Preachers once called Cornell a “godless” institution because Ezra Cornell refused to align his new university with a specific church. Despite their condemnation, there are currently more than thirty religious student clubs active at Cornell.
Some students see religious groups as important to the University’s student life and say they uniquely contribute to the college experience.
“I see them as resources that are available and essential for those who need them,” said Ilan Cohen ’06, house manager for the Jewish Living Center. “I think people all too often give more thought [about] how they’re going to make a living than how they are going to live. In college, both things ought to be priorities.” Alex Lee ’07, president of the Christian group Campus on a Hill, said that religious groups provide a relief from the busyness of academic life.
“They’re very important, especially at Cornell, where the workload is so intense,” he said. “It’s really easy to get caught up in the small picture.”
In addition to worship and other traditionally religious activities, these groups give students a place to socialize and hang out with friends.
“Different religious groups provide companions. They provide like-minded pilgrims. They provide other people they can wrestle through these questions with,” said Joel Miller, staff worker for Intervarsity, who serves Cornell Christian Fellowship and Grace Christian Fellowship.
Student religious groups can also contribute to philosophical and cross-cultural dialogue on campus.
“There’s an opportunity for students to come to understand different religious perspectives because of diversity of religion here,” said Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67.
Members of Cornell Hillel and the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association won the 2003 Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony for their creation of an interfaith mural now hanging in Anabel Taylor’s One World Room.
In particular, this interaction between religious groups was important for the Muslim community after the events of September 11, 2001.
“After September 11, I think some people realized you’ve got to communicate with people,” said Ali Gokirmak grad, president of the Cornell Society for Islamic Spirituality. “If [you] don’t let people know who you are and what you are, people will come up with false images of you.”
Gokirmak said that after September 11 he spoke to several area church groups. Later, his club emphasized interfaith dialogue while organizing their Iftaar banquets to break Ramadan.
Speakers discussed controlling the ego in Buddhism and Islam at the banquet last year, and Christianity and fasting the year before. “We want to bring out the commonalties between Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said. “We really do have a lot in common.”
Students active in religious groups said that their faith plays a very important part in their lives.
“Christ has full sovereignty over all aspects of my life,” said E.J. Neafsy ’04, who is part of the musical worship team for Cornell Christian Fellowship.
The Islamic requirement to pray five times a day influences Muslim student’s lives, both in behavior and scheduling, according to Yusif Akhund ’04, president of MECA. “I’d say it definitely plays a substantial role in our lives,” he said.
Naveneeta Pathak ’05, vice president of the Hindu Student Council, said that Indian culture combines with religion in her life. “It’s more [of] a way of life than an organized religion per se,” she said. “With Hinduism, it’s a bit difficult to separate religion and culture because they seem to be one and the same a lot of the time.”
Although there are many religious groups on campus, it’s uncertain how many students are regular participants.
However, the University’s online Spring 2003 Enrolled Student Survey, with a 48 percent response rate, provides some approximate estimates. The number of students participating in religious activities depended on the class. Although more than a quarter of freshman said that they had participated in religious activities at some point in the past year, only 20.9 percent of seniors said that they had.
Among the many groups on campus, there are several groups representing the three major Western religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. However, there are also clubs for less well-known religions, like Baha