Last week I came across a column in the Orient—“Students value varied spiritual support (Jan. 25)”—on the small but significant role of religion in the lives of Bowdoin students. 

I was inspired to think about my own religious quest here at Bowdoin—not at Bible study or a spirituality club, but academically. 

I’m an English and religion double major, but if I were to meet you on the street, odds are that I wouldn’t be honest about what I study. 

“I’m an English major,” I’d offer, and even that with a little hesitation. At the very least, then, I could explain my love of writing, how I’m considering becoming a teacher someday, and the joy I get from literature. 

The religion part­—that’s a little trickier. Snide comments about my majors abound: those disciplines are impractical, uninteresting, unsuited to the pursuit of the common good. But these are the accusations that bother me least. 

I’ve reconciled myself with the fact that I will neither cure cancer, nor am I likely to help the environment in any more significant way than recycling my paper and plastics. 

The critiques that do keep me up at night are about my study of religion and come, most often, from myself. 

I wouldn’t identify as religious, though I adhere to a sort of faith-in-mankind doctrine. My rather irrational insistence that people are good is a satisfying, albeit lonely, creed. 

So when I read a feminist exegesis of the Quran, or try to make it through the entire Book of Mormon in a week, I have to ask myself: why am I doing this? And the question of why I study religion has required some, well, soul searching. 

In any academic discipline, there will be things you shake your head at. Why would they run that experiment? Why would they argue that thing? How silly of them. 

But it is only when I study religion that a reaction of even the slightest condescension can produce a wave of nausea. 

Because I’m afraid, as I think all Religion majors should be, that I’m watching something I subconsciously see myself as above. 

This is the last answer I want. I am not—I cannot be—studying religion to feel superior. 
This is the answer I want to wrap in linen, mummify and bury so that it will ever see the light of day again. 

Often professors of religion or my peers will soothe these fears with calm words on the vast amounts of tolerance I must be gaining. And I don’t disagree: the study of religious traditions is conducive to multicultural understanding. 

But for me, this isn’t quite enough. I’ve come to believe that my education should help me not just to understand others, but also to understand myself.

Yet, despite much popular confusion on this point, I am not in seminary, nor am I on the hunt for one tradition that suits me. 

Each school break I come home to the question, “Converted yet?” from my well-meaning parents. And when I tell them no, they seem both relieved that their daughter will still enjoy a nice secular Christmas and disappointed that I’m not working hard enough. 

Surely the serious study of religious traditions should yield a connection to them, right?
When I began my time at Bowdoin, I would have thought my parents naive. I thought I could achieve some of kind of academic, intellectual distance from the materials I was working with. 

In fact, I thought that detachment was the goal—the only way to study religion without falling prey to one’s own prejudices. 

I was wrong. What I ended up loving most about my time in religion class is that these texts, these people, and these stories do move me. 

They force me to think about what constitutes a well-lived life, about the things I fear, and how I could explain the worst in the world. 

I don’t think any one tradition or philosophy has all the answers, or mandates the best way to live out those answers. 

Often, where the philosophy of a religion appeals to me, the practice thereof stops me in my tracks. 

I think Buddhists are right about the transient nature of the universe, but wrong to think that should necessitate abstinence. Or that Mormons are right about the divinity of love and friendship, but wrong to exclude women from their priesthoods. And Judaism makes a strong case for the importance of obedience, but I don’t see much harm in ham.

It is in this process—locating what I find true in religions, weighing it, tasting it, seeing where it can fit into my own worldview—that I am learning in the most critical way. 

I’m asking myself the most important questions, and seeing what answers I can produce. 

In a way, I think this approach to study— whatever you are studying—is a kind of religiosity of its own. 

And our college, despite its secular reputation, does encourage us in this hunt for connection with what we are learning. It supports us in our search for truths we can adopt, modify, and call our own. 

It’s my hope that, whatever discipline you belong to at this temple of higher education, you’re praying to learn something about yourself each time you enter a classroom or open a book.