In the spring of 1982 I graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. A few months later I matriculated into Stanford University. As the product of 12 years of Catholic schooling, I was eager to attend one of the world’s finest universities and had the good fortune to be admitted into a program called Structured Liberal Education (or SLE, which folks on The Farm pronounced “slee“).
It was a big, residence-based program build around the “Great Books.” As a freshman SLE was pretty much my only course, and it was presided over by a Marxist scholar of whom I (and all my classmates) were in awe. As I recall, many of the professors who taught in SLE wore their atheism as proudly as the fraternity guys wore their Greek letters.
My professors, if not openly hostile to religion, often communicated a felt undercurrent of skepticism toward faith – it’s a tone and attitude that I have seen amongst some of my colleagues at the various universities I have attended and taught at as well. While I cannot say that it was easy to have my beliefs questioned, debated, dissected before my eyes like a cadaver, I can say that the experience was purifying. It’s also impossible for me to say that attending Stanford induced the first faith crisis of my life. I had had many doubts, even radical ones, during my years of Catholic education. I had questions, deep questions, that neither catechisms nor priests were able to answer. I remember feeling at times that many good, pious people seemed unwilling to countenance my doubts, even downright frightened when I raised them as questions. At Stanford, however, my teachers often seemed only too willing to help me demythologize what I believed.