent of undergraduates said they were atheist, agnostic or followed “nothing in particular,” in a 2011 Chronicle survey. Yet, as Contratto will illustrate, religion is central to the lives of many undergraduates.
There are times in our lives that may cause us to turn to religion—when we are faced with hardships we cannot weather, when we long for comfort that cannot come from explanation because none exists. For some Duke students, religion is motivation to make positive change. Students describe leading by example—“being the change they wish to see in the world.” The famous words come from the lips of a religious man, who, like Kadivar, had progressive ideals.
Mahatma Gandhi used Hindu principles of nonviolence to lead a movement for India’s liberation. In our own nation’s past, religious icons have also been frontrunners of social change. Abolitionists, who combated one of the United States’ greatest crimes, had their roots in the church. One century later, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life trying to end civil rights injustices.
Yet where there is bravery, there is also fear. Individuals allow religion to separate them. They use it as a vehicle for violence, or as grounds for discrimination. Gandhi helped his nation to gain independence, but he despaired at the bloody conflict between Hindus and Muslims that continued after the British left. His life, ended by a bullet from a Hindu nationalist, who called Gandhi a Muslim sympathizer.
In the history of the world and today, religions have targeted and ostracized groups of people: followers of different faiths, “untouchables,” the LGBT community. As humans we must be careful not to outcast others or deny them freedoms. Whether or not you believe in a deity (or deities), religion has the potential to be a positive force of change. We must decide wisely how to use it.