University introduces students to numerous new experiences, but can also cause them to question their beliefs. Luc Rinaldi explores how a struggle can reinforce your devoutness and what it’s like to lose your religion
At the end of a long, dimly lit hallway, I sit in tears.
Hunched over pathetically, I keep my bleary eyes fixed on the floor, only occasionally looking up to see the man seated across from me. In between sobs, I’m struggling for words, as people often do during reconciliation, a cathartic Catholic sacrament of confessing one’s sins.
But it’s not my wrongdoings that have me weeping, though I certainly feel like I’ve done something wrong.
It’s that I – who attended Catholic school and weekly masses, who toured from class to class to pray the rosary and helped found two religious retreat programs, who wrote for a Catholic newspaper and was once seriously considering the priesthood – am agnostic.
It takes me a moment to muster the courage to tell that to the Catholic priest next to me. It’s taken even longer, almost two years now, for me to believe it myself. And it will certainly take a while before I can comfortably tell my family and religious friends. What you’re reading, I suppose, is the first step.
My loss of faith is not an uncommon phenomenon, particularly among people my age. In fact, universities and colleges have long had a reputation for “poisoning” student’s beliefs. It’s the first time many are no longer under the watchful eyes and strict order of their parents.
For those coming from Catholic school, it’s an especially radical change: scepticism and critical thinking are abound, homosexuality and abortion are almost unquestionably accepted and sex – yes, the premarital kind – is everywhere.
So I’m not surprised when the priest calmly tells me that he understands.
He says that it’s natural, that I should talk to people about it and that I shouldn’t rely solely on what
the Internet and books tell me about the irrationality of faith. He has me there: the hours of militantly atheist YouTube videos, the dozens of Demotivational posters, the Dawkins and Hitchens readings – they’ve all played their part in my doubts. But the university environment has had its own distinct role.
For some, it has indeed poisoned religion; for others, it’s strengthened it. Whatever the case, university is challenging students’ religious beliefs and forcing them to re-examine what their faith means to them – and it should.
It was the summer after my first year at Ryerson when I first doubted.
For a long time, I was unsure where the uncertainty had come from.
Yet when I find myself speaking with Lauren Kennedy, the president of the Ryerson Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, I can’t help but think she’s speaking directly about me.
“People who have grown up in faith communities where they’ve not been encouraged to question, where they’ve had things just shoved at them,” she says. “It’s easy for them to fall away, because they never really did believe.” It’s still hard for me to convince myself that I never really believed.
Even as I sat in a first-year philosophy class, listening to discussions on the existence of God, I clung to the security of Pascal’s Wager and Paley’s watchmaker argument. And oh, how I hated Hume.
At the time, Kennedy was in a similar position, enrolled in a philosophy of religion course. “I took it on purpose because I didn’t want to go through life blindly,” she says.
“If I said there wasn’t a struggle, I’d be lying… Even though it was hard and it made me question my beliefs, I actually came out stronger in the end.”
That kind of questioning, according to Ryerson philosophy professor Paul Bali, is a common result of such a course. “The ideal of philosophy is no premise left unchallenged,” says Bali, whose own beliefs were redefined by years of schooling.
“It doesn’t mean you don’t believe anything, it means that you hold beliefs to the highest possible standards.” In his classes, Bali says he tries to make religion appear as more than just a dogmatic caricature. While his course has shaken some students’ beliefs, Bali says others, like Kennedy, leave with an even stronger faith.
You can find some of those students in the basement of the Student Campus Centre (SCC). Beyond the used-book store, closet-sized offices line a constantly vibrant L-shaped corridor.
It’s a ghetto unlike any other: The Armenian Students’ Association is as close to Campus for Christ as it is to the Association of Ryerson Role-Players and Gamers. Cultures,
creeds and curiosities so disparate have never been so concentrated.
So when I speak with Elise Loterman, the program associate of Ryerson’s Hillel chapter (a Jewish student group), her words are especially apparent.
“University exposes students to so many different ideas and opinions and ideologies,” she says, seated in Hillel’s office. “For some students, that could mean exposing them to things they’ve never necessarily seen or heard before.” In that same office a week later, Mitch Reiss, president at Hillel at Ryerson, echoes his colleague, telling me the setting keeps him learning and questioning constantly.
“University is a time when people try new things, explore different options… when people experiment with their culture and their faith.” Motioning out to the hallway, he adds, “Once you get out of the university structure, you don’t get this[dynamic] anymore.” In the direction Reiss is gesturing, the Ismaili Muslim Students’ Association office is alive with chatter and laughter. One of their members is quick to note that Ryerson
– between the school administration and the students’ union – is accommodating and supportive of religious groups on campus.
Nearly everyone I talk to tells me the same thing. If there’s proof of that, I’m looking at it.
As I start to make my way out of the SCC, I begin to catalogue what has become a long list of stories that serve as a counterpoint to my own.
I’ve heard over and over that university can fortify faith just as much as it can break it.
If there are people falling away from religion in university, I haven’t found them yet.
That’s when I spot Armen Matoosian, an old friend who attended my Catholic high school, peering out of one of the corridor’s miniature offices. I stop to chat and inevitably end up telling him about my story.
“That’s kind of like me,” he says tentatively when I mention the topic of students losing their religion. “I believed in God when I was younger… But I really don’t believe in anything anymore.” Matoosian admits he was never particularly passionate about his faith, and he didn’t attend church regularly. But then again, neither do the majority of Christians.
“If you start out devout,” he says,
“there are definitely avenues to keep your faith. But if you don’t, you end up like me.” Garen Oflaz, another graduate of my high school, has no hesitation in his answer. “I think it’s hard to keep your faith here, no matter what religion,” says Oflaz, a Christian.
“In high school, it was a lot more comfortable and safe to have faith… In university, there’s a sense of when you grow up, you’re not supposed to be gullible enough to believe. I feel like not having faith is the new cool thing.” I still remember my last religion class in Grade 12. My teacher rose from his desk with a stack of little red booklets in one hand. He navigated his way through the rows of desks, handing one to each of us.
On the cover, it read How to Stay Catholic in College. I skimmed it, thinking its advice wouldn’t ever apply to me.
I was wrong.
Now, I live two different lives. At university, I had never advertised my religiosity. Even when I joined Ryerson’s Catholic chaplaincy in first year, few of my classmates and newfound friends knew about my faith. So when my beliefs buckled, nothing changed.
But to my parents, brothers and many of my friends, I am the person I was in high school. Some people still jokingly call me Jesus from time to time, and over the summer I led a weeklong Catholic retreat. Only a couple months ago, I got an email from a priest asking me to join a group of young men discerning religious life.
There’s no simple way to cut off an entire part of your life, especially when so much of your outward identity stems from it.
There’s a part of me that’s convinced it’s easier to keep pretending I’m Catholic (I’ve become pretty good at that) than trying to explain why I’m not. After all, detailing your disbelief to a believer is, if not oppositional, incredibly draining.
Despite times of intense sadness and a desperate longing to put this behind me, I’m thankful that I was forced to question my beliefs. I can’t be sure that they won’t change even a year from now, but I’m glad that Ryerson, along with a handful of other factors, made me re-examine them.
University poisoned my faith.
And I’m glad it did.