Testing the faith: Students and relgion

Looking down onto Leeds city centre, a weathered gothic spire sits at the top of a hill home to institutes of learning and enlightenment. Broken stained glass windows and the surrounding pavements lie in wait as evidence of the previous nights over indulgence. Once a place of praise and worship, now better associated with drinking more so than a little wine with communion and hedonistic behaviour. Halo, situated in the centre of Leeds, is a once former church which has been transformed into one of the biggest clubs in the area. To some this may seem like a desecration of somewhere that was once so holy. To the other, a potentially smart business plan. One might argue; wouldn’t it be foolish to let such a large building go to waste when it can be used to attend to the drinking needs of Leeds’ eighty thousand strong student population? And with that, the former church resumes the will of its new tenant.

Statistics from surveys from the past decade could give some reasoning as to why religion among students is not excessively popular. When asked ‘‘what is your religion’’ results from the 2011 census claim that 32.8% of the population in the UK answered with ‘‘no religion’’ or did not state their religion. Furthermore when the British Social Attitudes survey of 2009 asked the same question 50.9% of the respondents replied with ‘‘no religion’’. A steady decline in religion over the past decade is visible as the 2001 census found that only 14.1% of the UK’s population answered with ‘‘no religion’’.

Leeds is home to a diverse range of religions, the most common, as throughout the UK, is Christianity and the different various denominations associated with the religion. However religions such as Islam, Sikhism, Judaism and Hinduism all have a presence within the city, with a strong following within the minority communities spread around.

Regardless of the large religious presence within the city, the student lifestyle and a life devoted to religion do not appear to be a common mixture. In an age with so much scientific fact and counter argument, statistics strengthen the argument that religion is losing its grasp on the young, free thinking generation. Not only reinforced scientific arguments, but also the endless distractions that come as a part of the student life, may draw students away from religious thought and completely away from practicing religion. Students argue religion is something which is no longer forced upon them, unlike centuries ago, when religion was prominent within the governing of the England and the rest of the UK. The gradual decline of religious influence in parliament could be seen as why religion does not play a big a part in the day to day lives of many students currently residing in Leeds. Ross Scarth, a second year student at Leeds Metropolitan University, believes religion is is a disadvantage when regarding free thought. Speaking from within his bedroom which is plastered with posters advertising popular nights out around Leeds he explains: ‘‘I went to a Catholic high school, but once I left and went to a non-faith college I started to make my own decisions, being a student, I feel I’d be at a disadvantage when regarding knowledge if I was religious.’’

The increase in numbers that feel they do not belong to a religion may be what influences so many students in Leeds to not take an interest in these particular faiths. Upbringing will play a big part in religious belief, and therefore if more parents are choosing to not follow a religion, then more and more young people grow up without spirituality and religion at the centre of their lives. Many surveys may be misleading however, showing high percentages of students claiming to be a part of a religion that they do not actually practice. For example a 2011 survey by the University of Derby looking into religion and belief in higher education found that 46.8% of respondents answered ‘‘Christian’’ followed by ‘‘no religion’’ with 36.5%. It may be seen that certain students have been brought up to follow Christianity but as they progress into higher education, their interest and time devoted to the religion will decrease.

Largely students blame distractions and the freedom that university provides as the reasons for not practicing religion or taking an interest whilst they are a student. No longer having pressure from parents to follow certain spiritual beliefs and also being given the time to discover their own faith, if they choose, is what appears to be the general reasoning as to why the majority of students do not feel compelled to take part in religion.

Currently studying at the University of Leeds, Joe Lawson, 19, has strong beliefs regarding Atheism. He argues: ‘‘Although I have been to a Roman Catholic high school I have never had any pressure from my parents or relatives to take an interest in religion. I have been given the chance to develop my own beliefs – therefore religion does not appeal to me in the slightest’’.

However it can be a completely different story for many students at university when it comes to religion. Many students see higher education as a chance to meet others with the same spiritual beliefs and also seize the opportunity to join societies which bring people together through spirituality.

Members of the Islamic society at Leeds Metropolitan University, Ifrah Khalid and Anil Ahmed, believe that you are guided better if you are religious and a student. They feel distraction is not a plausible argument for not being religious at university, as religion comes first before anything else. ‘‘A lot of religion, especially Islam, is primarily down to your upbringing, your friends and family will try and guide you in the right direction. Prayer is the best answer to any distraction which may draw you away from your faith’’ claims Khalid. This may suggest that upbringing is the key to a religious student. However Ahmed argues that although upbringing is an important factor, people can still find the correct path whilst at university.

The Islamic Society of Leeds Metropolitan appears to have a relaxed yet firm understanding of their religion; this can be seen as only certain females decide to wear a Hijab as well as the society congregating in social spaces rather than shutting themselves away from the majority of students. ‘‘Being a Muslim is a way of life, Islam is something that always stays with you even if you choose not to follow the religion strictly’’ claims Khalid.

On the other hand, the more established faiths associated with Christianity do not seem to have the same voice as religions such as Islam. Lead Chaplin at Leeds Metropolitan, Caroline Ryder, suggests that Christianity has become complacent due to its prominence for such a long time, leading to people not caring as much about the faith.

The university’s chaplaincy is based in a grand church, complete with a towering spire looking down onto the former church which has since become nightlife hotspot Halo. The chaplaincy encourages students in Leeds to explore their faith and find out what kind of spiritual journey they are on. The workers offer a range of services to students that are curious about their faith; these include one to one support for students, whether it is regarding religion or anything else that could be troubling them, pastoral support and spiritual guidance. ‘‘Suggesting there is a decline in religion among students doesn’t paint the whole picture, although Christianity may not appear to be a popular choice for many students many new progressive churches are on the rise within the area’’ claims Ryder.

Just out of Leeds city centre sits the Makkah Masjid mosque, situated in the Hyde Park area. Perched on top of the magnificently constructed building, the mosque’s crescent moon overlooks the neighbourhood. All day the mosque is busy with people coming to and from. Many Muslims converse in the spaces around the colourful structure, which is the hub for the Muslim community living within the LS6 area.

It would appear that religion among the majority of students in Leeds does not appear to be a popular choice. However this does differ between Christianity and Islam. The decline in students practicing Christianity has gradually increased over the last decade, and figures will point to a non-religious upbringing. Yet, it is a completely different story for Islam, quite simply because Muslims do not appear to have the same uninterested approach toward religion whilst at university.

Written in December 2013

Photo courtesy of Tgraham via Creative Commons

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