Islamophobia in the Digital Age: The Rise of a Global Mental Health Crisis

by Farah Hasan, March 22, 2022

My phone lies face down on the table beside me, buzzing sporadically, but insistently. I ignore it, fanning myself against the mid-July heat as I attempt to concentrate on an assignment for my summer class. I drum my fingers against the desktop and whisper the words aloud to myself, trying to make sense of the convoluted sentences of the essay as the buzzing continues. What do they want? I think exasperatedly, assuming my friends are simply spamming me with memes from Instagram and funny Tiktoks. As I finish the reading passage and move on to the multiple choice questions that accompany it, I decide to spare a glance at my phone. Expecting to see Instagram direct messages (DMs) and text messages headed by my friends’ familiar usernames and contact names, I am shocked to instead see hundreds of Instagram comment notifications from unfamiliar usernames, all beginning with the common header “[Instagram user] mentioned you in a comment.” My heart racing in anticipation, I open the Instagram app and quickly scroll through my notifications. I had left a comment criticizing France’s April 2021 ban on hijabs (headscarves worn by women for religious reasons) for Muslim women under the age of 18 on a post advertising travel to the Eiffel tower, and now I see that all these comments are in response to mine. Some of them back me up, but others range from applauding France’s actions, to blatantly calling Islam backwards and incompatible with Western civilization, to attacking me as a young Muslim woman myself. I exit the app without bothering to respond to anyone and close my eyes for a second, my heart still pounding as the hate words flash through my mind repeatedly. Like me, young Muslims everywhere are exposed to Islamophobic rhetoric on the social media sites they use most, and chronic exposure to such hate inevitably takes a toll on their mental health. Online hate is not given the same coverage or attention that street-level hate crimes get, but the effects of the former may be exponentially more profound due to the wide reach of users that are present on online platforms. Actions should be taken to limit such hate speech on public platforms like social media to preserve the mental-wellbeing of users that are targeted by these remarks, even if it means limitations on the First Amendment right to free speech. 

In a case close to home, a Muslim student recently graduated from my high school in the summer of 2021 and was chosen to deliver a speech at the commencement. In her speech, she advocated for the need for understanding and peaceful coexistence during difficult times, and briefly mentioned the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. This part of the speech incited infuriated outcries from the audience, rude remarks shouting at her to “go back to Pakistan” as she walked off the stage, and the creation of a Facebook group as a space for angry parents to vent and express mildly Islamophobic sentiments. Due to the convenience and ease of access, social media is frequently defaulted to as a platform for these polarizing conversations. Certain social media sites, such as Twitter, are “better-designed,” in a sense, to perpetuate hate speech and to facilitate radicalized expression. Dr. Nigel Harriman, professor at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, and a group of researchers found that 57% of students that actively used the social media sites Youtube, Instagram, and Snapchat had come across hate speech, and 12% had encountered a stranger that tried to convince them of racist beliefs (this was especially common on Youtube). Additionally, exposure to hate messages was significantly correlated to Twitter use and Houseparty use (Harriman et al., 8531). Twitter is a particularly convenient hotbed for such rhetoric, as victims that come forward to tell their stories to Twitter are simply told to block the hating account or delete their own account. In 2014, Twitter issued a statement claiming that it “cannot stop people from saying offensive, hurtful things on the Internet or on Twitter. But we can take action when content is reported to us that breaks our rules or is illegal” (“Updating Our Rules Against Hateful Conduct”). Twitter more recently updated its rules against hateful content in December 2020:

In July 2019, we expanded our rules against hateful conduct to include language that dehumanizes others on the basis of religion or caste. In March 2020, we expanded the rule to include language that dehumanizes on the basis of age, disability, or disease. Today, we are further expanding our hateful conduct policy to prohibit language that dehumanizes people on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin.

(“Updating Our Rules Against Hateful Conduct”)

Although Twitter has taken some necessary steps to limit hate speech, this form of harassment nonetheless still exists on this and countless other platforms, and more action must be taken to counter this.

As someone that frequents social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, I understand how detrimental the algorithms themselves can be to one’s self-esteem, but coupled with exposure to hate speech, mental health for those targeted is more likely to plummet. Although I ultimately ignored the hate comments on Instagram under the post about France, the occurrence bothered me for several days afterward, leaving me anxious, unsettled, and dealing with mild sleep difficulties to the point where I deleted Instagram for a few months. Research by Dr. Helena Hansen at NYU Langone found that victims of online hate speech are found to have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading them to exhibit a blunted stress response as well as higher rates of anxiety, sleep difficulties, and substance use (Hansen et al. 929). Dr. Brianna Hunt at Wilfrid Laurier University found that exposure to Islamophobic rhetoric is also a predictor of social isolation and loneliness, particularly among Muslim women in Waterloo, Canada. Furthermore, the dehumanizing aspect of hate speech also incites conflicts of identity in Muslim women of color, who feel that neither their religious nor their racial ingroups accept them fully, calling for the need to address mental health for more complex cases of intersectionality as well (Hunt et al.). 

In an effort to mitigate the destructive effects of hate speech on mental health, individuals have advocated for limiting such speech, but opponents of these limitations have expressed their concerns and dissatisfaction with this movement. In the 2017 case Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that hate speech, like regular speech, is protected under the First Amendment under the justification that “giving offense is a viewpoint” (as long as it does not directly incite violence) (Beausoleil 829). Thus, individuals opposing limitation of hate speech on social media argue that doing so would be an infringement on their First Amendment right. There is also the danger that limitations of this sort would be a step in the direction of mass surveillance and abuse of power, ultimately resulting in a power dynamic of large digital companies﹣and potentially the government﹣in stifling any and all dissent (Beausoleil 2124). Other supporting evidence includes the notion that some exposure to counter speech is needed for the development of stable mental health and that various studies have shown that limitation of hate speech does not correlate to improved social equality (Beausoleil 2125). In fact, Dr. Stephen Newman of York University points out that expression of this sort of dialogue may be integral to human personality development, and that exposure to robust forms of speech may actually improve societal dynamics by influencing democratic policy (Newman). Lastly, there is limited existing literature proving that hate speech limitation is beneficial, as regulations of this magnitude have not been implemented anywhere yet. Thus, this argument is largely based on studies that have shown the harmful effects of hate speech. 

