The State of Student Religion

At the end of the previous term Christopher Hitchens, the father of antitheism, died. In his life he sought to demonstrate the incompatibility of academic life and a belief in God. This new year witnessed an event seemingly indicative of his arguments for valuing enlightenment above religious objection. The Atheist Society at University College London promoted a facebook event using a cartoon image of Jesus and Muhammad. Their student union, citing ‘offence’, asked for it to be removed. This incited a secular ‘call to arms’ with thousands flooding an online petition and Richard Dawkins sending a message of solidarity.

Often academic discussion and news reporting portrays religious stories – of all the Abrahamic flavours – in this simple minded form. Religion is construed as divisive and unashamedly traditionalist. Experience in a university environment is far more complex. The Christian Union on this campus involves itself in Bible readings, discussion and prayer; while a significant amount of its time focuses on socials as well as volunteering outside the Hive and QM on club nights. Religious encounters for non-believers are most likely to take a mild form; or as Murial Spark referred to it ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace’. Issues like Gay marriage may be presented as a battle between religious zealots and those who prioritise love above gender, yet churches are far from being uncompromising monoliths. Ministers moved past Galileo, divorce and Darwin. A few confetti marriage ceremonies will blow over in time.

If anything this reality sets a challenge to the secular world. It presents an image of a modern compromising Christian, more focused upon quiet contemplation of personal faith than shouting down opponents as blasphemers, heretics or sinners. Where it is colloquially accepted to mock religion – in some young circles as an intense form of delusion – questions must be asked as to how accurate this is in relation to how religious students actually live their lives. Perhaps the fact that the bible no longer creates such fervour and debate is a sign of unease among the minority of believers. However, it is also the case that an unrecognized form of religion and spirituality exists that is privately held and followed on its own terms: one based on compassion, equality and community. This undermines the image of the hypocritical preacher, the imposing missionary or the Jehovah’s Witness’ interrupting your tea: leaving less of a humorous caricature yet a fairer reflection of what religion now is and means.

In a sense the modern world’s most popular religions have no Gods, but are built upon myth and idealism. There are evangelical marketers, transcendent stockbrokers and banker priests who sit alongside campus socialists reciting Marx, Maggie and Milton as gospel. Such politics is defined by a universal ideology, a pilgrimage to human redemption and arriving in a heaven of richer, happier, better progress here on earth. The faith of human optimism – that all bar the most committed of cynics support – is a religion we herald beyond reproach. It sits tightly upon our collective conscious, stirring during times of ecstasy and hope. Considering the war, death, poverty, torture, depression and repression in the world, that is a faith to doubt. With such nuances, shades of grey and rightful secular introspection, it is true to state that religion on Gilmorehill isn’t about division or outdated custom, it’s far more complex than that.

Michael Gray
January 2012.

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