Signing up for an existentialism course last term was a bit like being told I have to spend another summer in the remote village where my dad was raised. Both gave me the same anxious feeling about going back to a place I’ve outgrown my connection to, a place where my current views may be unwelcome.
I say this because what I consider the “beginning” of my rediscovery of faith began with existentialist thinkers back in high school. I was apprehensive about taking a course in existentialism in a university. I imaged being surrounded by chants of “God is dead” from students who would likely think I’m stupid for believing otherwise.
Historically, not believing in God was seen as provocative, but John Caruana, a philosophy professor at Ryerson, says this has changed over the last three to four centuries. “The pendulum has swung today and now, in some ways, the more difficult and challenging position to affirm or assert in intellectual circles is a religious one.”
I had no intention of taking up that challenge when I clicked the enrol button for Caruana’s existentialism class. It turns out I wasn’t the only one.
Over the last 15 years of teaching the course, he says that a number of students have approached him with questions related to religion. To ensure the class that the conversation is welcome, Caruana begins his course with a reading by University of Cambridge professor Jonathan Ray, who was struck by the strong views people held about religion in the setting of the university.
“Without stereotyping the academy as a whole, there does seem to be a particular prejudice or bias against religion, and there seems to be this general assumption that religion is something that we’ve done away with,” Caruana says, explaining Ray’s view.
He said the dismissal of religious views can in some cases be very casual. “In other cases, especially with the emergence of new atheists, it’s expressed in very strong and even aggressive terms that religion is nothing but superstition, and people who believe in religion are foolish. Even words like ‘stupid’ are bandied around.”
Caruana says that it has been eye-opening for him to see the number of students that responded positively to the discussion about broaching the topic of religion in other courses. One student even said the class was the first time that a conversation about religion was not immediately dismissed by the students or professor.
“It made me realize that despite the fact that we as professors and faculty think we’re open to ideas and discussing ideas — the situation is such at least with respect to the context of religion — it doesn’t always seem to be the case that there is actual open dialogue on these question,” he explains.
For students who are exploring questions on faith, it’s not hard to see how they can be hesitant to express their religious views in the context of academic conversations if not signalled by instructors.
“From my involvement in high school and going to silent protests, you get to experience being put down because of what you believe in,” she said. “Especially if it comes from the administration position, it’s really hard for students to say, ‘OK it’s not just students bringing me down, it’s also my professors.’”
Siu-Chong began practising her Roman Catholic faith after her father died when she was in the second grade. “Faith is a connection to me knowing this is what my dad would want me to do, as well as I see the fruitful gifts from practising,” she said.
And for those who may not identify with those gifts, she still thinks there is value in considering the overall messages of religious concepts. “(Biblical texts) underline more than just faith. There’s a lot of lessons that can be learned through scripture, and if (students) are open to that, whether they’re against faith or not, there are still things that you can learn from it.”
In addition to life lessons, students like Abdullah Idroos attribute physical benefits to keeping up with faith. The fourth-year Business Management student says that he has avoided things like drug abuse and stress-related events from practising Islam.
“I think me following my religion and sticking to the tenets of the faith has allowed me to have a holistic perspective of what’s going on around me and how I should conduct myself,” he adds.
Idroos is curious to learn about other religions on campus, but says that it can be hard to connect with them because of a lack of visible student group presence. “I feel bad when other religions don’t get their time. Atheists: I’d love to learn more about them, but where I can I find them?” Currently, atheist, agnostic or humanist clubs are not listed in the RSU’s student group directory.
Nevertheless, Idroos thinks it’s important to find common ground between faith communities that exist on campus and foster what he calls an “intellectual conversation” that can benefit all students. “When you start dismissing everyone’s opinion … psychologically you begin thinking, ‘My view is better than yours,’” he says. “If people are not expressing their views, it’s because the environment or the university is not conducive to their views.”
Third-year engineering student Naomi Shore agrees. “Sometimes the reason that knee-jerk reaction (to dismiss religion) exists because people who have those atheist views kind of look down on religious people because they think we’re uneducated, or somehow there isn’t real concrete proof for what we believe in. But I think it isn’t fair to assume that.”
According to the Pew Research Centre, atheists, agnostics and those who do not identify with a religion are a declining share of the world population.
While this is not directly paralleled in post-secondary institutions, studies show that not all college-educated students are straying away from faith.
A May 2015 study found that not all college-educated students become less religious. Philip Schwadel, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that countries like the U.S., Mexico, Israel, Turkey, and Italy see a reduction in religiosity for college-educated students. Canada was not included in the study.
“University education in particular is regularly hypothesized to lead to low levels of religious belief and activity,” writes Schwadel. “Although the dominant perspective suggests that higher education is negatively associated with religiosity, empirical research on education and religion using international samples has produced mixed results.”
Nine of the thirty-nine countries examined showed a positive effect on religiosity among these students, whereas 18 nations showed a negative effect, and the other 12 were neutral.
Tamar Lyons, a first-year media production student, spent one year studying in Israel before coming to university. After being surrounded by religious conversation during her year abroad and previous education in Jewish institutions, she says that it was a bit of an adjustment coming to university, but she is glad she chose Ryerson.
“People are very respectful I find, especially here. But I know that’s not the case in every situation and in every program,” said Lyons. “I think that I’m just very lucky that Ryerson is very liberal and that helps.”
She has only been here for two months, so the opportunity to talk about religion in the classroom hasn’t come up yet for her. Lyons looks forward to engaging in conversations about religion, but says that everything can’t necessarily be explained. “I think critically, but at some point I have to take that leap of faith to believe in things,” she said.
Making the leap of faith is a big theme in the work of Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Caruana says that was religious existentialists like Kierkegaard and non-religious existentialists share is that they reject the concept of absolute certainty.
“What all these thinkers, religious and non-religious existentialists share in common is the view that once you think you found absolute certainty, you’ve stopped thinking.”
This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 4, 2015.