A crowd of students, professors, and interested members of the Nashville community gathered in the Student Life Center to watch representatives from eight different religious backgrounds discuss their beliefs (or lack of them) at the Vanderbilt Interfaith Council’s annual panel discussion on Monday night. The conversation centered around the question “How much is too much?” as it related to prostelizing and the infamous ‘Caring for the Lost at Vanderbilt’ video from last September, which provoked widespread criticism and satire for its images of evangelical Christians condemning partying Vanderbilt students.
The panel consisted of one representative from Buddhism, Bahá'í, Atheism, Mormonism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. Each speaker described their background and their religion’s views on actively trying to convert other people before answering questions from the audience.
Interfaith Council President Aladine Elsamadicy opened the discussion, introducing moderator Gretchen Person, the Interim Director of the Office of Religious Life. Person’s role was limited, however, as the panelists presented their views concisely and there was virtually no direct arguing between them.
The Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic panelists emphasized the important of bringing others into their faith within reason. Father John Baker, the Catholic Chaplain at Vanderbilt, highlighted the importance of preaching and converting while noting the inevitable tension between freedom of conscience and religion.
Dave Bachman of the interdenominational Christian ministry Navigators connected conversion with his the spreading of the good news of the Gospel central to Evangelism and decried the producers of the ‘Caring for the Lost at Vanderbilt’ video on the grounds that they “stopped sharing the good news of the Gospel. It sounded like a lot of bad news to me.”
Sarki Abdulkadir, an advisor for the Muslim Students Association, said that while “it is encouraged that people share,” the Koran does not stress active conversion and that such talks need to be civil and respectful.
Dr. Vipul Lakhani, who represented Bahá'í, highlighted the importance of independent investigation. “It’s sharing, not converting, or putting any undue pressure on anyone else.”
The representatives of Mormonism, Judaism, Hinduism, Bahá'í, and Buddhism also expressed a general openness to new members as long as they were self-motivated.
Atheist Tim Bolton offered a completely different perspective, identifying atheism as “simply a lack of belief” that follows from a lack of evidence. Bolton also explained that atheists are not necessarily against religion, although many figures like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have created that impression. Still, many of his comments were more caustic.
“As for how much is too much,” said Bolton, “if a couple of people in suits ring your doorbell on a Saturday morning, they’re probably not atheists.”
A question from the audience about whether religious faith plays too much of a role in elections for public office produced a blunt response of “Yes, totally” from Bolton while Jewish Rabbi Saul Strosberg claimed that religion needs to play a larger role where its complexities are fully embraced.
Nevertheless, the evening included little heated debate. Even when speakers offered completely different points-of-views on important issues, the conversation always remained polite and respectful.
The Interfaith panel is one of three major yearly events put on by the Vanderbilt Interfaith Council, which has members from each registered religious organization on campus. The organization’s Facebook page describes its purpose as “to promote campus-wide understanding and respect of diverse spiritual beliefs by means of communication, dialogue, education, and advocacy.”