Hundreds of students and faculty sat in rapt attention in a Fisher Science lecture hall on the afternoon of Oct.12 to learn about the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The room filled to the brim as students sat on the ground between isles after all seats were taken. The hall erupted in discussion immediately following the conclusion of the event, signally that the return of the Cal Poly Theism Club received anything but disinterest from the campus community.
The Israel-Hamas war brought forth reaction from the community in the form of marches, public statements and speeches from students and the wider community. The Theisms club’s first meeting included a talk about the history of conflict in the region, as an attempt to open a dialogue by creating safe spaces to talk about charged issues.
These kinds of conversations are exactly what the Theisms club is all about.
“There’s a lot of conflict in the world right now just about people not knowing about different beliefs or knowing who other people are,” Theisms club president Ben Phillips said. “So I think the goal of the Theisms club is to provide an opportunity for people who are interested in learning more and provide a community on campus for people with a broader interest in different religions.”
The Theisms club was founded in 2006, but leaders paused activity in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19. The club was reinstated this quarter, with roughly a dozen members. Phillips credited the revival to fellow students who are passionate about studying religion and encouraging “the responsible, rigorous and respectful discussion of religious issues on campus.”
The club hopes to bring more speakers to campus and host events to create dialogue between religiously affiliated groups.
On Oct. 12, the club held their first event since being reinstated on campus, hosting religious studies professor and Theism club adviser Stephen Lloyd-Moffett in a forum about the Israel-Hamas war.
This event served to both the discussion on campus about the recent violence in Gaza and provide students with historical context for the multifaceted conflict that has existed for more than 3,000 years, according to Lloyd-Moffett.
“The ongoing events in Israel affect people on a lot of different levels; emotionally seeing the death of innocent people,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
He co-teaches the RELS 380, Religion and Politics of the Israeli and Palestine Conflict with political science professor Anika Leithner.
As an educator on the topic, he observed the ebb and flow of student responses to the conflict over the years.
Lloyd-Moffett said that one thing he stresses is not neglecting the emotional aspect of charged issues.
“One thing we say early on is if people get emotional, it’s totally justified; you should get emotional because people are dying and horrible things are happening,” he said. “So, honor the emotions and don’t repress them because you should care passionately when lots of people are dying.”
To open the conversation beyond the classroom, Lloyd-Moffett hopes that the forum on the Israel and Hamas conflict created an educational environment for the campus community to learn about this tragedy in a neutral environment.
“We need vigils, we need places to mourn, and we need places to vent,” he said. “We’re not trying to say who’s right, we are simply trying to understand our fellow human – that is our role to help understand each other. And if religious studies can be a vehicle for it, we can do so.”
The forum, which filled an entire lecture hall in the Fisher Science Building, was centered around helping students develop an understanding for the historical context and humanize both sides of the conflict.
“Understanding can really help people to communicate better, and get along with each other to find commonalities or understand their differences and come to terms with them,” Phillips said.
This connects back to the Theisms club’s goal to promote responsible and respectful discussion among the campus community.
This year, the Theisms club plans to continue with its exploration of religion with additional speakers, events and quarterly camping trips.
“It’s always just been a group of students who are curious about the role of religion and spirituality in society,” Lloyd-Moffett said. “We’re not here to make people anything. We just have a learning aspiration.”
Editor’s Note: Mustang News is referring to the ongoing conflict as the Israel-Hamas war based on the Associated Press Stylebook recommendations for the conflict.