In a growing digital age, where social media use is a part of daily life for adolescents, young adults, and even middle aged individuals, chronic exposure to hate speech such as Islamophobic rhetoric cannot be tolerated. The longer online sites and social media platforms delay addressing such sentiments, the more widespread and normalized they will become and the more detrimental the effects will be on affected individuals’ mental health. In regards to opponents’ concerns over First Amendment compromise, the First Amendment cannot be applied perfectly to the digital age, which allows for unprecedented and unanticipated reach of communication across borders, continents, and time, as posts can always be viewed and interpreted so long as they are not deleted (Beausoleil 2127). Restrictions on the right to free speech are warranted in this case, where the mental health of countless targeted individuals on a global scale are at stake. To limit the likelihood that these companies abuse their extended powers of speech limitation, restrictions should be placed on the companies’ extent of power as well (ie. restrictions should be placed on the restrictions). Rather than immediately deleting all posts and comments including hateful rhetoric (which may be impractical), social media platforms should specifically aim to disband or deactivate groups, chat rooms, and accounts specifically devoted to or frequently posting Islamophobic﹣and other hateful﹣rhetoric. On particular posts where the comment section becomes overwhelmingly belligerent and hate-fueled, social media platforms should either delete the post, delete the inflammatory comments, or disable the comment section entirely. Lastly, these social media platforms should issue public statements against hate speech like Twitter did, include them explicitly in their terms and conditions of use, and send automated warnings to users who violate conduct rules multiple times with the intent of suspending their accounts if hateful activity continues. 

Ideally, the extent to which media companies can regulate inflammatory speech should be overseen by the federal government. However, complications may arise due to matters of jurisdiction: for example, the US government may have limited say on regulation of content posted on the social media platform TikTok, as this company was founded in China. Thus, for the time being, regulations should remain on a company-to-company basis. In the short-run, it can be expected that consumer use and feedback will let companies know how effective and acceptable their policies are. 

Though many praise the advent of cyberspaces and the beginning of the digital era as a way of bringing the world closer together with connections never known before, it is difficult to fathom how connected we really are amidst the divisive and discriminatory rhetoric that is often perpetuated on the very same platforms. Hate speech is present in several different forms, including anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, and prejudice against disabled individuals. As a Muslim woman, the recent increase in Islamophobic sentiments on social media have made me realize how pervasive their effects on young Muslims’ mental health are. Therefore, I strongly encourage social media platforms to limit hateful speech and promote civil and constructive dialogue instead using the methods outlined above, even if it means a slight compromise on First Amendment rights. By merely limiting and not completely eradicating hate speech, the extent of social media companies’ power is kept in check and the potential societal benefits of exposure to antagonistic speech mentioned previously may still be experienced. Taking actions such as deleting the Instagram post about France with the barrage of inflammatory comments would be steps in the direction of greater coexistence as the Muslim high school graduate’s speech earnestly called for and promoting the benefits of global connection that the digital era originally promised.


Works Cited

Beausoleil, Lauren. “Free, Hateful, and Posted: Rethinking First Amendment Protection of Hate Speech in a Social Media World.” Boston College Law Review, vol. 60, no. 7, 2019, pp. 2101–2144.

Hansen, Helena, et al. “Alleviating the Mental Health Burden of Structural Discrimination and Hate Crimes: The Role of Psychiatrists.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 175, no. 10, 2018, pp. 929–933, doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17080891.

Harriman, Nigel, et al. “Youth Exposure to Hate in the Online Space: An Exploratory Analysis.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, no. 22, 2020, 8531, doi:10.3390/ijerph17228531.

Hunt, Brianna, et al. “The Muslimah Project: A Collaborative Inquiry into Discrimination and Muslim Women’s Mental Health in a Canadian Context.” American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 66, no. 3-4, 2020, pp. 358–369, doi:10.1002/ajcp.12450.

 Newman, Stephen L. “Finding the Harm in Hate Speech: An Argument Against Censorship.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 50, no. 3, 2017, pp. 679–697, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0008423916001219.

“Updating Our Rules Against Hateful Conduct.” Twitter.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2021.

Religion vs Research: Alternative Benefits of Eating Kosher

by Joshua Gershenson, November 12, 2021

Living in the 21st century allows us, as consumers, an extreme abundance of choice. We can choose from tens of different phones, hundreds of cars, thousands of different residences, and even millions of different hues of paint for them. The freedom of diet, for instance, leads to obscure dietary lifestyles which have become a cliche´; every average Joe has an opinion on the grounds of personal evidence, and is willing to soapbox it into the ether without thinking of the effects it might have on other individuals. Roughly 3300 years, before the age of health blogs and twitter opinions, Moses presented his people the Torah and the dietary principles it instilled on Mount Sinai (The Torah, Deut. 4:44). For millennia, these dietary traditions have been passed down and strictly followed without deviation due to religious and cultural pressures— but in today’s Western culture, many “Jew-ish” people who were not raised in a traditional, orthodox Jewish household find themselves in a world of constant temptation, doubting the validity of the Kosher diet. To many, the sheer “good Jew” title of Kashrut is not enough to combat the laborious commitment that comes with it. They may doubt the spiritual value of the diet, or believe its benefits have long expired in today’s modern culinary and technological advancements. What may feed the curiosity of the average Joe, however, is how much scientific data there really is to support the benefits of the Kosher diet— and how it may be much more reasonable than people believe.

The key to understanding its benefits, for starters, lies in the details of its restrictions. The Kosher diet, as described in the Torah, forbids the following: shellfish (such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams, and crabs), camel, rock badger, hare, pig, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects (with the exception of a few), bats, some birds which scavenge or prey, and any offspring (i.e. eggs) that come from them (The Torah, Lev.11: Deut.14). Some of these options (I.e. rodents, reptiles, insects, etc.) are seemingly repulsive to most Kosher and non-Kosher people in modern Western cultures, and don’t need much of an argument to deter their consumption. Yet, some of the other options (pig, shrimp, lobster, etc.) seem to tip the scale of faithfulness to the Kosher diet for most people. So, why does the Jewish holy book group these tasty animals together with those that are undeniably unappetizing? The answer lies in the basic anatomy of these creatures, their behavior in the environment, and how that may pose a risk to our health. Avoiding the prohibited foods (pork, shellfish, etc.) is not simply biblical jargon from millennia ago; it has serious health benefits to support its implementation, including the avoidance of common parasites and diseases transmitted by them. 

Pork

Of the animal meat that Kashrut prohibits, farm pigs (sus scrofa domesticus) are one of the main culprits of disease transmission, especially because of the techniques used to farm them. In the agricultural setting, sus scrofa often consumes its own feces, which contain a vast variety of bacteria normally found within the animal’s large intestine. Although this bacteria is completely normal (and in fact necessary to proper digestion when in the intestine), consuming this bacteria may cause a great deal of food-borne illness like the Campylobacter bacteria (King). In farms, pigs are held in extremely crowded arrangements with negative airflow to maximize the amount of animals the farm can produce. These tight quarters in factory farms cause rampant disease in pigs. Before they are dispatched to the slaughterhouse, approximately 70% of the pigs will contract pneumonia throughout their life (PETA). 

