With a wide variety of faiths catered to on campus, Billy Vaughan explores the often-ignored community.
IT is not difficult to get a sense that on campus these days, and indeed in wider Irish society generally, faith is in decline. Gone are the days when most in Irish society not only had faith, but let faith and religion guide them in their life choices. Some would argue that this is a positive development. While an increasingly small segment of faithful is left, these are people who arguably are more passionate about their religious beliefs, and not simply blindly following the religious tradition handed down by their ancestors.
In today’s societal climate, there is much to tempt religious people away from their beliefs, and less social stigma attached to a lack of belief in a God. What is it that sustains the spirituality of UCD’s faithful, in an era defined by growing secularism?
Many from all sides of the belief-non-belief spectrum see the benefit of religion as giving something to believers that nothing else can. This can be things like a sense of community, a basis for morality, or a way to make sense of human existence. Scott Evans, Church of Ireland Chaplain to UCD, however, is careful about making such an assertion.
“Mentally it frees you. You are armed to face whatever comes your way.”
“I’m wary of saying that my faith gives me something that ‘nothing else can’ because that can sound like an arrogant certainty that I find incompatible with faith and belief. Instead, I’d say there are things my faith gives me that I find beautiful, inspiring and compelling.” Brian Finlay, of the UCD Christian Union says “we find a purpose as a result of our faith. You often find people looking for something bigger to live for, for us as believers in Christ, we find that in God.”
Other groups on campus share the same viewpoint, that religion does give them something unique and personally fulfilling. Ruth Brennan, auditor of the Newman Society, says “my faith gives me peace in challenging situations as I know that God is looking after me with compassion, kindness and great patience.”
Hiba Mir, Media Officer of the Islamic Society (ISoc), says that religion makes her less fearful for the future during times of stress. “I find that for me it gives me peace. In this day and age where we’re surrounded by stress all the time, and constantly under pressure to get things done. It’s nice to think that it’s going to be okay in the end, that God will take care of it. Mentally it frees you. You are armed to face whatever comes your way.”
“I’m regularly confronted with how many things I haven’t fully understood. It keeps me questioning, growing and learning”
For many individuals who are religious, early adulthood is a time to question their beliefs and fully consider what path they want to follow in the long term. Leaving their faith not only means a huge change in personal outlook, but also often involves disconnecting spiritually with the community they were brought up in. It is a decision that is rarely taken lightly. Many cultures recognise this, such as the Amish and Mennonite communities, which allow a period of “Rumspringa” (“Running Around”) between the ages of 16 and 21. During this period, they are allowed to experience other ways of life, and ultimately supposed to come to the conclusion of whether to stay in their community or to leave permanently.
Evans says that he has had his own moments of doubt. “Wrestling with my experiences of pain and, particularly, the pain of those I love has been the thing that has tempted me to turn away most. What brought me back is realising that walking away from faith would not change, transform or remove that pain.” He mentions some advice that he often gives to students: “If you never doubt the existence of a good God then you either underestimate the pain that the world is experiencing or you don’t care.”
Leona McNulty, events officer of ISoc, says “I don’t think it ever goes to that extreme straight away, I think you would gradually see it coming, you’d see it in their lifestyle. Luckily I’ve been able to avoid that by surrounding myself with good people. You should always try and do more than what’s required of you, because if you stop doing above and beyond what’s required of you, you can tell then that you need to increase your faith.”
“Conversations sometimes become strained quickly when discussing a moral issue”
One common misconception is that the various religious groups on campus exist in relative isolation, without much contact with other faith-based groups. The general consensus, however, is that this is most definitely not the case. “On moral issues, we often agree, and can work together” says Brennan. “On other aspects of faith, we can at least have dialogue on the unique ways we come to the task of worshipping God. Often those conversations lead to me understanding my faith more deeply, and having a greater appreciation of it.”
Evans says that this aspect is one of his favourite parts of the role of Chaplain. “Whether it’s working with chaplains from other denominations, talking to Christian students from across the faith spectrum or members of other religious communities, I’m regularly confronted with how much I don’t know and how many things I haven’t fully understood or considered. It keeps me questioning, growing and learning.”
There is little doubt that those who are religious often live their lives very differently to those who are non-religious. But it is not the case that they are treated differently on campus, according to Mir. “I find that on campus, you’re not judged for your views or outlook on life. You don’t get that outside of university.”
Yara Alagha, PA to the General Secretary of ISoc, related her own experience of wearing a headscarf for the first time. “Before I started wearing a headscarf, it wasn’t visually evident that I was a Muslim. When started wearing it, I got really paranoid and withdrew from everyone else, because that’s what I thought my friends wanted. But from their perspective, when I started talking to them, they were so open minded.”
Some, such as Finlay, find that the multitude of different outlooks can be difficult in some ways and beneficial in others. “Campus can be difficult for students of our faith, because they are presented with so many different world views, which Christianity differs from and that can create a lot of tension in their minds. But in so many ways it’s great for students because they can come to the Christian Union and join with others of their faith and age, which can be so beneficial for their walk with Christ.”
Sadie Hood, Youth 2000 Facilitator of Newman Soc, finds that the moral outlook on campus is largely secular, which results in some tension. “Conversations sometimes become strained quickly when discussing a moral issue, because it becomes apparent that you are coming towards the issue from opposite sides.”
Of course, university is also a time where much thought is given about what to move on to next in life. It is not a decision taken lightly by anyone, but does religion influence the life choices of those who believe in God? Brennan reflected the general consensus that faith would most definitely have a central role in any future plans for later in life. “My religious beliefs influence every decision that I make so of course they play the most central role in what I will do later in life. I would not be happy with myself unless I felt that I was following the path that God wants for me”.
“I would base my life around my religion, not my religion around my life”
Others, such as Mir, would take a slightly different view, but nevertheless would not plan on straying from religious principles in the future. “I think influence would be a strong way of putting it. I think that it more guides you in which way you want to go in life.” McNulty says that she will make room for her faith in any future plans. “I would base my life around my religion, not my religion around my life. I wouldn’t go into a job in the future if it isn’t compatible with my religion.”
Others, such as Evans, have already spent many years in a career serving their faith. “I’ve spent my adult life in faith-driven roles from setting up drop-in centres, starting youth groups, working with local churches, organising international service trips, running school retreats and writing books about twenty-first century faith. My faith is actually the biggest factor in my career and life decisions and it’s the reason I ended up as the Church of Ireland chaplain to UCD.”
UCD is an incredibly broad ecosystem, comprising and representing the countless different facets of the lives of its staff and students. There are groups for nearly every pastime, sport, political outlook, and culture. It is unique and notable, however, that one of its largest sub-groups, that of societies of faith and religion, are often one of the most overlooked.
With the recent advent of the Repeal the 8th marches, debates over safe spaces, and the rise of the far-right in Europe, campus is more awash with ideas and debate than ever. What religious societies fear most is not a decline in their numbers, but being “frozen out” of these wider live discussions on campus. A common plight amongst all these societies is their desire for engagement with others, and not simply in a dogmatic sense. These groups are as philosophical as they are religious, and not only welcome, but thrive on all kinds of debate, discussion, and even a passing interest from others outside their sphere.