Finding a religious & spiritual community at Queen's

'We need language for it and that's what religious literacy is'

Students make religion and spirituality their own.

“There’s this myth out there that religion/faith/spirituality is declining, and that people are becoming less and less religiously oriented, but I really don’t think that’s the case,” Ryan Farrell, associate pastor at Queen’s Christian community Geneva House, said in an interview with The Journal.

“I try to remind students that you’re not alone, there are other […] people out there that are spiritually curious and minded and asking questions about these things,” he said. “There are lots of students out there that are like ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ and ‘does God exist?’”

The Journal sat down with Queen’s students and faculty to discuss the importance of spirituality and religion in university.

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“We’re taught not to talk about religion or politics, and that’s clearly what we should talk about because those are the most divisive things,” Shobhana Xavier, assistant professor of religious studies, said in an interview with The Journal.

“We need language for it and that’s what religious literacy is, having the language and capacity to start engaging in hard questions [about religion].”

A lot of people shy away from discussions about religion out of fear they’ll say something wrong. However, avoidance of these topics can lead to ignorance, which further divides different communities.

“A lot of it is just fear-based,” Xavier said. “Religious literacy is your ability to talk about different religions, not just your own, and to be able to engage in those differences in a meaningful way and not to be scared of differences […] Learning about it can help you see what’s happening around you and feel comfortable talking about it.”

Some worry that studying and learning about other religions will betray their own religion. Xavier says this isn’t the case.

“Studying other religions and learning about other religions doesn’t mean that you have less interest in your own religion,” she explained.

“[It’s] an opportunity to learn more about your traditions and […] makes you realize how most religious traditions have concerns about ethics and morals, how is God constructed, what is faith, what is piety?”

Religion is also a foundational element of history and development. Even in seemingly secular parts of the world, religion has played a significant role in the societal values and political systems that are present today.

“You could think of this as, you are just learning more and more about human beings […] what humanity is about, what society and civilization has structured itself on, how it constructs laws, ethics, gender norms,” Xavier said.

Despite the key role of religion in the history of civilization, many fail to understand how religions operate. For instance, religious identity still has the potential to stereotype people and deny the diversity that exists within each religious identity.

“All religious traditions are immensely diverse,” Xavier said. “Traditions that are presented in a monolithic or singular lens could be harmful because we only have a narrow perspective on that religious tradition.”

To acknowledge the diversity that exists within each religion, people must take the time to get to know folks beyond their religious labels.

“The more we try to understand the multi-dimensional aspect of any religious practice or any religious community, […] the more that we have a better sense of who they are instead of us being influenced by the things that we see on the media,” she said.

The media portrays Islam in particular as a monolithic religion with minimal diversity. According to Xavier, this constraining view of Muslims is one of the key drivers behind Islamophobia in the West.

“The way the media portrays Muslims in movies and TV shows presents this group of people who are over a billion as having one particular understanding of violence or gender. That is definitely not the case in terms of lived reality,” she said.

“When we start stereotyping and packaging how Muslims are, are supposed to be like […] it means that we flatten and diminish the diversity and experiences of Muslims all over the world.”

To further exacerbate fears of non-Christian faiths, Westerners tend to take the aspects of other religions they like and strip them of their religious and ethnic roots.

“There’s obviously a role in which colonialism has impacted contemporary perception of some religious practices such as yoga,” Xavier said.

“People [are] so interested in yoga as a physical and spiritual practice right now, but also recognizing that South Asians experience racism on a daily basis, or how someone like Rumi is so popular but Islamophobia is getting worse and worse.”

Rumi is a 13th century Persian poet who has played a critical role in popularizing Sufi poetry, a derivative of Islamic mysticism and spirituality, in popular Western culture.

Although Rumi has become increasingly well-known in popular culture, he’s been disassociated from his Islamic roots.

“The Rumi that has [been] popularized is not represented as a Muslim,” Xavier said.

“Why do we need to present Rumi as a non-Muslim for us to enjoy his poetry and for us to retweet it and place it on Instagram?”

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One thing many religions have in common is the value of acquiescence and obedience to a God or Gods. For this reason, some may associate religion in general with strict “rules” imposed on followers.

At university, students may have to reconcile rules imposed by their religion with social pressures.

“A lot of [students] wrestle with making decisions because of social pressures that don’t line up with their values,” Farrell said. “How they want to live is not how they’re living because of fear of missing out or their fear of what other people think of them.”

Having a social life and following the “rules” of religion can feel daunting and impossible.

“Oftentimes when I talk with students, they’re like, ‘I feel like I can’t do this,’” Farrell said.

Farrell argues that being a good follower of any particular religion isn’t about following rules.

“I think if you put rules first, you’re missing the point,” he said. “It’s not just about rules, it’s about this relationship with God.”

Young adulthood is a time for students to determine their own values and test boundaries. However, testing boundaries can come with mistakes and regrets when those boundaries are crossed.

“I try to help [students] live in that gray space of ‘I’m not going to make all the right choices all the time,’” Farrell explained.

