“The other side of religion is that you go into yourself. There is more to life than what you can see, taste and touch than scientific rationale.”
What happens when you ask a Catholic, a Muslim, a Jew, a Wiccan, a Methodist minister and an Agnostic the same five questions about religion?
These six members of Trinity’s community value faith more significantly than I first expected, opening my eyes to the common misconception that students inherently dislike religion and are opposed to spirituality.
I began by asking the question – “what is religion to you?”
For Joel Coussins, last year’s President of the Jewish Society, he drew comparisons between life as a Jew while living with his parents, compared to now, at college in Trinity. He spoke about how he associated religion with “routine” when he was back in London and how synagogues were more accessible to him there. He expressed how religion has changed immensely for him: “I am now leading sermons that I was once only a part of.” Joel found this new viewpoint “enriching” and went on to say that “it makes you think harder about what aspects you want to keep about your faith and what aspects you want to resolve”.
Reverend Dr Julian Hamilton, the resident Methodist chaplain at the college, accredited the original definition of the word religion, “to bind back”. He continued, “religion, at its best, binds us to who we are and also who we can be as humanity. It gives me purpose, dignity, meaning and love.” Rev Dr Hamilton – or Jools, as he is more fondly referred in House 27, the epicentre of social religious activities on campus – delved into the negative connotations of religion. He referred to it as a “dirty word” continuing on to say that “once a movement has become institutionalised, then it loses some of its meaning”. He went on to say that the history of the Christian Church and “its very dark moments” definitely does not reflect what the word religion means itself. Evidently these darks moments have lead to disillusionment for younger generations.
Each of the representatives of the various religious bodies on campus independently brought up the negative connotations which are ingrained in religion and the history associated with it. Aisling Crabbe, a Senior Sophister Jewish and Islamic studies student – who identifies as Agnostic – spoke about the religious education which we receive at school. She mentioned that her study of religion at Leaving Certificate level was very “enriching” as it was taught from a secular point of view. However it can certainly be argued that most Irish teenagers do not feel this way about their religious education at second-level. The lack of secularism present in the curriculum has lead to Irish young people feeling bitter about the Catholic Church’s firm grip over education in Ireland. Being forced to go to mass and compelled to recite prayers is contrived to the average Irish 14-year-old; they can, most likely, hardly remember why they chose their confirmation name two years previous.
Ciara Gaffney, a Catholic theology student and non-distinct Christian, balked at the idea of baptism, communion and confirmation all being made before the age of twelve in the Catholic system. She said that, upon reflection as a result of her studies, she finds this strange as the child has no understanding of the beliefs of the religion necessarily.
Hasnaa Rezk, a Muslim and Senior Freshman Science student spoke about the negative preconceptions that society holds towards Islam. “It is a peaceful religion and I believe that all religions are primarily peaceful.” She referred to hate crimes and discrimination towards Islam. Misunderstandings are seemingly what lead people to view religion negatively.
A sizeable portion of the questions brought the Trinity interviewees back to a similar viewpoint; how they see the world. Rev Dr Hamilton spoke at length about how religion can help you explore and discover your own beliefs as a person, hence forming your own perception of the world.
“The other side of religion is that you go into yourself. There is more to life than what you can see, taste and touch than scientific rationale.” In relation to its place in a college community, Jools expressed that “people change more with their college experiences than they will any other time in their life.”
Fundamentally, he believes that deciding who you are is a religious question. Then again is this just a spiritual question? Are students just aware of their spiritual development in college?
Looking to the future
Eimear McGinty, who identifies as Wicca, felt like spiritual development can be embraced as the idea of fostering our own individualistic religion. “People are making up their own rules more and more which is a good thing.” She envisaged a future where borders disintegrate between denominations and where religion has the space to grow creatively. She poised an analogy of the Irish state like an adolescent reflecting upon religion; “we’re in a reactionary phase, like when you read a Richard Dawkins’ book when you’re sixteen and you’re like, “this is unreal!'”
Gaffney suggested that the Catholic church should modernize, believing it to be 200 years behind. Coussins’ understanding of the future of religion followed on from an increase in secularism generation to generation. “Hopefully it will go in a more liberal direction. There are aspects of religious practice that aren’t applicable anymore with modern day life.”
Dr Rev Hamilton agreed with the other interviewees stating that “of course religion has to change.” He spoke about new ways in which we can update the teaching of religion. “Does that just mean we come up with funkier songs or do we do cool Irish services?” he questioned, but stressed that “that’s only a small part of it.”
All interviewees believed that interacting with religion was very important. They referred to the wealth of varying faiths to be discovered on campus and what we can gain from attending their events and getting to know their members. Coussins enthused about these religious societies, imploring that one should “take time to go and learn about them. Use Freshers’ Week to talk to all of them”. Gaffney agreed, saying that we should sample the cultures and religions that are readily available to us on campus.
The four stages of faith
Whilst discussing Trinity students’ exploration of faith, Dr Rev Hamilton explained American educationalist John Westerhoff’s ideas of ‘four stages of faith’. Stage one is ‘experienced faith’; one of being loved and cared for. Stage two is ‘affiliated faith’; when we are born into a religion and follow what is expected of us, such as making our communion. Stage three is ‘searching faith’ and perhaps the most important of all the three stages. This is when we reach out for ourselves and explore our spirituality. Stage four is owned faith; when you know what you believe in and you accept it.
Essentially these four stages are key to discovering our own spirituality. Some people remain in stage two, never migrating from what they’ve always known. We can only hope that everyone will reach stage three at some stage; sooner rather than later.
All I can say is that I hope Trinity provides sufficient conditions for us as students to search for our faith, if any, so that we can reach stage three and if we are lucky enough, stage four. We need to realise that we can gain many positives from being spiritual and that religion isn’t necessarily something that drags us down in our outlook on life, but instead can shed some positive light on difficult times. As George Michael said himself, we all gotta have faith.