This article is the first of a three-part series examining religion on the U of C campus.
The presence of religion on the campus of a secular university is often imperceptible to non-religious students. In a community where devotion to critical inquiry informs most facets of student life, students often judge academic rigor to be conceptually irreconcilable with a religious belief system.
Many religious students, however, find the U of C model of critical inquiry enriching rather than debilitating. Upon their arrival in college, students find their faiths directly strengthened by their classes, their readings, and their inquisitive peers.
Donnie Bungum, a third-year biochemistry major and a devout Catholic, says that before arriving at the U of C, religion was something he engaged in through family and occasional participation in church youth groups, but that it did not form an integral part of his identity. “When I got here, it changed my experience,” Bungum said. “One thing led to the next, and then I realized how many opportunities there are here to learn about my faith.”
Bungum cites a Fundamentals class he took on St. Teresa of Avila and a Western Civilization class in which he read The Rule of St. Benedict and The Rule of St. Francis of Assisi as contributing greatly to his intensified faith in college. In fact, Bungum said he once hoped to use the rigor of his education at the University as a tool to “convert the entire world.”
The diversity of the U of C curriculum also exposes students to texts that stir up doubt. “Reading Nietzsche was very difficult for me,” Bungum said. “He’s a great devil’s advocate. Reading him is the closest I’ve gotten to doubt.” However, Bungum said that even these moments strengthen his faith. “You don’t get better by hearing the same thing over and over and it’s not like I want to be preaching to the choir,” he said.
Third-year Catholic John Laycock agrees that his education at the U of C has allowed him to apply the same rigor to his beliefs as he applies to academics.
“People are going to ask intelligent questions,” he said, “and you’re going to have to provide intelligent answers.” However, Laylock also described what he considers to be a pervasive misunderstanding about religion present at the University. “Sometimes my friends ask me, ‘Hey John, what’s that funny thing you do on Sundays?’ and I have to explain it to them, and it seems to me that the task of a lot of religious people at the University becomes to justify their religion to other people.”
Second-year Shahzad Ahsan, publicity chair for the Muslim Students Association (MSA), said he does not feel pressured to justify himself to others, especially at a university where information is easily accessible. “If people are curious, I’ll give them the best answer I possibly can. But I often point them to more rigorous resources,” he said, “because I know that I won’t be able to answer all their U of C questions.”
Some religious students arrive with questions of their own about their beliefs, some of which they are able to answer through academic inquiry.
For Shahnawaz Zaheer, a third-year biochemistry major, it was a matter of reconciling the one-sided representation of Muslim faith and history offered by his private Islamic high school with the simplistic, demonizing accounts of Islam he encountered outside of his school.
During high school, he said, he was disillusioned about his religion. “For example, the idea that Islam is spread by the sword. Before, I would end up having to accept that, since I didn’t understand what was behind it. I thought, ‘Who wants to be part of a religion that was forced upon people?’”
Once he arrived at college, Zaheer was able to explore his faith and better understand it. He took an Islamic Civilization class by chance, and it changed his perceptions about the Muslim faith through its presentation of the spread of Islam as a result of geopolitical concerns rather than due to a fundamentally religious agenda. Zaheer met other Muslim students and soon became involved with the MSA. “I definitely believe in it now,” Zaheer said. “The community here is great.”