McGill's evolving faithscape: Exploring religion on campus

Moving toward religious plurality on campus

Written by Monique Kasonga, Opinion Editor
Design by Sofia Stankovic

At twelve years old, I became acutely aware of how my family’s approach to religion diverged from that of my peers at my Christian school and church. The defining moment was when a Catholic friend visited and remarked on a unique feature in our home: A photo of Jesus facing a photo of the Buddha. My friend found it odd. But, my upbringing was marked by a belief, instilled by my parents, that all religions and forms of spirituality hold valuable insight for humanity. Although it is now obvious to me that not everyone had been taught the same, at the time, my friend’s reaction to the photos came as a shock. 

Despite recognizing religion’s imperfections as I grew older—its polarizing potential, and its historical role in inflicting suffering—my curiosity about religious differences has persisted. Recently, while reflecting on my lack of interaction with religion since starting university, I began to ponder whether my deep fascination with religion's impact on the world stemmed from my upbringing. How did my perspective compare to that of fellow students at McGill? 

In pursuit of answers, The Tribune ran a survey from Nov. 7 to Nov. 20 to gauge and understand McGill students’ sentiments regarding religion and spirituality, collecting a total of 112 responses. The results were telling: More than half of the respondents believed their peers were not religious, a presumption that aligned with the actual data. Despite the relatively small cohort of responses compared to the university population, the majority of McGill students in the survey reported not identifying with any specific religion or spirituality. 

However, the survey revealed a more nuanced picture of campus life. Nearly 60 per cent of surveyed students think that McGill has created an inclusive environment on campus where all religions are welcome without discrimination. Additionally, most students who identified with a particular faith felt that their rights to religious freedom were well protected on campus. 

The survey revealed varied perspectives on what religion and spirituality mean to McGill students. Many viewed spirituality as a personal journey and a connection to a greater force, possibly with higher powers and the supernatural. In their responses, students focused on how the practice of spirituality differentiates itself from religion because it is more personal, while others said it was just as community-based. 

Students articulated religion as an institutionalized embodiment of spirituality, offering a narrative to contextualize one’s existence and a structured belief-system for understanding life. One anonymous respondee noted: “I am not a religious person, but I see the appeal of a support system and community that religion fosters. I also see it as a source of comfort for anxiety surrounding existentialism and life-cycles.” 

With these insights in mind, I had a discussion with Gerbern Oegema, a religious studies professor at McGill, where he highlighted that there has been a significant uptick in student enrollment in the Religious Studies department over the past decade. Our conversation unearthed a crucial realization—an evident gap in early religious education. The convergence of secularization and shifts in educational policies in Canada has resulted in a generation possessing limited knowledge of religion. While prioritizing the secularization of education is imperative, I wondered whether students aspire to bridge this knowledge gap, aiming for a deeper understanding of diverse ways of life and philosophies. Oegema emphasized the rapidly-growing contingent of nursing students in the program, eager to study religion as a means to better care for patients from diverse backgrounds.

“[The nursing students] said, now, we work in hospitals with religious people who are sick or dying, and we know nothing about religion, and we want to know more about it,” Oegema said. “So that's one very important reason why students come to [religion] classes; namely, that they know nothing about it.” 

According to Oegama, the absence of religious education at home and in schools has presented an unfed curiosity about the basics of religion, propelling students into further study. Despite the prevailing notion that society has moved beyond the realm of religion, a point solidified by the fact that polls have shown that Quebecers are least likely to believe in a God, Oegama said he has observed a resurgence of interest among young individuals. He attributed this to young people having profound questions about existence, unencumbered by the biases against marginalized groups that often accompany religious traditions. These questions, often centered around what one’s purpose is here on earth, delve into existential inquiries about the meaning of life, echoing the queries posed by ancient religious texts presented and studied in courses centered on religion. McGill offers an ample amount of religious studies courses across various departments, offering a plurality of perspectives within the field of study— with courses centered on Abrahamic religions and South and East Asian religions, for instance.

The McGill’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, a branch of McGill Student Services, aims to provide multi-faith resources and programming for students’ religious and spiritual well-being. There are currently 32 faith clubs and organizations on campus, indicating that the university is a space where religious and spiritual plurality can thrive. 

However, despite a majority from the survey feeling their religious self-expression is protected on campus, over 67 per cent said that they did not believe McGill students displayed their religiosity publicly. And of those who were religious, around 54 per cent, expressed difficulty in finding a community of those who shared their beliefs at the university. 

Tanner Patterson, U1 Arts, captured the essence of the at times contentious nature of the religious atmosphere on campus. “Religion is an incredibly polarizing topic because it’s pretty much every single person saying that they know what the actual meaning of living is. So, everyone's going to disagree with each other.” 

Clearly, it is not only people of differing religious groups in dispute but also those within the same faith. In the survey, the overwhelming majority of McGill students said that their social circle is not of the same religious or spiritual backgrounds as theirs. 