“I don’t think anyone gets through their early adulthood without having some regrets […] It’s just the process of the age that you’re in […] figuring out who you are, what you believe, and what your values are.”

“You are going to make mistakes, but from those mistakes there are really great lessons.”

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Nathaniel Katz, co-president of Hillel Queen’s, wrestled with his religious identity after moving to university.

“University allowed me to figure out what Judaism meant to me,” Katz said in an interview with The Journal.

“Because I’d grown up in such a bubble, I felt like trying to see what else was out there,” Katz said. “I felt driven to try and make friends with people who weren’t Jewish.”

Katz found the friendships he made outside the Jewish community were different than friendships he made with those who shared his religious beliefs.

“I don’t think I ever really ended up getting that close with the friends that I made who were Jewish.”

Despite Katz’s urge to get away from the community in his early years at university, he later realized how much he valued his religious community. He returned to Judaism with a deeper understanding and appreciation and became co-president of Hillel Queen’s.

“I ended up coming back to it because it’s so important to community […] I didn’t realize how much I value the community that comes out of it,” he said.

“It’s more than a religion. It’s a culture and it’s a mindset.”

Religious and cultural affiliations and values can permeate all aspects of a person’s life. For this reason, when students come to university, finding a religious or spiritual community to connect with can be imperative to finding a strong sense of community.

“I had a hard time in first year, probably just because I was really anxious and didn’t feel like I wanted to encroach on things,” Billie Kearns, Eng ’19, said in an interview with The Journal.

Kearns hesitated when getting involved in the Indigenous community at Queen’s in first year.

“I’m worried that I’m not Indigenous enough, I’m not Native enough, I’m not in their community, or it’s November, it’s too late,” she said.

As Kearns grew older and started getting more involved on campus, she realized she didn’t need to be nervous embracing new experiences.

“As you get older, you realize, ‘I can just show up to things and it’s totally okay’ […] people will hold space for you and you’re welcome,” she said. “I don’t need to worry about whatever imposter syndrome is sitting in me.”

Kearns has a particular affinity to Moon ceremonies held by the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre at Queen’s.

“Every full moon there’s a ceremony that’s a traditional women’s ceremony […] It was summer after second year when I went to my first Moon ceremony,” she said.

“I hadn’t been to a Moon ceremony since I was 10, so it was very much something I had been longing to reconnect with.”

The Moon ceremonies helped Kearns stay centered in her spirituality and grounded in her community.

“That was something that I really would try to make time for even in really busy parts of the year,” she said. “There was a wide range of people who went to [the] ceremony. Even though some people are different from you, it was like, ‘wow, we’re all struggling with a lot of the same feelings.’”

The openness and honesty of people at the Moon ceremonies helped her feel less alone.

“It reminds you [that] even if you are feeling alone, a lot of other people are also feeling alone,” she said. “Whenever I came back it helped me feel less stressed about everything.”

Particularly for those occupying marginalized identities, finding a community of like-minded individuals is helpful as students transition into university life.

“I’ve started to see Student Wellness Services for personal reasons, but they’ve actually been very helpful with getting me connected with […] the Isma’ilis Student Association (ISO),” Sameena Ladak, ArtSci ’24, said in an interview with The Journal.

“Since I connected with them, it’s been a huge help,” Ladak explained.

“A lot more people get reconnected with their faith because it’s something that makes them an individual and who they are.”

Ladak said it’s important to remember not to be too discouraged by loneliness, and that this can be a common experience for a lot of students.

“[Remember] to not be too hard on yourself if you do start to feel disconnected,” she said.

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While university is a place where many people reconnect with their religion, it can also be a place where people discover and explore a new religion for the first time.

“Growing up, I had a small amount of exposure to religion,” Ben* said. “When I started going to church, to be honest, [I] was not interested.”

Ben rediscovered religion as a young adult in a way that allowed him to connect more with religious teachings.

“It wasn’t until university that I started doing reading on my own accord, about things I had told myself that I believed for so long knowing really little about,” he said. “I started doing my own research and found a lot of passion in some of the things that I’ve read.”

Ben was originally hesitant to join a spiritual community as a queer person but ended up finding a strong community he connected with.

“As a queer person, I was always skeptical to join a spiritual community […] When I let that go […] and started trusting in my own beliefs about what religion was, it was a turning point for me,” Ben said.

“I’ve met a lot of people that I probably would not have come across had I not started to be so open in my own beliefs.”

Ben added that having an appreciation for other religions is vital for the future of religion and spirituality in Canada.

“When institutions like Christianity start to force the fact that they are the only system of belief, I think they force themselves to fade away,” he said.

“I really do find a lot of wisdom in other religions […] Buddhism has helped me understand Christianity.”

Ben points out that personal religious or spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are not one in the same.

“You have to separate the institution from the actual beliefs because they operate in really different ways,” he said.

“It’s important to stay a spiritual person in your own right and to stick with the beliefs rather than the institution.”

*Name changed for anonymity due to safety reasons.

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