This pork-based, dinner plate-sized petri dish of bacteria may have caused serious health detriments to the unsuspecting biblical consumer 3 millennia ago, which rationalizes its existence in the laws of Kashrut. But today, we bypass the potential ailments by effectively pumping liters of antibiotics into animals. Although we aren’t contracting plague-like-symptoms from pork consumption, this overuse of antibacterial medication has caused the creation of “Super Bacteria,” or antibiotic-resistant bacterial lines (PETA). According to C. Lee Ventola, a medical researcher published by the government organization National Center for Biotechnology Information, pumping these animals massive amounts of antibiotics on a regular basis increases our chances of ingesting an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria. With this newfound resistance, a bacterial strain would be able to thrive within animals without a deterrent. This process, especially on a mass level, can create a plethora of new illnesses that we cannot combat with modern technology. Halting our consumption of pigs — as written in the Kosher laws — will help prevent the creation of such a disease, potentially saving thousands of lives. Avoiding the consumption of pigs prevents possible disease which could be extremely harmful to humans; in the age of pandemics, this concept should not be easily dismissed.

Besides gambling the creation of super bacteria on a large scale, the consumption of pork is by no means beneficial on the individual level. Pork has extremely high amounts of cholesterol, the main cause of heart disease, which stands as the number one cause of death in the United States (CDC, “Heart Disease”). When an individual cuts pork out of their diet, they are significantly lowering their chances of terminal cardiovascular disease. 

Pork is also the common culprit of diet-induced parasites, which affect thousands of Americans yearly. Since it is a non-ruminant animal, its digestive tracts struggle to remove parasitic beings that can then be transmitted to human consumers via undercooked pork. The most common example of a pork-ridden parasite is Trichinosis, an intestinal-bound worm that spreads and infects tissues all around the body, causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting for weeks (Mayo Clinic). This infection is not uncommon to the consumers of pork: the CDC reports about 10,000 Trichinosis cases every year, or over 1 every hour (CDC, “Trichinellosis – Epidemiology & Risk Factors”). In the context of a disease which comes solely from pork consumption, this is not a small number. 

These harmful parasites can be completely avoided by just straying away from pork items— and implementation is not unachievable. An individual attempting to follow Kashrut can start by substituting bacon with turkey bacon, pork with lamb chops, etc. Soon enough, the Kosher-rookie will find themselves less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, and more protected from parasites that could potentially shred their intestinal lining.

Shellfish

Shellfish, both crustaceans and molluscs, are also listed as “forbidden” in the Kushrat principles, and for good reason: their poor diet (and the parasites that result from it) can be directly transmitted to their consumers. As many seafood-lovers would hate to be informed, crustaceans feed off the dead skin of lifeless animals just like land decomposers (cockroaches, maggots, etc.). Dr. Martha Iwamoto, a medical epidemiologist for the CDC, mentions multiple recent disease outbreaks related to seafood consumption in her research, as well as their causes. Since shellfish are bottom feeders, they serve as the perfect hosts to parasites and other dangerous organisms, subsequently causing infections such as calicivirus, hepatitis A virus, and Salmonella. After infiltration, some parasites common to shrimp can actually promote their host’s horrendous diet by inducing cannibalism amongst their species (Bunke et al.). This presents an entirely new plethora of health issues to the crustacean, and inevitably, to us the consumers. To add to their repulsive diet, crustaceans have a very remedial digestive system, making it difficult for them to expel toxic wastes. When a person consumes shellfish, they often consume their undigested diet of decomposing marine life as well (Iwamoto). Likewise, raw or undercooked shellfish such as mollusks, clams and mussels often harbor residuals of their decomposer-diet and, when ingested, can result in invasive disease and the ripping of the intestinal lining by parasites and microscopic worms. Avoiding the harmful effects of shellfish is a pretty strong incentive to switch over to the Kosher diet, as the regiment steers clear of their parasitic food source and the negative health benefits that come with it.

Reconsider The Restrictions

Many seafood and pork lovers would argue against the Kosher diet by stating that there are no scientific arguments written in the Torah to justify it, and they would be somewhat correct. Most of the segments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that mention Kashrut justify it solely by “the command of G-D” (The Torah, Deut. 14, 21). The Torah doesn’t offer much to the reasons behind the Kosher diet, and commands the blind faith in this practice by Jews. It may not be compelling to believe solely in the word of a higher being; many will not sacrifice some of the foods they’ve learned to love purely on these grounds. The flaw in this argument lies in the neglect of extraneous scientific evidence which proves the principles of the diet to be beneficial beyond spirituality to the conflicted “Jew-ish” in America. 

Understanding the scientific explanations behind why the Jewish holy book would classify these tasty animals as ‘forbidden’ gives light to the alternative benefits of the diet. The probability of contracting food borne disease and cardiovascular ailments significantly decreases when following Kashrut. The incentive of following the Kosher laws, then, is not merely a religious payoff, but includes immense health benefits. Modern-day Jews should not believe they are blindly following a 3 millenia old manuscript, because Kashrut clearly has its sensical scientific foundation, serving as an excellent anti-parasite, anti-disease diet which is relatively simple to integrate into daily life. 


Works Cited

Bunke, Mandy, et al. “Eaten Alive: Cannibalism Is Enhanced by Parasites.” Royal Society Open Science, 1 Mar. 2015, www.royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.140369

CDC. “Heart Disease Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Dec. 2019, www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm.

CDC. “Trichinellosis – Epidemiology & Risk Factors.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Nov. 2019, www.cdc.gov/parasites/trichinellosis/epi.html.

“Diseases from Pigs.” Diseases from Pigs – King County, kingcounty.gov/depts/health/communicable-diseases/zoonotic/facts-resources/diseases-by-animal/pigs.aspx.

FAO Animal Production and Health Division. “Sources of Meat.” 25 Nov. 2014, www.fao.org/ag/againfo/themes/en/meat/backgr_sources.html.

Iwamoto, Martha, et al. “Epidemiology of Seafood-Associated Infections in the United States.” Clinical Microbiology Reviews, American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Apr. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2863362/.

Jacoby, Jeff. “The Kosher-Industrial Complex.” BostonGlobe.com, apps.bostonglobe.com/ideas/graphics/2018/11/the-next-bite/the-traditions/.

Mamre, Mechon “Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws.” Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws / Torah 101, www.mechon-mamre.org/jewfaq/kashrut.htm.

Mayo Clinic. “Trichinosis.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 18 May 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/trichinosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20378583.

Timeline of Kosher.” OK Kosher Certification, www.ok.org/about/our-ongoing-story/a-timeline-of-kosher/.

The Torah. Translated by JPS, Chaver.com, 2014, chaver.com/Torah-New/English/Text/The%20Structured%20Torah%20(JPS%201917).pdf

Ventola, C Lee. “The Antibiotic Resistance Crisis: Part 1: Causes and Threats.” P & T: A Peer-Reviewed Journal for Formulary Management, MediMedia USA, Inc., Apr. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4378521/.

Maybe June: A Short Story and Analysis

by Sasha Kiniova, October 27, 2021

Pre-Word from the author

When I was writing this piece, I was sitting in my backyard looking at the cherry blossoms and due to the pandemic, I was missing my love for the classical arts. However after thinking about all the years that I trained in ballet, primarily in my middle school and early high school years, I wanted to address the elephant in the room becoming a ballerina is not only hard physically, but it takes so much selfishness to become one. I still admire ballet and will be attending every performance I can, however every person in the ballet field knows that a ballerina’s world is not just surrounded by ballet, ballet becomes God to ballerinas. 