Delving into the social dynamics at McGill, Lucas Fuhrman, U2 Arts, described his friends’ religions, noting a mix of Catholics, individuals from various other religious backgrounds, and those with no religious affiliations. However, Fuhrman acknowledged that interfaith exchanges are often contingent on one’s social connections on campus. Academically, Fuhrman touched upon the atmosphere the university fosters, mentioning that while the administration may take certain stances on issues, students still navigate a contested space where diverse opinions coexist. Additionally, he expressed his belief that McGill's current cohort is less religious. Attributing this shift to the multifaceted challenges of contemporary life, Fuhrman asserted these hardships could prompt individuals to distance themselves from traditional religious teachings.

Although 55 per cent of polled students were not religious before coming to McGill, almost 10 per cent of McGill students had previously identified with a religious affiliation but no longer do so. A common explanation I observed was finding incompatibilities with personal views and lifestyle requirements within organized religion that cause alienation in those communities. 

When asked about McGill student’s relationship to religion, Hannah Marken, U2 Arts, offered her perspective on our generation’s trajectory away from traditional religious beliefs. 

“I think that maybe there’s a stronger disbelief of what religions stand for and a lot of the ideas that are associated with it. A lot of young people don’t resonate with them anymore.” 

This phenomenon traces back to how students in the survey reported that they are opting not to display their religiosity publicly. Many choose privacy, fearing discrimination—particularly if they follow minority religions— meaning religions outside of Christianity, due to over half of the Canadian population being part of the Christian faith. Particularly in the context of Quebec legislation, Bill 21 illustrates how the province does not foster a safe environment for those part of the Islamic faith. Concerns extend to negative perceptions of various religious groups and reluctance due to complex faith relationships or safety concerns amid rising antisemitism and Islamophobia. My conversation with a U2 Religious Studies student, Charlie Zacks, emphasized this. 

Growing up with a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Zacks had exposure to both faiths, attending an American Christian private school, Methodist Church, Hebrew school, and synagogue. However, he identified as an atheist during his teenage years due to the prescriptive nature of religious teachings he encountered. Zacks finds McGill’s Religious Studies department diverse, featuring a wide age range and international representation, but also observes a general apathy toward religion outside an academic context. While there are well-supported on-campus religious organizations, he feels that acceptance depends on fitting into specific pre-established groups. 

“So is McGill overall accepting of people’s religiosity? Yes, insofar as it’s part of the accepted religiosity. This, in my opinion, is not a McGill problem specifically; but, McGill could do things to better this issue. This is an issue of how people view and interact with religion at large.” Zacks said.

“It’s the fact that some groups and some specific elements of certain groups are able to qualify as acceptable and because of that, anything outside of the acceptable facet of religion, or that specific religious group is then immediately disqualifying for them.” 

Zacks pinpointed a notable gap in basic understanding of religion among Canadians—particularly those born between 1995 and 2004. He attributed this to the rise of atheism during that era, with popular crusaders of atheism such as Richard Dawkins gaining fame. This trend, he noted, has led to a skeptical and unsympathetic attitude toward religion, particularly when engaging with different religious beliefs on campus. Emphasizing the need for open-mindedness, Zacks suggests that understanding religion with empathy and understanding can mitigate campus tensions and foster inclusivity. He advocates for a sympathetic approach to religious studies, seeking to bridge gaps in understanding and promote a more inclusive community. 

The impact of religion in shaping human development is often overlooked and undervalued. From the names of the days of the week to Western legal systems, humanity's earliest beliefs about the universe have influenced various aspects of our lives. Recognizing the profound impact of religion is crucial in our daily interactions and, on a broader scale, in understanding how it influences legislation and policy. It stresses the interconnectedness between personal convictions, societal values, and the legal framework. Time and time again, personal convictions surrounding religion have allowed for divisive policies to be implemented worldwide— from Bill 21’s disproportionateexclusion of Muslim women in Quebec’s public sector, to the criminalization of homosexuality in Ghana. 

In the midst of shifting sentiments away from traditional religious structures, it’s crucial to acknowledge the enduring importance of religion and spirituality. While organized religion may be losing its grip, my experience speaking to students underscores the unwavering youthful quest for answers to existential questions, proving that religion and its philosophies and texts are here to stay. 

While contemporary events have a more immediate impact, a comprehensive understanding of human progress requires delving into the beliefs that shaped societies. Acknowledging not just what was believed but how deeply those beliefs were held is essential for comprehending actions and events throughout history. To reconcile with this truth, the influence of religion should be transparent rather than concealed behind rhetoric about complete secularism. Although religion is a personal matter, understanding it and its history becomes crucial in comprehending the behaviour of those around us and the societal norms that persist. Embracing the historical-religious foundations openly, particularly within an academic context, can lead to a more profound understanding of our world and foster a more accepting and informed society, where freedom of expression prevails. 

Shared questions about mortality and virtuous actions will persist across generations, though traditional avenues—churches, mosques, and synagogues, for example—no longer hold the same influence. Rather than completely losing religion, our generation appears to be shedding many aspects of organized religion and the value of its institutions. McGill students can envision a future with thriving interfaith discussions and harmonious coexistence, as long as the value of studying how religion has influenced and continues to influence the world continues to hold importance. A more empathetic approach, grounded in a profound understanding of religion, is crucial as we navigate the complexities of individual and communal beliefs.