The past week has been a particularly visible one for religious life at Duke. Between the pastel colored church attire out in full force for Easter Sunday Mass and the more vibrant colors that caked clothes and smiling faces on the Clock Tower Quad for the celebration of Holi, it was nearly impossible to go without noticing some form of religious observance on campus. To one of the many visiting prospective students last weekend, that might have signaled evidence of Duke living up to its promise of promoting freedom of religious expression and housing a diverse range of religious practices. But beneath the surface, life on campus for students of certain religions is more complicated.
The way in which certain students treated Holi serves as an example of how not all is well on campus for specific religious groups on campus, regardless of their visibility. Complaints about the mess and noise of the Holi celebration, as well as the trivialization of the event as a colorful “darty”, were some of the ways students showed their disrespect towards it. While average Duke students would most likely describe themselves as tolerant and accepting, it is evident that their lack of familiarity with certain religions can lead to offensive comments and actions. Religion is deeply personal and incredibly important to many of our classmates and we would do better to respect that.
Students are not the only ones who can act to make Duke more friendly to religious diversity though. Our institution’s mission statement pledges to “promote an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry” and Duke prides itself on a rapidly diversifying student population. This diversity applies to race and gender identity, but also includes religion. However, one would not have to be a student here long to notice that all religious groups, while free to practice on campus, are not treated equally. This is exemplified by contrasting the amount of funding that goes to the Duke Catholic Center or how large and visible the Freeman Center for Jewish Life is with the significantly less monetary investment in, and much humbler meeting spaces of, Muslim or Hindu students. The recent incident with the University’s revocation of a Muslim call to prayer broadcasted from the chapel further speaks to this. Duke, as a university in the American south with ties to the Methodist Church, has a deeply entrenched history with Christianity that is exemplified in many ways, and while recent attempts at interfaith spaces likely come from a place of genuine interest in creating an inclusive campus, the school’s efforts still fall short of creating an inclusive environment when non-Christian groups are struggling with small spaces not fit for worship.
Even with Duke’s interfaith message, it is sometimes hard to square the rhetoric with the actions of the University when it comes to supporting different faiths on campus equally. If this institution truly has a commitment to diversity, the burden of making a religious group truly feel represented and empowered should not fall on the shoulders of the students who will only be here for four years—it should start with sustainable initiatives from the University.
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