The University of Oxford is host to a broad range of religious societies and opportunities to celebrate one’s creator(s) – from Abrahamic theologies to Hinduism, Sikhism, Baha’i faith and beyond. And yet that fundamental issue facing organised religion around the world – the crisis of youth engagement – persists in the university community. More than 70% of young people in Britain identify as having no religion. As is the case in nearly all social categories, this is a marked fall in participation, and will prove critical for the transmission of religious identity into future generations. While the university arguably encourages some of the factors behind this phenomenon, I also believe that for those seeking it, the religious scene can provide a sense of connection and meaning that for some students, feel is lacking.
If we cast our minds back to last May Day, many might remember the ‘bacon butty evangelisation’ perpetrated by friendly, placard-bearing members of the Christian Union. As students scraping by on instant ramen and stale bagels, my friends were enticed – but what does this say about the state of the Oxford congregation if its best advertisement is hot food after the ATIK all-nighter? One can argue that the reason for why religion enters your life is less important than your willingness to explore it. After all, there’s no shame in finding your religious eureka in the May Day feeding of the five thousand – if unexpected. While not inherently Christian, May Day’s choral ritual is representative of a degree of spirituality engrained throughout Oxford and its university: the dominance of your college chapel, the use of Latin, and Christian origins of many colleges. After all, St John’s was founded to educate Catholics to fuel the counter-reformation movement while Mansfield was established for nonconformist Protestants.
The Oxford University Christian Union is the world’s second oldest university Christian society. An open space for those devoted, or perhaps just interested, in hearing an ecumenical message, the CU is an opportunity for young Christians to express their feelings about a practice increasingly disconnected from youth identity. While this is important, its highly evangelical character can be off-putting for some. Yet in the modern era when fewer people are being born into faith-oriented families, finding methods of encouraging more ‘born again’ Christians is vital for those trying to address the crisis of faith. No one wants to be force-fed religion – and methods of active evangelisation don’t seem to be working. Perhaps what is required is a re-invention. That is, a new styling of Christianity that draws people in rather than recruits them.
In today’s diverse society religion is seen as a somewhat antiquated practice. Its values are seen to represent a conservative past, and clash with modern ideas of tolerance and self-expression. This spans from views on gender and the role of women, especially in the family unit, as well as sexual identity, elitism and marriage. But this is a careless characterisation of religion. It is true that institutions like the Catholic Church contain engrained bigotries backed by 2,000 years of power and wealth accumulation, but this does not mean all Catholics see this as acceptable. Christianity has an innately progressive capacity; liberation theology emphasises biblical support for respect, pacifism and social cohesion. Religion is unfairly publicly perceived as the domain of the political right, but Gorbachev himself called Jesus the ‘first socialist’. What Jesus thought of glasnost we’ll never know, but the point remains that religion should not be pigeonholed under traditional conservatism.
Religious affiliations seem to define one’s social and political agenda before they can be explained. Even at Oxford, while many first approach my faith with curiosity, there has at times been an underlying concern for where exactly this places me on the political spectrum – at odds with an institution so keen to present itself as progressive and open-minded. I cannot speak for all religious students at this university, but it can be alienating. This is largely due to the stigmatisation of religion and the religious because of controversial views on abortion or trans rights that not everyone shares. But organised religion is not the prescriptive authority some may think. I was raised in what was a devout Roman Catholic home: a crucifix in nearly every room, a religious education, and mass every week for almost all of my childhood. But my Labour-voting, placard-wielding parents didn’t care for the regressive social doctrine most would expect when I recount my upbringing.
The difficulties religion faces in Oxford are more than just its social perception. A classic atheist trope is the idea that science and religion are incompatible. Some might then speculate that students of this university, an intensely academic institution, are more likely to reject the existence of a higher power. Not only is this patently false, but it also perpetuates the idea that religion is a hindrance to scientific discovery. And yet Alessandro Volta, Werner Heisenberg, J. J. Thompson, and perhaps most famously Georges Lemaitre – originator of the Big Bang theory – were all devout Christians, indeed Lemaitre himself was a Catholic priest. And of course Religion is a comfort for many – often for those asking the greatest questions about life on Earth – and could likely help some Oxford students take a break. This does not necessarily have to be spiritually, but in the hectic Oxford terms a moment to reflect on life beyond your next essay deadline can be refreshing. I do this in my own time, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pray for sitting my Prelims – it’s worth a shot.
Truthfully, I remain on the periphery of religious life in Oxford. While it is a great source of community and support, Oxford already has so many outlets to meet new people and find a sense of belonging. From societies to sports, college to your subject, there are seemingly infinite ways of finding your own support network at this university. The limited time and stressful schedule mean that I have not yet worked out how best to reconnect with my faith. For those with childhoods like mine, personal choice was not much of a factor; attending Church was simply what my family did as Christians. We were never forced into anything, but the requirement to think about how I personally engaged with God was not there. Now I find myself in a new city, a new university and among new people; over a year on and I’m still not sure. Undoubtedly, this is the case for many students at this university – each discovering their own relationship with religion.
I speak from a Christian perspective; this is what I know best. But some of the most active religious societies in this university represent the world’s and the UK’s diverse religious makeup. ISOC (Oxford University Islamic Society) is an extremely welcoming and active space for Muslim students, important at an institution that has historically served white, Christian men. A wide range of societies is essential in allowing people of faith from minority backgrounds to feel that Oxford is open to all. Beyond this, religious diversity is also a point of learning and cultural appreciation. Take St Hilda’s College, where the Hindu Reps do an incredible job of celebrating their culture while sharing it with others; the festivals of Diwali and Holi have become popular expressions of inter-faith collaboration – a characteristic that has become an important part of Hilda’s collegiate identity.
Religion is more than what the individual can conceive of it. To say that religion is unique to everyone is cliched, but rings true. Coming to Oxford offers many students the first chance to negotiate their relationship with religion on their own terms. Ultimately, as young people we need to reconsider how we approach religion in society. It is not a relict part of a dying identity. While many are proud of their religious identity, dismissing it as such only further draws a line between people, and isolates those a little less sure of where they stand.
There is a crisis of faith across the world, especially in Western society. Many mistakenly believe that religion cannot be for them – that it is unrepresentative of their values. We must therefore find new ways of engaging (and maintaining) youth participation, focusing on dismissing inaccurate received knowledge about religion. Equally, however, we must respect those who simply do not see the appeal of organised religion. Oxford is a space for students to pursue academic, social and yes, even spiritual endeavours. The extent to which this latter opportunity is explored is up to the individual, one can explore personal religious devotion or the cultural celebration of another’s faith. But I openly encourage all to not only reflect on their own belief, but how they approach those of others.