Alum Interview: An Agnostic at Boston College
Religion has never really been a significant part of my life. In fact, it is still a somewhat foreign concept to me (I was surprised to learn the other day that Jesuit is not, in fact, a religion). Now that I think about it, most of my exposure to religion has come from just going to school. For classes I have studied the Bible and looked for religious allusions, and I went to my fair share of bat mitzvahs. But aside from that and taking turns reading aloud Grandpa’s Passover printouts from 30minuteseder.com, I’ve never really been in a religious environment. Now, I am at a once religiously-affiliated college that still holds many of its core Quaker values near and dear to its administrative heart. Would I still have applied to Swarthmore if it hadn’t dropped the religious affiliation? I remember visiting Haverford where the tour guide was studying religion, but other than that I had no idea that the college was still affiliated. I’m not sure what I would expect from an affiliated school – is there really much of a difference? I know that quite a few religious high schools had uniforms, but this is college we’re talking about here. There are no uniforms in college (as far as I know). So what would it be like to attend a religiously affiliated college as a student of a different religion or of no religion at all?
And what better way to find out than to interview an alum?
Brian Wogensen is a graduate of Boston College, where he studied English and philosophy. He is now a part of the English Department faculty at none other than The Archer School for Girls, where he had me for not one, but two classes my junior year. Since he was my teacher, I would rather not refer to him as “Brian”, but rather “Mr. Wogensen” or “Wog”, his nickname. I remember him talking about various experiences at BC, but through listening to his stories I never had the slightest idea that the school is, in fact, religiously affiliated. Having very limited knowledge of what goes down at affiliated colleges, I remembered that I still had Wog’s contact info from GradNite. So I decided to give him a call. And by call I mean text.
First things first. I’m not just writing about religiously affiliated colleges, I’m writing about going to a religiously affiliated college without practicing that religion. That being said, I had to ask: Are you of any religion?
Bwog: I am agnostic. I was raised Lutheran sort of but mostly we went to church for the music. By the time I went to college my mom was exploring Buddhism.
L: Ah, I see. And BC is Catholic. What sort of presence did religion have on campus?
B: Catholicism was/is definitely at the core of BC’s identity and there were a majority of students who were Catholic (not sure what that breakdown was or is). I had three or four Jesuits as profs during my four years there. My roommate was Catholic and went to Mass at a chapel near our dorm. All this said, I did not feel any pressure or feel odd because I was not Catholic. Theology was a required core course and I took Gods and Goddesses of India with a Jesuit, Father Frank Clooney. He was amazing. Taking this class led me to attend a weekly meditation at Roberts House, where a number of Jesuits lived. Father Clooney and a monk named Sebastian Moore led the meditation. This was an important part of my experience. So, there was some aspect of spirituality that I tapped into but it was on my own terms. I found the Jesuits completely devoted to teaching and learning and inquiry. Great educators.
L: That’s really interesting how the religious affiliation enriched your academic and overall experience there. I know there wasn’t pressure from the school or your peers, but did you ever consider Catholicism for yourself?
B: No. I was sure about my uncertainty. In other words, I was drawn to aspects of religion that asked questions, but Catholicism overall never drew me in because it would require giving up too many questions or accepting too many faith based truths. I also have a hard time with the ways organized religions work (often against each other) on a macro scale, and I think back in college this was evident to me and guiding my thoughts even then. I do think reading Aquinas and Just War Theory and C.S. Lewis all actually led to not simply acceptance but recognition of aspects of thought that I could wrestle with. The Jesuits were helpful in creating an intellectual space for this grappling.
L: I see. Did you know any other students at BC who actively practiced a religion other than Catholicism? Or weren’t religious?
B: I had a few friends who were Jewish, though there wasn’t a big contingent of Jews at BC. I never heard them express any angst. There were certainly a number of non-religious folk – it is a large enough school with enough in that sense. I imagine on a small campus it would be harder to go about your own thing. One place I felt religion was not on campus but in contact with sons of the big Catholic families of some of my friends and roommates—going to visit for breaks and such.
I think the notion of giving and charity and service is part of the Catholic Church – these things surface at BC and I could be part of that without feeling like I needed to praise Mary.
L: Okay, last question! Would you encourage other non- or other religious students to go to BC?
B: I had such a positive experience there, and I think it’s a place where most people can find a niche and interest and be happy without religious pressure. So, yes I’d encourage people to go there!
Do you have any experiences with being nonreligious at a religious college? Share with us below.