A Diverse and Intimate Community

Ibante Smallwood '16

Ibante Smallwood ’16

At this point, the Groton Humanism Group (GHG) has existed for over two years. I would know, being a head of the group. Our goal has been, and is, to be accepted as an alternative to Groton’s spiritual requirement. We have already attempted to do so. We have held meetings almost every week for the past two years. I have already written an article for the Circle Voice about humanism and how our multiple proposals have been rejected. And now I’m writing another one.

This article is to raise the issue again and discuss why we have not been passed as a spiritual alternative. The Groton Humanism Group is a legitimate, teacher-sponsored group that holds regular meetings; we meet the most frequently out of all the clubs on campus. On Friday nights at 7 pm, we gather in the admissions office to discuss our beliefs, our values, our experiences, and our lives. There are 15 students on average, though 55 students have come to at least one meeting. Most identify as humanist, atheist, or agnostic, so we use humanism as an umbrella term in the name for the group. Dr. David Black, our faculty sponsor, usually attends meetings and Brandt Belknap is also a frequent attendee, but with or without a faculty presence, we always have productive, thought-provoking discussion. Our topics have ranged from the afterlife to personal experiences with spirituality to current events. All are always welcome, regardless of faith. In addition to discussion-based meetings, we have participated in community service opportunities to cater to the spiritual aspect of our group. We are members of and in contact with the Secular Student Alliance, a nonprofit organization that educates, supports, and provides resources for students to learn about secularism. I believe we have proven ourselves to be a legitimate group, but we have not been recognized in the way we want to be. We have submitted proposals a few times, but the answer has always been no, albeit for changing reasons, which I have listed below.

The first argument we encountered, from faculty and students alike, was that not enough people are interested. This is an Episcopal school after all, and humanists, atheists, and agnostics are probably a very small minority. Shangyan Li ’14, recently conducted a survey in which he asked students with which faith they identify. Out of the 293 students whom answered, 59.04% of them—the majority—identify as Christian, which makes sense as Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States. However, the next largest constituency is atheists and agnostics: 27.99% of the student body, or 82 students. These two large groups are followed by “other” with 5.46%, Judaism with 3.75%, and Buddhism with 3.07%. Atheists and agnostics are the second largest constituency at Groton, yet there is no place for them to express and discuss their views. There is plenty of interest in humanism, but those 82 students don’t attend every meeting because they don’t have to. Though they may identify with humanism, many students do not find it worth the time. There are the dedicated ones who do, but everyone already has a weekly time commitment—chapel, or one of the other alternatives. Why attend two spiritual services? Almost one third of the student body does not have anywhere to voice their beliefs. And these numbers are nothing new. Bruce Ramphal ’15, the other head of GHG, sent out a survey last year that obtained similar results. The large number of atheists and agnostics at Groton is not an anomaly; it is a constant.


From the School Census run by Cameron Derwin '15 and Shangyan Li '14

From the School Census run by Cameron Derwin ’15 and Shangyan Li ’14

Another reason we have been given is that accepting a secular substitute would be too large of a step away from the school’s fundamental traditions. Yet the school already provides alternatives to Sunday chapel, such as Jewish services and Buddhist-Hindu Sangha; why not provide a place for the second largest constituency at Groton? Groton used to be exclusively white, wealthy males. The school has already come such a long way in the development of its traditions; we have made countless changes to admissions, dress code, curriculum requirements, and chapel services. Allowing GHG to be a valid alternative would just be another addition to the evolution of Groton.

This year, we were told that accepting GHG as a legitimate substitute would lead to various splinter groups and fracture the community, but I have never seen factions formed within the community based on religious differences. I do not believe that, because I identify with a different faith than another student, the community would become divided. Chapel has been championed as a space for the entire community to come together, and I agree—with daily chapel. Daily chapel is a great way to start the day, sitting among your peers and teachers in quiet reflection, though I do wish we had more diversity in readings and hymns. But I object to the fact that people who disagree with what is being said in Sunday Chapel are still forced to attend. Jewish services, Buddhist-Hindu Sangha, Roman Catholic Mass, and other services exist without fracturing the community, so I do not see how GHG would suddenly create such divisions. Creating another group would not lead to exclusion; it would simply carve out a space for one third of the student body to discuss and develop their beliefs.

We have also been told that our objection to attending a religious service that we don’t agree with is intolerant. We have been told that it is the duty of humanists to embrace other religions and accommodate them. What I do not understand is why our group must make such concessions. Humanism is a system of thought, without prescribed duties, and while we definitely respect and accept other faiths, we do not need to follow them to do so. Our unwillingness to attend SundayChapel, or any other religious service, is not borne from intolerance. We have tolerated religion for years, and accept it, but not for ourselves. I think that the only intolerance present is the rejection of our proposals.

We have been brushed aside for more than two years. There is a sense of urgency to our mission. After next year, the founders of the group, the most passionate supporters of GHG, will leave Groton. The GHG heads and a few additional representatives have met with Mr. Maqubela twice this year, and something, though small, did come out of the meetings. The conferences themselves are indicators of recognition on behalf of the administration, and we appreciate the time given to us. Mr. Maqubela has agreed to provide us with club funding to cover the snacks we have at our meetings, and he has also arranged for us to have an opportunity to speak face to face with the trustees. These are kind gestures, but we are not yet satisfied. Our objective has not changed over the years. We still seek to become an accepted spiritual alternative. We still seek to create a space not only for ourselves, but for those future Grotonians who share the same ideas. We still seek to be included.

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