As a non-secular institution, religion is not a central topic at Lehigh. Although the university does not promote one particular faith or denomination, however, this does not mean that religion isn’t present at the university.
The fact that Lehigh is non-secular is what helps religion at the university flourish. University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen said the university’s mission is to support the moral and spiritual development of everyone in the community as they seek to become enlightened citizens. In order to help achieve this mission, Lehigh has a Chaplain’s Office and provides support for the religious groups present on campus.
Thirty-six percent of students at Lehigh participate in religious groups or activities on campus and 46 percent of students participate in multicultural events, according to statistics given by the university. Overall, there is a decrease in participation in organized religion in the United States, especially within the millennial generation. Among Americans ages 18-29, one in four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion, according to Pew Research Center.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman, as the director of Jewish student life and assistant University Chaplain, said she speaks to a lot to perspective families regarding religion. The other week, Stillman said she was speaking to a prospective Jewish family that was concerned by what they said was a lack of Judaism on campus.
The conversation perplexed Stillman, and she said that to warrant a comment like that, the family must have not looked close enough. With it being Passover at the time, Stillman mentioned how there was matzo in the dining halls and students selling Challah for charity. She wondered if those didn’t demonstrate a presence of the religion on campus, then what does?
Stillman added that she believes there are traces of religion scattered throughout Lehigh. The university isn’t religiously affiliated, but students bring a piece of their religion and culture to campus, she said.
“There is a perception amongst students that religion is uncool,” Stillman said. “I’ve seen this a lot at Lehigh, that there is almost an embarrassment in practicing religion. They will say a prayer, but will say it as quickly and quietly as possible.”
According to Reverend Allen Hoffa, director of the Newman Center Catholic Church, religion is a topic seldom discussed among students. He said that college is a time where students are trying new things, which at times are not religiously moral. He said it makes sense that students stray from religion when it says drinking and partying in excess is bad, but their social scene says it is good.
“When a student comes to college, they look at God and think that God is telling them they can’t have a fun time,” Hoffa said. “But no, God wants you to enjoy life, but he wants you to enjoy a life that is going to be most beneficial, healthy and profitable for you.”
Stillman said a large reason for the decreased participation in religion comes from the lack of knowledge both of one’s own religion and other’s religions. She said there are many misconceptions about all religions and many people don’t take the time to seek the truth.
Steffen believes that it would be beneficial for students to learn about other religions’ values and traditions during their time at Lehigh. He said this would aid in preventing misconceptions and stereotyping.
With this in mind, Lehigh started a new program called the Multi-Faith Initiative that promotes education and dialogue among the many faiths at the university. Students and faculty from all different religious and nonreligious backgrounds get together every other Thursday in the Dialogue Center to talk about their different perspectives and traditions. Taking it a step further, the Dialogue Center, Newman Center and Jewish Student Center also sponsored a multi-faith spring break trip to Rome.
Stillman believes that this will set the tone for future inter-religious operations on campus. She said her and Hoffa are bringing ideas back to campus that they learned while abroad, and she has already come up with ideas for how they can work together.
Steffen said there is a good deal of ignorance regarding religions in general. Several of the 24 Lehigh students that traveled to Rome had never been in a mosque or even knew about the Muslim prayer room on campus.
“I was only familiar with my own faith before going to Rome, but it was a great experience learning about different faiths,” Hillel President Roger Blumin, ’17, said. “We went about and saw different things, and if I had any questions, I would ask Father Hoffa.”
Back at Lehigh, Hillel also hosts Shabbat dinners open to students of all backgrounds. With this program, students have the opportunity to see from the inside what a Jewish tradition looked like. Zakaria Hsain, ’17, vice president of the Muslim Student Association, said that by attending the interfaith Shabbat dinner, he was able to meet not only Jewish students and faculty, but also people from various religions or no religion at all. He said he enjoyed learning about different beliefs.
Stillman, however, said that before much dialogue can happen, the important first step for the Multi-Faith Initiative is spreading knowledge. Hoffa said he believes that Catholics often get a bad reputation because people sometimes think that Catholics want everyone to also be Catholic. Hoffa noted that this isn’t the case, and that God is still God regardless of what he is called, such as Yahweh or Allah.
Hoffa said he wants people to be the religion they are, and be that well. He said no matter what religion someone is, they should be that and understand why they are that religion.
Hsain noted that there are a lot of misconceptions especially regarding Islam and the Muslim religion and lot of the information people gather on the topic is based on mainstream media’s coverage of extremist activity.
“I feel that most people at Lehigh know very little about Islam,” Hsain said. “I feel Muslim students have the responsibility to educate people about Islam. The MSA has held various events with this intent, and we will keep making efforts to dispel misconceptions and spread the truth about Islam in the Lehigh community.”
Stillman said encountering and learning about other religions can force you to reevaluate your own tradition that you grew up with. When you look at another religion you start to ask questions and wonder if your own practices have a similar idea or tradition.
“It’s interesting with the whole Greek culture at Lehigh, there is so much ritual there, but people still say they are not religious,” Stillman said. “To me that is so interesting because they do all these esoteric rituals that no one else can see, and if that’s not religion than I don’t know what is. Religion is really not as far away from Lehigh students as some of them might think.”