In this work, I use some profanity which in my daily life I would never use, but to understand the characters better and to keep the authenticity of the work, I decided to keep it in. As a Christian I do not suggest using this type of language in the reader’s daily life. When I wrote this piece, I was not yet a practicing Christian which may explain my comfort with such words. I do not condone the use of it and I will avoid using them in my future works. I would also like to add that my analysis of Maybe June is derived from my own personal experiences in the ballet field which should not be completely generalized. I have faith that the ballet field and environment around the world is getting better and mental health issues amongst ballerinas and performers is being addressed. Also, my Christian viewpoint is from an Orthodox Christian perspective, so therefore I cannot speak on the behalf of other denominations or divisions of Christianity.


Maybe June

I don’t understand why the cherry blossoms keep falling this year. 

I remember when they used to flutter down and twirl like a beautiful ballerina dancing on the Mariinsky stage. She would dance, float from one side of the stage to the other. Her grands jetés would go so high in the air, but her landing is what gave her grace. She does a final round of piqué turns around the whole stage, a lame-duck, and she comes to her resting place. 

This year, the ballerina just fell in the pit and is crying because she is not measuring up to her director.  

It is 10:47 in the evening and I am watching the cherry blossoms crash to the ground while laughing hysterically with my friend on her front porch. The porch light is on already and we are just having a good old time, laughing about the dumbest shit in the world.  

We are just being stupid-ass teenagers at last. All year we have to focus on work, and work, work, work work, no social life, work. I don’t understand what adults want from us these days. They tell us ‘Be happy’ and ‘Do what you can while you are still young’ but they forget that we have dumb ass schoolwork shoved down our throats.  

Our faces are both lit under the light and at this point we brought blankets outside because it was getting a little chilly. We kept wheezing like elephants on her porch though. I don’t understand how our neighbors are tolerating this, but honestly if I were an adult I wouldn’t yel- 

“IT’S ALREADY MIDNIGHT!!!! YOU GUYS ARE FUCKING RIDICULOUS! IF YOU DON’T QUIET DOWN OR MOVE YOUR ASSES AWAAAAAY FROM MY HOUSE…… I’M GONNA CALL THE COPS ON YOU TWO!!!!!!!!!!” 

The neighbor slams the door and we shut up instantly. I look at Renee and she looks at me. We know we fucked up… but that was the best thing to happen this month. I quietly say, 

“Hey dude, I’m gonna go.” 

“Yeah, that’s a good call Kate. Good night.” 

“Good night broski.” 

We both chuckle as we put the lawn chairs away. That evening I learned two things about my life.  

One is that adults are stupid. 

Two is that so am I.   

The cherry blossoms… they twirl and are able to make such beautiful shapes in the air. Why do I always look so stupid and ugly when I dance. Renee and I, we are so close. I mean… we’ve been friends since level one in the academy. We will always be friends, no matter what.  

It’s been three weeks now and Renee and I haven’t talked even for a minute. Did our neighbor actually scare us? But I mean… no… we were laughing afterwards, we thought it was funny. But… now I don’t know why I was laughing. Is that just what I do when I don’t know what to do? Is that how I express my fear? I am taking psychology this year… I don’t understand what is going on. The only reasonable explanation for this is that my neighbor is probably an actual witch that graduated from Hogwarts.  

The blossoms… they are crashing, crashing, burning. Why do they get to float and do whatever ever they want but I…I…I have to go to school, ballet, sleep and repeat. I don’t see where I excel… where I stand OUT from the others.  

But I don’t stand out and I never will because we are all just simple, delicate looking cherry blossoms in the ballet studio.  

It’s now been almost a year and Renee and I have still not talked. We see each other every day at ballet rehearsal. We pass each other and only give each other a little glance. I’ve only now understood that no matter what… Renee is secretly always going to be my competitor.  

When her feet point, water can run down them. When she poses in arabesque, her smile only becomes tenser. When she goes through her port-de-bras, the teacher always gives her a little nod.   

But the same doesn’t happen to me… 

They look so delicate and nice… but they crash easier every day. I can take one from the air and rip it in half. It will fall to its misery and nothing will help it.  

But when it comes to the ground… all that is left is red.  

“Katerina, could you please understudy Renee’s part in Don Quixote?” my ballet teacher asks, nagging me again to do the same shit every day. I pull a smile out of my gut just for her every time she asks me to understudy mother-fucking Renee.  

“Yes, of course, Ms. Linda, I will understudy the role of Kitri.”  

Renee looks at me with those intense blue eyes of hers. Why does she get fucking everything in life! I comfort her when she is sad, or at least I did. She can’t even speak to me anymore. All she does is dance, dance, dance, and she can’t even have time for me anymore!!!! She is the devil to my sin and I don’t know what to do about it.  

“Hey Renee.”

“Oh hey, Kate!” 

I don’t know what to say. Her devilish evil eyes are just looking at me, judging my weight probably.  

“Yo Renee, do you remember that time in June or something when your neighbo-”

“Got mad at us and told us to leave! Oh my god!! That was hilarious!” 

How dare she cut me off. She cut me off… what does she know. She is just a stupid blonde with nothing but privilege and wealth. I fucking hate her. Renee…Renee…Renee… I wish I could jus- 

“Hey Kate, we should meet up again. Maybe this time we don’t go to my house though so you know… we don’t get chased down by old meany pants.”

She chuckled with that thought. So do I. Was it for the same reason… I really don’t know.  

“Yeah, come to my house tomorrow. We can catch up, maybe be like real friends for once”. 

“Kate… I’m sorry I haven’t been spending so much time with you. I have been so busy with ballet! Ms. Linda is now telling me to be home-schooled, and I don’t know what I should do-“

“I was just kidding Renee.”

After the blossoms crash and burn, the trees then fill with red shiny cherries. I love eating them and finding nothing but the stupid pit that is in the cherry. Renee… she fell into the pit and is crying like always. She is the pit of the cherry and I can eat it at last. Oh…Renee… you are more beautiful than I thought. You are light as ever now, dancing in the air. I guess now you won’t need an understudy, my dude. 

I am sitting on her porch eating some red shiny cherries. They glisten in the sun but look prettier in the trees. The red juice overfills my smile and my heart.  

The ballerina has finally gracefully landed in her final resting place.  

Her ashes pass through the wind and tangle with the cherries. What I did had to be done… it’s easier to do than explain. I am just a teenager and Renee… she was just a teenager. But in ballet… you have to give up everything to achieve your dream.  

That included my friendship with dumb-ass Renee.  


Analysis

Maybe June does not only end with a metaphorical, yet gruesome ending, it tries to capture the essence of a teenage ballerina. The ideas of obsessions, vengeance, pain and sacrifice are all expressed in this short story. These words may seem very far away from the world of ballet, however true ballet people can see that these words are sadly the truth in the ballet world. Our preconceived notions of ballerinas are that they are gracious and pure people that could not do anything wrong. However, ballerinas are still people making them capable of fostering so much inside which could scare any stranger. 

