Multi-religious Campus Organization Created at UMass Amherst in Response to Student Interest in Spirituality

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts has begun a new and innovative Inter-Religious Project for students who are "spiritually searching."

Created by history professor Will Johnston - a specialist in both European intellectual history and the history of religion - together with assistant dean of students Merle Ryan, the project is a collaboration between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is, Pagans, and others. Designed to help students clarify and interpret various spiritual messages, the project will inaugurate its efforts with a week of "Inter-Religious Dialogues" Nov. 16-20. (A schedule follows.)

"There’s a real need out there today," says Johnston. "At least three-quarters of students are looking for some sort of spirituality that they can adopt. They are being bombarded by a variety of religious and secular messages, and they don’t know how to sort them out."

According to Johnston, the goal of these dialogues, and of the group in general, is to encourage students to learn more about the diverse avenues for spirituality available to them.

"If you study religions, you see they have common traits and aspirations," Johnston says. "The Inter-Religious Project will not only help students clarify their own traditions, but enable them to enlarge their spiritual identity to include aspects of other traditions."

Johnston believes that in the not-too-distant future, many religions will make room for this enlargement of spiritual identity, which he refers to as "multiple religious identity." "Just as multiculturalism has become the byword in the culture wars, so multireligious awareness will become something similar in the realm of spirituality," he says.

Yet, Johnston is quick to point out that he doesn’t encourage all religions to merge into an indistinct whole. Rather, he hopes that they "remain who they are while collaborating. That’s why I prefer the word ‘inter-religious’ to ‘multireligious.’ What I’m talking about is an exchange, not a new entity."

In the Inter-Religious Project, students, faculty, and staff will study beliefs and practices from a number of traditions, Johnston says. During the week of dialogues, they will attend discussions on everything from "Science and Religion" to "Life After Death." Later in the year the Inter-Religious Project will sponsor other conferences and events.

"There are all sorts of reasons why spirituality has become marginalized," Johnston says. "We’re a consumer society that likes to browse before committing, and, if we’re Christian, we fear exerting hegemony by practicing our faith. Still, there’s a need among people of all backgrounds for some sort of faith. Hopefully, through our project, we can provide an avenue for that questing."

Schedule of Events

The following is a schedule of events for UMass Inter-Religious Dialogues. The forums will take place on five successive evenings at the University, from Sunday, Nov. 16 through Thursday, Nov. 20 and will last from 7 to 9 p.m. Each evening will be planned by a different registered student organization on campus and will consist of a panel discussion with three to five speakers from different religious traditions. These panels will be chaired by a representative from the sponsoring organization.

* Sunday, Nov. 16: "Obstacles to Empowerment for Religious Life at UMass" - Campus Center, room 162-175.

* Monday, Nov. 17: "Science and Religion" - Herter Hall, room 231.

* Tuesday, Nov. 18: "Can One Connect to the Divine Without Clergy?" - Campus Center, room 163 C.

* Wednesday, Nov. 19: "Religious Perspectives on the Environment: Spiritual and Moral Choices" - Hasbrouck, room 134.

* Thursday, Nov. 20: "Life After Death" - Campus Center, room 163 C.