Keeping faith with university – a religious experience

Published

Glasgow University Chapel

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Johnhousefriday

Cecilia Norberg & Ross Beveridge
Writers

Exploring different faiths on campus, finding out if they ever clash with the university lifestyle

Religion and university, at first glance, might not sit comfortably hand in hand. This perception is driven by numerous factors of university lifestyle, attitudes, teaching and none more so than the notorious drinking culture and nightlife.

Even those outwith the institution are aware of a persistent and infamous obsession with alcohol which continues to thrive in the student world. The bingeing attitude is most alive, and hardest to ignore throughout the week-long list of freshers’ events in September. New students are bombarded with big smiles and even bigger discounts to get their hands on the beloved booze. This overwhelming emphasis on drinking remains well beyond first year too, which for swathes of students can prove to be a good-natured social outlet, though not for all.

Understandably, this can lead to devout students and others averse to drinking, feeling left out of numerous events and student unions. The opportunity to socialise and integrate in the university’s most anticipated week can often leave these students at a crossroads.

That’s where organisations and societies such as the Glasgow University Muslim Students Association (GUMSA), the University’s Christian Union (GUCU) and the Jewish Students group (JSOC) come into student life. These organisations provide an outlet for students of faith according to GUMSA head, Usman. He told the Guardian that GUMSA allows for students to socialise and meet new people of all backgrounds in an alcohol-free environment. The society welcomes members of all faiths with an emphasis on socialising and also helps to raise awareness of the religion including its values and morals.

The union regularly hosts socials and events around the university, from BBQ’s and fundraisers to educational sessions and presentations (GUMSA played an active role in October’s charity week, raising £10,000). These events and GUMSA’s openness to all has meant that now numerous members are non-religious, including non-executive committee members.

Whereas alcohol is prohibited in Islam, there is no such ban in either Christianity or Judaism. Sarah Levy, president of the Jewish Society, states: “There are no prohibitions against drinking alcohol in mainstream Judaism, so I don’t think the drinking culture would specifically act as a barrier to Jewish students.” While there is no barrier between the drinking culture and being Jewish, the religion does have an impact on Sarah’s day-to-day life, “being Jewish affects some parts of my day-to-day life on a practical level in terms of the foods I eat for instance, and also on a more personal level in terms of how I think about certain issues.” The Jewish Society can be a place to meet people of the same religion, but it can also be a place to make new friends and add to the social experience at University “I have found being Jewish to actually have added to my social experience at University, as I have made many great friends through the Jewish Society.”

The society is for everyone, as Sarah says, “It is probably worth noting first that believing in God is not a prerequisite for being Jewish, and for many Jewish people, their engagement with their Jewish heritage may well be on a more cultural level than a religious level. Each Jewish person’s relationship (or lack of relationship) with God is entirely personal to them, and whilst I gain a huge amount personally from discussing such matters with other Jewish students, I would hope that all students feel welcome in JSOC regardless of their beliefs”. The Jewish Society has Friday night dinners to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath. They additionally mark all the major Jewish festivals with festive meals or celebrations. Finally, they have a Jewish discussion group once a week, pub nights, and a weekly bagel lunch with the student Chaplain.

The GUCU is a Christian society at Glasgow University, which through numerous events encourages Christian students to get together and share their belief. Euan MacDonald, a member of the Christian Union told us, “I met a lot of my really good friends through being a part of CU”. The GUCU is not an exclusive society, “One of the reasons the CU exists is to help us share the good news about Jesus’ love for us with our friends and so we always emphasise how important it is to also have lots of good meaningful friendships with people who aren’t Christians as well and to invest time in them.”

When asked if there are any obstacles to engaging in the social aspect of university life, for instance having a pint at the union, Euan states that, “Some wouldn’t drink at all and wouldn’t feel comfortable setting foot in a pub or club, but others would, so it really depends on the individual’s personal convictions.” The Christian Union has their main meetings on Tuesdays at 5.10pm in Qudos, QMU. They also have Cross Countries afterwards at 7.30pm, Prayer & Share at 8am on Wednesday in the Interfaith Room, CU Football every Thursday evening at the Garscube Complex. On every Thursday and Saturday night, in the smoking area of Hive, they put out a tea and coffee stall and finally they have Hall groups, which meet at various times in different student halls across the west end.

A cliché perhaps, but university is a confusing time, and many young people gathered in one place trying to figure out who they are in the world can be a disconcerting experience. Euan told us how religion offers him peace of mind, “Knowing that my standing before God doesn’t depend on how good I am or how well I can please Him, but solely on Jesus and simply accepting his free gift of grace, gives me such assurance and peace.”