Katerina or Kate, represents this type of ballerina. She will be willing to achieve her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina if it means being immoral. In the end, the reader obviously sees that her need for this title drove her to ultimately kill her rival ballerina friend Renee. As extreme as this is, I am just further expanding on immoral acts in general. In reality, ballerinas are still able to be immoral by not sharing and having an open heart to their peers, lying or not being completely truthful to their peers so that they gain an advantage, or do not call out clear bias or malpractice by ballet instructors if it benefits them.  

Renee on the other hand is a ballerina that is just trying to be her best. The fact of her being moral or immoral is not really expanded upon to not distract from Kate’s obvious immorality. If anything, I see a lot of Renee in myself when I used to train. My life was so surrounded by ballet, but as a teenager, I was still not sure what I wanted to do with my life. From personal experience, I can say that I have thought very bad things about my peers in ballet. I would also feel angry and not genuinely happy for my peers when they achieved something good in ballet. I used to always be full of envy and jealousy. I was aware that it was wrong and I only came to realization that what I was doing was so abnormal and wrong after I had stopped training rigorously in ballet. The ballet world can become so encompassing and secluded that Sarah Loch who researched ballet student’s attitudes towards ballet stated that ”

Much like Renee, she has the potential to become a professional but she is still not sure if this life is for her, or if she wants to make ballet the god of her life and sacrifice everything for it. This is not an original idea because according to Sarah Loch’s research into four ballet students’ storylines, many talented ballet students are encouraged to not continue regular schooling to pursue ballet.2 One of the participant’s in the study by the name of Andy has shifts in his language when he talks about ballet from just loving it to solidifying and focusing on it.2 Many ballet students may have this type of attitude, which may then make them likely to view ballet as their god further on in their life.

Kate had made ballet the god of her life by sacrificing everything she had for it without the context of morality. As an Orthodox Christian, I do believe in God. However, the major difference is that my sacrifice comes to following God’s will which is still in the context of morality such as abstaining from pre-marital sex. Sex is not an immoral act. It is very natural, but resisting sexual urges till marriage is a sacrifice Christians make. That is how much we love God and want to fulfill His will. Kate does not have moral distinctions given from her god. Her god just fuels her own selfishness and inability to justify her wrongdoing as wrong. 

Victoria Willard and David Lavallee wrote a paper discussing retirement issues with elite dancers. They stated that “in their pursuit of excellence, elite athletes often forego activities outside of their sporting environment. This immersion in their sport creates a limited identity composed almost entirely from this sport commitment.”1 Ballerinas often make their identity about just ballet which Willard and Lavallee state makes it harder for them to adapt and when they retire, they feel as if they had lost something irreplaceable.1 Willard and Lavallee further support my point that this feeling that retiring dancers have is very likely due to the result that they have made ballet their god and once they cannot ’worship’ their god anymore, their life feels meaningless and hopeless. Willard and Lavallee have also observed this same notion that retiring dancers have severe identity crises when they retire due to the fact that many dancers have developed their identities exclusively on ballet.1

The symbolism of the blossom and cherry is to show how as gracious as we are, we all fall down and all that is left of us is our flesh and bones, for the cherry it is the red fruity part and the pit. One thing that people seem to forget is that we are ultimately all people and specifically in the ballet world, we may try to act like something we are not. But we are human. We can work on how we feel, think or act, but at the end of the day, as a Christian would say, we are all sinners. This is a key idea to remember when looking at who is the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ character in Maybe June. We will see Renee as obviously, better; however she is not pure, and it can be seen that she may have done some wrongdoings on her part such as not reaching out to Kate as a true friend and intentionally or unintentionally ignoring her. Renee was Kate’s friend which means she should have stayed in touch with her but with Renee being so focused on ballet, she may have forgotten about Kate which may have only aided in Kate’s downwards spiral since her support system was not helping her.  

This short story brings up a taboo subject that is not just address in the ballet community, but in my experience in life in general. We as people always try to paint ourselves better than we are or we try to act like we could never do any harm. I believe we can all do harm since we do have free will. It is just a matter or using this freedom of choice to still make moral decisions since if you are forced to be moral, I then question if it is then even good anymore. A forced morality is abiding to moral rules with no higher or logical understanding, just following what is conventionally right. If people just follow something but do not understand why it is good, they then can ultimately not understand the goodness of their actions and may betray the forced morality since no transcendental or logical argument helps people understand why some good actions are good. Ultimately, Kate may have just needed true love from a friend, family or even stranger to help her deal with her internal issues since any recovery or support for a person does not come from just one person but from a community. Learning and understanding how to love and care about others and not just about our own desires and wants would have helped Kate and Renee in this story, but I think it would help every person in their life. As a Christian, there is a core understanding if how our life by itself and our wants do not matter if the people around us are not loved and taken care. We must learn to not just feed into our own egos but to love others, care for each other and perhaps have fun times like Katerina and Renee had at the beginning of Maybe


References

  1. Willard, V.C. & Lavallee, D. (2016). Retirement experiences of elite ballet dancers: Impact of self-identity and social support. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(3), 266–279. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/spy0000057
  2. Loch, S. (2013). Seeing futures in ballet: The storylines of four student ballet dancers. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 36(1), 53–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2013.829658

DIY Religion: Why Spirituality Should be Considered a Spectrum

by Marcela Muricy, September 21, 2020

This is a kind of mix-and-match approach to spirituality where people who are alienated by organized religions are in many ways cobbling together their own.

– Tara Isabella Burton, The Argument

Morality is relative. The lens through which people view the world is fabricated depending on how they’ve been socialized by those around them and what they’ve been exposed to throughout their lives. Every individual has this distinct perspective of life and, in the same sense, morality and what is considered ethical. In this context, it is difficult to imagine how one may fully benefit from being enthralled in a sole religious institution, because it restricts them to a single viewpoint, a single message being broadcasted to hundreds. Everyone’s moral compass is distinct from the next, so it is naive to assume one institution’s teachings are tailored individually to them, and that following it will automatically exonerate their past mistakes. There are flaws in the system of institutionalizing religion as well as the institutions themselves, which are often more dependent on their power and status quo than communicating the best moral standings to the public. This is especially true considering the common hypocrisy in the leaders who advocate for them, as well as the expired messages and traditions most religious institutions utilize to gain social and political power. If religion is meant to serve as a catalyst on the path to being a better person, it would be more beneficial if people considered keeping religion personal rather than placing their beliefs in the hands of an institution which profits off of their membership. Religion itself can be a beautiful, crucial aspect of one’s hope, motivation, and desire to have positive impacts on people and the world. Yet, it is known how dangerous this double-edged sword can be in malicious hands, and whose are ultimately more trustworthy than one’s own?

