Stanford students study religion through campus artifacts

By applying theories and methods from the field of religious studies to Stanford culture, a new course introduces undergraduates to the study of religion.

L.A. Cicero Memorial Church carving

Inscriptions inside Memorial Church were among the topics of discussion in a unique religious studies course at Stanford.

The inscriptions inside Memorial Church, the death mask of Jane Stanford and the nod to the Egyptian ankh symbol formed by Palm Drive and the Stanford Oval all have one thing in common. Each was a topic of discussion for the students enrolled in a unique religious studies course at Stanford.

Taught by Stephen Weitzman and Kathryn Gin Lum, Is Stanford a Religion? applied analytical methods used by religious studies scholars to Stanford University. In this way, the course introduced undergraduates to the field of religious studies without focusing on any one specific religion.

Students explored various aspects of myth-making, a central tenet of religious studies, by reading the Book of Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh and anthropological studies about myth creation. These typical assignments for a religious studies course were accompanied by an analysis of the Stanford University Founding Grant from 1885. The document established Stanford as a non-sectarian university, yet one that also sought to teach students about the "immortality of the soul, the existence of an all-wise and benevolent Creator, and that obedience to His laws is the highest duty of man."

The course also approached the subject of rituals, another critical aspect of religion, by pairing theoretical readings with discussions about Stanford football and Full Moon on the Quad (where freshmen seek to be kissed by seniors and thus transformed into true Stanford men and women).

Weitzman, a scholar of Jewish antiquity, and Gin Lum, who specializes in American religious history, weren't quite sure how students would react to the course. However, as Gin Lum put it, "Stanford has so many strange myths and rituals" that it did not seem like too far a stretch to apply to it theories and methods used in religious studies.

"We live in a world where 80 percent of the population identifies with one religious community or another, and where a number of our major conflicts around the world are driven by religious motivation," said Weitzman, who recently led the first Stanford study abroad program to Israel in 25 years.

"To understand the world, you need to understand religion," he said. However, he added, the study of religion is not high on the priority list for most students. Weitzman said that non-religious students might think it a waste of time, while religious students may fear that formal religious studies might attack their faith.

"Alarm bells go off for both groups," Weitzman said, so he and Gin Lum found a way to introduce the core questions of religious studies (What is religion? What is ritual? What is myth?) through a lens Stanford students could identify with – Stanford University itself.

To contextualize the importance of sacred spaces in the study of religion, the class read excerpts from Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane alongside discussions about the role of Memorial Church at a university that from inception was decreed to remain "nonsectarian ... and entirely free from all denominational alliances."

The class also examined the ways Stanford culture embodies the social dimensions of religion, which Weitzman says includes "bringing people together, creating a sense of cohesive identity" and "generating meaning."

During a field trip to the Google campus in Mountain View, students learned that the founders of Google modeled the company after the Stanford campus, making Stanford "an essential part of the myth that has led to Silicon Valley's success," according to Gin Lum.

The Stanford family's legacy

University founders Leland and Jane Stanford "reflected a late 19th-century attitude of exploration toward religions other than their own Protestantism. They were interested in the Spiritualism movement, curious about Catholic art and intrigued by ancient Middle Eastern traditions," said Gin Lum.

This meant that the university they founded incorporated several religious traditions while remaining at its core a non-religious institution.

Veronica MarianStudents examining artifacts

Plaster death masks of the Stanford family were meant to preserve an eternal likeness, as in the ancient Egyptian tradition.

While the Founding Grant set aside lands and funds for the creation of Memorial Church, the Oval – one of the most recognizable Stanford landmarks – was designed in the shape of an ancient Egyptian ankh, representing the concept of eternal life.

And even though the Stanfords considered themselves to be Christians, one of the "sacred spaces" the class discussed was the mausoleum in the campus arboretum where Jane and Leland Stanford and their son, Leland Jr., are entombed – it evokes ancient Egyptian religion.

No Christian symbols adorn the marble and granite tomb, which is flanked by four sphinxes – two in the Greek style, with nude female torsos that Jane Stanford felt were risqué and placed in the back, and two typical Egyptian sphinxes that guard the entrance.

With this nod to ancient Egypt, the Stanfords were "evoking immortality," which is another common element of what constitutes a religion, Weitzman said.

The search for immortality was a topic that greatly interested the Stanford family and led to their involvement with the Spiritualism movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Spiritualism, Weitzman explained, claimed to be scientific in its attempts to contact the dead. Mediums offered empirical proof that people survived physical death and could communicate with the living.

Sen. Stanford's younger brother, Thomas Welton Stanford, a Stanford University trustee who contributed the funds for the original library and what is still the art department's main gallery, was also a renowned Australian medium who endowed funds for "psychical research and related phenomena."

To learn more about the Stanfords' involvement with Spiritualism, Weitzman and Gin Lum took the class on a special visit to Green Library's Barchas Room, where Stanford University Archivist Daniel Hartwig carefully laid out items belonging to the Stanford Spiritualism Special Collection.

As the group scrutinized indecipherable script written in chalk on a group of small slates, Hartwig explained that the writing had appeared during séances held at Jane and Leland Stanford's Nob Hill home as they attempted to contact their recently deceased son.

One time, he said, a plant is said to have grown nearly a foot during the duration of a séance, and on a separate occasion, a living tortoise appeared. It subsequently lived out its days in Jane Stanford's garden, and its perfectly preserved shell is now included in the collection.

Discussing religious diversity at Stanford

Even though Stanford has a Department of Religious Studies, an Office for Religious Life and several student religious groups on campus, Weitzman believes that students don't engage each other sufficiently on topics about religion or understand the religious diversity that exists on campus.

Student Montserrat Cordero believes it's because religious beliefs are not something many students want to share. "I think people are afraid of touching such a personal matter," she said.

To help students overcome the aversion to talking about religion, Weitzman and Gin Lum assigned each student to approach two people in their dorms from different religious communities and ask them about their reasons for being religious.

Engaging fellow students in these conversations had the intended effects. "I got to know my dormmates better as people," Cordero said. Weitzman would be happy to hear that it also "got them thinking about religion, too."

Veronica Marian is the communications coordinator for the Stanford Humanities Center.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,