Thanks to the 12-hour time difference, a large majority of my college posting results were being released at 5 AM on March 28. One would assume that I might not have wanted to deal with any anxiety, disappointment, or joyous celebration at five in the morning but, alas, my alarm was set for 4.30 AM sharp. I spent thirty minutes before the bomb dropped on various college portals, clutching a rosary, asking God to grant me the best. I would like to think that He must have been listening, because somehow (and trust me to this day, I still have no clue how), I was successfully admitted to a school that I am beyond excited to attend this fall, the University of Pennsylvania. Yet instead of “It is probably His Will” when friends congratulate me on my university admission, my instinctive responses range from “I’m so glad I spent that extra week on my college essay” to “If not for those extra SAT practices…” Contrast this to those thirty minutes when I felt like the only thing determining the next four years was “fate” or my belief in a higher power. What does this say about my relationship with my maker and my religion?
I was born a cradle Catholic but my views towards religion have always been multi-dimensional. This not only has to do with the fact that religious tolerance and mutual respect is ingrained in Singaporean society, but also how at home, being raised by both my Catholic mother and taoist-turned-agnostic father, I have come to realize that religion is a very personal thing. Some may find Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the liberty to practice, change or not follow any religion, slightly lofty; as seen in the recent case of government departments in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Region banning Muslims from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. To me, whether an individual chooses to believe in God or not, and which ideology he places his faith in, should always remain a personal choice.
I have never been the most ardent Christian; I occasionally skip Sunday mass if something really good is on TV and cannot list the names of all 12 apostles. Yet I do believe in values such as compassion, humility, and love taught by the Church through the Gospel. Today, I find myself faced with a question of spiritual existence. In the evaluation of my personal ideals, I find many of my pro-choice and pro-gay-marriage sentiments clashing with the conservative stance of my Christian faith. In popular fiction like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and popular television like Showtime’s The Borgias, the Catholic teaching is portrayed as rooted in obsolete dogma and clouded by mystery. I could not ignore the stark images of poverty in the form of numerous beggars just outside the walls of the Vatican on a family vacation to Rome. The devout Tiffany Doggett from Orange is the New Black (also known as the character attempting to evangelize the entire prison) is ironically revealed to be a convert only after a Christian community financially supports her legal defense when she was charged for murdering a nurse who worked in an abortion clinic. This Good Friday, I jokingly complained about how I was starving because I had chosen to abstain from food that day, but had nothing to say when my friend commented, “How does fasting for one day a year make you a better person?” The crisis I seem to be facing is not so much an issue of questioning the foundations of Catholicism as it is about how being branded a Christian comes with a package of ideological responsibilities that I, as a 21st century female college student, am unable to fully understand or accept.
My ‘divine struggle’ arrives at a strangely apt time: the stoning of Muslim Iranian women for adultery, the Singaporean archbishop saying that “gay people are detrimental to society” before PinkDotSingapore 2014 (an annual LGBT event) and the Hobby Lobby ruling which saw the corporatization of religious beliefs. The problem I am facing is not that I no longer believe in a God; instead, I am unable to negotiate my ideas and opinions with the institutionalized rules, entrenched traditions and perpetuating stereotypes of the Catholic faith.
Apparently, I am part of a larger group. College can change the average student’s perspective of religion. Sociologist James Hunter asserted, “It is a well-established fact that education, even Christian education, secularizes.” Academic activities on campus provide students with opportunities to question and grow in their spirituality or explore other faiths. Today, strident declarations of atheistic disbelief, similar to the impassioned zeal one associates with the enthusiastically religious, are a common sight amongst university students. Higher education, as prescribed by Caplovitz and Sherrow in 1977, “is a breeding ground for apostasy.” Sir Phillip Wentworth, in What College Did to My Religion chronicles how his religion lost validity to him during his time at Harvard University. Unable to “reconcile [his] new philosophy of life with those religious assumptions [he] had formerly taken for granted,” the tone of the essay is disenchanted. The natural curiosity which blooms with the desire for knowledge at a university level can lead to students asking “Genesis or Darwin?” or in my case, questioning the role of religion in my life, apart from imparting social morals and providing emotional comfort amidst periods of distress.
In America, the partisan and ideological “God gap” found in the electorate is also found among college students. According to a survey by the Center for Inquiry 32.4%, 31.8% and 28.2% of college students identified themselves as “spiritual”, “religious” and “secular” respectively. This assessment revealed a split between religious and secular students regarding issues like euthanasia, gun control and same-sex couples. Spiritual students sided with religious students on questions about God but with secular students on politics and science. Interestingly enough, the survey revealed similar levels of concern across all three groups when it came to global warming, the rising income gap and social mobility. Today, being religious seems to be a conscious choice. While the survey reveals that each religious ‘brand’ of student has a distinct worldview, it does not ignore the diversity and hybridity of ideas that any individual may possess.
Alfian Sa’at, a Muslim poet who wrote a controversial play Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. I about homosexuality had this to say, “Never allow anyone to manipulate your own personal relationship with your Creator.” I would like to think that ‘anyone’ also extends to ‘anything’; the doctrines and expectations of one’s religion (or lack of) should never trump his individual beliefs. While choosing to ascribe to a particular faith issues the responsibility of carrying out the work of my religion, it is not equivalent to blindly following ideological dogma. My thoughts on my religion should be continually evolving as I experience new things. To be constantly grappling with aspects of religion is to be aware of and in touch with my faith. Let my spiritual struggle reign.
Religion.ssrc.org, (2014). SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates. [online] Available at: http://religion.ssrc.org/reguide/index3.html
Sir Wentwroth, Phillip. Theatlantic.com, (2014). What College Did to My Religion – 32.06. [online] Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/95nov/warring/whatcoll.htm
Todd, Michael. Pacific Standard, (2013). Today’s Student Comes in 3 Brands: Religious, Secular, and Spiritual. [online] Available at: http://www.psmag.com/culture/todays-college-student-comes-three-brands-religious-secular-spiritual-67143/
Smietana, Bob. Usatoday.com, (2014). College students divided on God, spirituality. [online] Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/26/college-students-god-religion/2875627/ .
Bryant, A. N. and J. Y. Choi, et al. 2003. “Understanding the Religious and Spiritual Dimensions of Students’ Lives in the First Year of College.” Journal of College Student Development 44(6): 723-745.
Cherry, C. and B. A. DeBerg, et al. 2001. Religion on Campus: What Religion Really Means to Today’s Undergraduates. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.
Rauhala, E. (July 3, 2014). China Bans Ramadan Fasting for Officials, Students in Restive Northwest. [online] TIME.com. Available at: http://time.com/2952833/china-bans-ramadan-fasting-for-officials-students-in-restive-northwest/
Schwartzman, M., Schragger, R. and Tebbe, N.(July 3, 2014). Hobby Lobby Rewrites Religious-Freedom Law in Ways That Ignore Everything That Came Before. [online] Slate Magazine. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/07/after_hobby_lobby_there_is_only_rfra_a