The “Take It Or Leave It” Stance

A 2019 Gallup poll estimated that 37% of Catholics have questioned if they should leave the Church due to the cases of sexual abuse, monetary greed, and homophobia within it (Jones). No matter their frequency of attendance, members are experiencing a grappling of morality, unable to ignore certain issues taking place within organized religion. This realization of institutional imperfection, for many, presents a set of choices in front of them — a complex, life-changing round of “would you rather”: either leave the institution and all it stands for, or continue being a member simply for the love of the practice.

This polarized perspective of religion — this “take it or leave it” — is harmful, and impacts both the incredibly devout and atheists alike. On one hand, the devout may feel like they have less of an option, required to tolerate aspects they don’t agree with. On the other, atheists may credit the religion for all the wrongdoings of the institution and decide to distance themselves from both entirely. This upholds the idea that religion and institution are synonymous, that they cannot be mutually exclusive.

The more accurate lens could be understanding the use of spirituality in society and how it exists separately from organized religion. It can be beautifully beneficial and even essential to human existence, providing people with a source of hope, motivation, and purpose as a foundation to their lives. With this in mind, it seems nonsensical to discard the ideas within religions simply because of the twisted way they have been reflected by institutions. What should be discarded is this limiting binary, replaced with a third option not many realize exist: the ability to mold your own.

A Devotion to Power

What likely tipped the boat of dissatisfaction with organized religions, spoken of in CNN articles and scholarly books alike, is the multitude of scandals within them. Jason Berry, an American reporter and writer, has been investigating issues in the Catholic Church for years, even having won the Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities for his work. In his 1992 book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, he details how “in the decade of 1982 to 1992, approximately four hundred priests were reported to church or civil authorities for molesting youths. The vast majority of these men had multiple victims” (Berry 1). These instances are not exactly uncommon, making the doubt and uneasiness of many “struggling catholics” (as Berry identifies himself) very rational and justifiable. The evidence of hypocrisy is so voluminous that Pope Francis himself has spoken of these twisted ulterior motives, stating, “On the outside, [cardinals] present themselves as righteous, as good: they like to be seen when they pray and when they fast…[But] it is all appearance and in their hearts there is nothing” (Martel 68). This quote, mentioned in Frederic Martel’s 2019 book In the Closet of the Vatican, specifically concerned the cardinals of the Curia. However, Martel goes on to discuss how it is one of many accusations Francis has made since he became the Pope, to several separate institutions. These scandals have been perpetually occurring within the Catholic Church for decades and are as visible as ever. Jason Berry began his investigations not for his own curiosity or interest, but with the desire to uncover the environment his children would grow up in if they remained members, concerned for their safety and morality considering the recent crimes. The Gallup poll indicates Berry’s questioning is not unique, with over one third of Catholics debating the same. These issues are most likely contributing to the shift in the demographic of religious affiliation in the US, causing many people to shun the institution and the religion altogether. This is not the ideal solution, because what should be perceived as the enemy is not the religion, but rather those who wield it with ill intent.

Problems of a “Sad Atheist”

Despite this, the number of atheists in the United States has been rising. There was an increase of 19.2 million people from 2007 to 2015 within the category of those “religiously unaffiliated”, according to a Pew Research Poll (Pew Research). Among the entire group polled, 65% claimed religion was “not too/not at all important” to their lives. This distancing from religion, however, can be an ineffective solution, because what may linger is a feeling of absence in their lives and an even stronger feeling of hopelessness. In a 2019 Vox article, writer and atheist Jay Wexler describes himself as a “sad atheist” due to the frequent existential thoughts he has, including “the world is meaningless and I am just standing on a giant rock swirling pointlessly through the universe” (Wexler par. 7). Atheism lacks the foundation that keeps many people motivated: that which explains the spiritual meaning of human existence and fills in the emotional gaps that science does not. Religion is essentially the assurance that everything will work itself out, that a “higher being” is present and caring, easing the existentialism Wexler experiences. As Zat Rana, a writer for Medium, expresses in a 2017 article, “People often think of belief as irrational. From a survival perspective, I can’t think of anything more rational than finding something to live for” (Rana par. 29). This is something psychologists would argue is one of the key factors to spirituality, what keeps humans healthy and sane. Rana himself explains in his article how he saw the corruption in organized religion (Catholicism specifically) and became an atheist very early in his life. As he matured, however, he felt the absence of a certain foundation, with no idea of life’s purpose and what comes after it. Rather than isolate himself from religion completely, Rana sought to, instead, benefit from learning and practicing several new religions so that he could make sense of the world without having to rely on an institution.

DIY Religion

So what if it were perceived differently? As less of a binary, but more of the spectrum Rana eventually tapped into? As more personal instead of a public occasion? What if it were viewed as ever-molding and -developing so that people could customize their beliefs? This is a practice sociologist Tara Isabella Burton, in an episode of the podcast The Argument, claims is on the rise in the US today:

While it is true that traditional organized religion is in decline, an important statistic to remember is that 72% of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” say they believe in some sort of higher power. This is a kind of mix-and-match approach to spirituality where people who are alienated by organized religions are in many ways cobbling together their own.

(“Should Facebook Be Fact-Checked”)

Burton’s book Strange Rites, released in June 2020, covers this transition from organized religion to what she calls “DIY religious culture”. She brings to light how many people have already begun to understand that spirituality can vary and should vary for each individual. This supports the broader notion that religion is a personal aspect of someone’s life, suddenly opening up the conversation and the mind to new possibilities. With this fresh perspective, people can distance themselves from an institution yet continue to appreciate the emotional foundation the religion provides. Although this is increasing in the general public today, it cannot be considered a truly innovative idea; even nineteenth century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson lived his life with a similar narrative. Despite being deeply religious all throughout his life, Emerson gave a speech at Harvard Divinity School in 1838 in which he advised graduates to “go alone…and dare to love God without a mediator or veil” (Emerson). He was an advocate for self-reliant religion, able to detect the flaws with organized religion even during a time when it was the default. He saw, as many see now, the many possibilities that arise once someone considers this idea of customizing their religion — tailoring it to their own needs and preferences in a meaningful and enduring way.

The Familiar in Disguise

This way of living can seem abnormal and foreign to members of organized religions, but it actually holds a strong resemblance to how people already practice their religions today. Most members have at least one opinion that misaligns with the belief of their institution, such as abortion, contraception, or LGBTQ rights. According to a Pew Research Poll, for instance, only 8% of Catholics believe contraception is immoral, with 48% believing it is not a moral issue at all (“Very Few Americans”). The Catholic Church itself, on the other hand, is strictly opposed to anything preventing pregnancy aside from abstinence. This highlights how people may remain in an institution yet disagree with some of its teachings, taking from some pieces of the religion while excluding others. In a similar sense, religion has very much drifted from the conservative way it was viewed hundreds of years ago. Many people neglect parts of the Bible which claim wearing two different textures of clothing to be a sin, along with tattooing, divorce, and eating bottom feeders (e.g., crabs, snails, codfish). These are explicitly forbidden in the Bible, but have become viewed as outdated or impractical over time. That does not invalidate it as a whole, but the shift to modern culture has caused the exclusion of certain beliefs from the minds of everyday members. The process of customization, then, already exists to a certain degree, because many people have individual beliefs that may contradict the institution or the holy scripture.

Keeping What Matters

People may shy away from the idea of this “DIY religion,” not just because they would be customizing their beliefs, but because they would be losing what makes organized religion appealing to begin with: the sense of community. It fosters unity and familiarity, as well as emanating a feeling of moral accomplishment. People create habits around attending the holy building, may it be with their family, friends, or even just familiar faces. Going to the Church, Mosque, Temple, etc. means having a community and contributing to its improvement, being a part of the good. Just as there is no limit to how someone can believe, there is also a wide range of alternatives to this feeling of unity outside of an institution. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), for example, is composed of people from several different religious backgrounds who come together to practice their own individual beliefs. They draw from science, scriptures, philosophy, and a variety of other sources for their teachings. Their goal is to “create spirituality and community beyond boundaries, working for more justice and more love in our own lives and in the world” (Unitarian Universalist Association). A transition away from organized religion can seem daunting with nothing to fall back on, but this is an example of another group people can become a part of, one with much more curiosity and exploration. Another alternative to involvement in the community would be to join a local community service group, taking part in food drives, aiding homeless shelters, and volunteering for charities. This offers the opportunity to impact the world positively without having to sacrifice any personal or political beliefs in order to participate. Being conscious of these other options — that comfort someone morally, socially, and emotionally — can make the prospect of stepping back from organized religion less intimidating and accessible even to those who love having a familiar community.

Explore the Religious Spectrum

“DIY religious culture,” as Burton describes it, is where the religiously unaffiliated “nones” seem to be headed, to a freer form of belief. The institutions that people have traditionally attended have been exposed as having fundamental flaws, causing a shift in how people identify religiously. William Chittick, Professor of Islamic Studies at Stony Brook University, claimed in a personal interview that he considers institutions “counterproductive because they’ve become less personal and more focused on power” (Chittick). The results of it, he claims, are these sexual abuse scandals and the reluctance to adapt scriptures to modern-day standards. Yet, even though this has become more blatant than ever, members of them have been hesitant to leave; they might assume the alternative to be a lack of belief, community, or morality. Understanding the other ways in which they can check off these boxes — through groups like UUA, community service, or even a local religious group among friends — can help expand their prospective options to more than just one institution and one set of beliefs. The customization of religion is ever present in the way people practice today; this “DIY religion” would simply be taking it one step forward, to a more flexible religious environment. By definition, religion and spirituality are philosophical entities — by no means rigid or caging, experienced and viewed differently by every individual. When people become more aware of the options they possess — whether they choose to believe in one religion or several — the spectrum of spirituality is theirs to delve into and explore.


Works Cited

Berry, Jason. Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. LevelFiveMedia, 1992.

Chittick, William C. Personal Interview. 21 October 2019.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Divinity School Address.” Harvard Square Library. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, 15 July 1838, Cambridge, Divinity School.

Jones, Jeffrey M. “Many U.S. Catholics Question Their Membership Amid Scandal.” Gallup, 4 Sept. 2019, news.gallup.com/poll/247571/catholics-question-membership-amid-scandal.aspx.

Lipka, Michael. “Religious ‘Nones’ Becoming More Secular.” Pew Research Center, 11 Nov. 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/11/religious-nones-are-not-only-growing-theyre-becoming-more-secular/.

Martel, Frédéric. In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019.

Rana, Zat. “Why Everybody Needs a Personal Religion.” Medium, 22 Feb. 2018, medium.com/personal-growth/why-everybody-needs-a-personal-religion-304255c9962b.

“Should Facebook Be Fact-Checked?” The Argument from the New York Times, 31 Oct. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/opinion/the-argument-facebook-mark-zuckerberg.html

Unitarian Universalist Association, “Our UU Faith.” UUA, 7 Jan. 2019, www.uua.org/beliefs.

“Very Few Americans See Contraception as Morally Wrong.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 28 Sept. 2016, www.pewforum.org/2016/09/28/4-very-few-americans-see-contraception-as-morally-wrong/.

Wexler, Jay. “6 Things I Wish People Understood about Atheism in America.” Vox, Vox Media, 14 June 2019, http://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/7/18652423/atheism-america-facts.

Less School, More Education: Religious Holidays in American Public Schools

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

America was founded by immigrants seeking religious freedom, but the majority of America’s public schools avoid religion in the classroom. With America continuing to become more religiously diverse, religiously-motivated attacks are an unfortunate but frequent topic in the media. Common stories include mass shootings at schools and religious establishments, such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in Pittsburgh, PA in 2018, where a man killed 11 people while “shouting anti-Semitic slurs” (Robertson). But while the media is covering religion on a daily basis, American schools aren’t necessarily opening the discussion to promote an informed and understanding attitude towards religious diversity. It’s impossible to avoid religion altogether with its current representation in the media, making it even more critical for schools to demonstrate tolerance, defined as the “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them,” for all religions (“Tolerance”). Therefore, all American public schools should promote religious diversity and tolerance by having no school on all major religious holidays.

A major component of supporting religious diversity is treating people equally regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. With the majority of current education administrations this is not the case. Most, if not all, American public schools have Easter and Christmas off because they’re both considered major Chirstian holidays (“School Holiday Law and Legal Definition”). However, other religions also have very important holidays, and these religions are not currently being represented in the academic calendar. For example, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha are the most celebrated Muslim holidays, and celebrations often last the entire day (Hill). Very few districts in the United States recognize these holidays despite the growing Muslim population in America (Hill). As Debbie Truong of The Washington Post reported in her 2017 article “In schools, a growing push to recognize Muslim and Jewish holidays,” deciding between school and celebrating holidays is “a struggle diverse communities throughout the country have encountered as they seek to accommodate students from different religious backgrounds” (Truong). As Muslim mother Khadija Athman from Virginia describes, “Eid is like our Christmas… You should be able to practice your religion without having to compete with school” (Truong). In Athman’s district, only Christian and Jewish holidays are recognized (Truong). While it may seem irregular and even inappropriate to have no school on these holidays, it is essentially the same as having no school on Christmas and Easter. Therefore, having days like the Eid holidays off would be progressing towards equality.

Currently, some districts are starting to give more holidays off, and it’s these districts that the rest of American educators need to follow. Due to a local increase in religious diversity, students attending Howard County Public Schools in Maryland have no school on “Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year, and the Hindu holiday of Diwali” (Truong). In highly diverse areas, such as New York City, where Nora Rivera-Larkin, a Stony Brook University creative writing major, attended school, public schools have several major non-Christian holidays off, including Eid, Lunar New Year, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah (Rivera-Larkin). In fact, New York City students “have been given Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah off since the 1960s” (Truong). According to Ms. Rivera-Larkin, “students need these days off for religious and cultural reasons. There’s so much diversity that it would be impossible not to include these holidays without a lot of students missing school on these days” (Rivera-Larkin). Not only does having no school on these days recognize the religious diversity in the student population, but it also reduces absences for both students and teachers.

As many of these major holidays involve elaborate and long celebrations, it’s impossible for students to go to school and observe the holiday at the same time. Ms. Athman’s daughters have to miss school every year to celebrate the Eid holidays, which often means missing a test or other important assignments (Truong). Many students face this same situation every year, such as Hanan Seid of Arlignton, VA, who “would be seized by a familiar anxiety as she approached teachers each year for permission to make up assignments or tests that fell on Eid” (Truong). Students of various religions also face these same issues during their respective holidays, including Yom Kippur and Diwali. Schools often don’t have these days off, either, meaning absences are typically unavoidable. Having these days off would reduce absences for non-Christian students, who would also no longer have to miss tests to observe their holidays.

While more holidays also means extending the school year, adding one holiday for each major religion wouldn’t actually extend the year significantly. For instance, a calendar could realistically have only 8 holidays off in total (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas, Easter, the two Eid holidays, the Eve of Lunar New Year, and Diwali) and still recognize the major religions in the American community. While there are certainly more major holidays (Diwali and Lunar New Year celebrations last up to two weeks), school districts would have to decide individually what holidays to have off.

Making these calendar changes can be expensive, but it’s not as expensive as paying substitutes to cover teachers who have to take a personal day to observe a holiday. According to the “Closing school for the holidays – whose holidays?” article from the 2011 edition of the Phi Delta Kappan education policy journal, “closing schools and adding to the end of the school calendar doesn’t necessarily cost extra money” (Gunther and Purinton). In comparison to paying for substitutes, who cover for teachers who may take personal days to celebrate a holiday, “keeping schools open during a religious holiday can cost significantly, depending on the number of substitutes needed” (Gunther and Purinton). Also, districts may not even have enough substitutes to cover all of the absent teachers, causing loss in learning time for students (Gunther and Purinton). For many schools, it would actually be more financially beneficial to have more holidays off. Furthermore, adding days to the calendar isn’t the only possible solution. In his 2011 Scholastic article “Extending the School Day,” Ron Schachter reports that several American schools are already adding an extra 30-60 minutes to each school day to increase learning time or to make up for snow days (Schachter). In fact, “districts largely prefer the extended day rather than the more expensive extended-year approach” (Schachter). Schools could also take days off from Spring break or reduce the number of early dismissal days. These are just a few possible solutions to the budget increase. 

In addition to the possible financial benefits, promoting religious diversity in schools also helps progress towards a more tolerant community. In Herricks, NY, where Vineeta Abraham, a Stony Brook psychology major, went to high school, the community was very diverse. In her final years there, “students began advocating for more recognition, and [they] ended up having days off for less common holidays such as Diwali and Lunar New Year” (Abraham). While this can be seen as a victory, it also means that the students who celebrate these holidays were not being recognized before and had to fight for equal treatment. In many other districts, according to the director of the Religious Freedom Education project, Charles Haynes, “many minority families and community groups won’t speak up about districts that do not acknowledge their religious holidays. They often assume that they have no right to complain” (Haynes). The lack of equality in both of these situations contradicts major American laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX, which illegalize education and job discrimination based on race, religion, and sex (“Types of Educational Opportunities Discrimination”). American public schools are certainly not exceptions to this rule.

On the opposite side of the equality spectrum, we have the “naked public school,” where all religious references are eliminated in schools entirely. Montgomery County, MD, decided to “strip all religious references from the school calendar” in 2014 after their Muslim community asked for no school on the Eid holidays (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). This is a possible solution, but it’s not the best one because it ignores the issue of student absences on these two major Muslim holidays. Montgomery still has major Jewish and Christian holidays off; the only difference is now, there’s no mention of these holidays by name in the calendar (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). According to Zainab Chaudry, co-chair of the Coalition for Eid in Montgomery, by asking for the Eid holidays off, Muslim students were “not seeking special rights,” but “seeking equal rights” (“Maryland School District Erases Religious Holidays from Calendar”). The district’s education administration made no progress towards equal treatment by becoming a “naked public school.” A truly equal “naked public school” would have no religious holidays off, including Christmas and Easter.

Ignoring religion completely is not the best solution. However, districts like Montgomery are still transitioning into naked public schools, which have gained popularity in the last half century due to Engel v. Vitale, a landmark Supreme Court case in 1962 where the Supreme Court ruled that religion cannot be promoted by public schools (Darko). This may be the preferred solution for atheists and agnostics, who do not practice religion at all and may even criticize it. However, the ultimate goal is tolerance of religion, especially to the point where a calm, open discussion doesn’t evolve into a heated argument. This cannot be achieved in a naked public school if there’s no discussion at all. According to education experts Steven Brookfield and Steven Preskill, authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching, conversation stimulates education, especially when it comes to controversial topics like religion (Brookfield and Preskill 21-22). Many American educators agreed, releasing a set of guidelines titled, “Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers” in the 1990 edition of the Journal of Law and Religion, stating that “recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings… this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”). If these guidelines are followed, education can promote religious tolerance without offending someone or promoting worship.

Currently, American public schools don’t educate their students about religion enough. The American high school curriculum includes global studies classes where students are taught the foundations of different religions, and these foundations are certainly part of a well-rounded education. The most recent AP World History: Modern curriculum includes a unit that focuses on how “the development of ideas, beliefs, and religions illustrates how groups in society view themselves,” but the “religion” part only extends to the foundations and does not discuss modern religious practices (“AP World History: Modern Course Exam and Description”). Yet while it’s important to understand the foundational concepts of religions, it’s equally as important to know how those foundations influence modern-day practices.

While American educators have agreed that “schools may neither promote nor denigrate any religion, they also agreed that religion is “an important part of a complete education ” (“Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers”; Haynes). To achieve this complete education, schools must also include modern religious practices, not just outdated ones. Modern religion is not currently taught in American public schools because doing so would likely pose several challenges, including how to deal with atheists, agnostics, students’ criticism, and those offended by certain aspects of different religions; how to avoid sugar-coating the heavily-criticized practices; and how teachers can maintain their own personal beliefs while abstaining from projecting those beliefs onto their students. These challenges are significant reasons why modern religion is not currently taught in schools, and there may be no singular solution for all of them. However, having more religious holidays off would, at minimum, contribute to resolving these issues because all students would be treated equally regardless of their religion.

Like any other sizable achievement, turning America into a country whose tolerance level reflects its large diversity will take time, and the first step must come from the education system. Nearly two decades after the September 11th attacks, America still suffers from religiously-motivated attacks such as the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in 2018. More and more religious disputes are happening every day, and they will not go away until students are taught to view religious diversity not as something negative and scary, but as something welcomed and accepted. This can only happen if American school districts start promoting religious tolerance instead of treating it as a social barrier. More religious holidays on the academic calendar are critical to this transformation. When America achieves this, perhaps the younger generations of Americans can then start repairing the gaping wound that religious intolerance has created.


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