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Religion at university

ByAilidh Forlan

Feb 17, 2015

In the media recently, there have been a lot of controversial statements surrounding the compatibility of religion with university life. Just this week, The Guardian reported that: “Religion is on the wane” as “atheism has soared among young Britons”. These headlines throw light on the issue of how religious students in Edinburgh deal with university life.

I interviewed four University of Edinburgh students who, perhaps surprisingly, all found it easy to maintain religious obligations. Owen, a Christian, pointed out that, “there are no obligations with Christianity. ‘Obligations’ suggests that you don’t want to do something but feel that you have to.” Whereas Adam, the Islamic Society Social Secretary, said, “I don’t try to fit my religious obligations around student life, I try to fit student life around my religious obligations.” What’s more, conveniently-located churches and mosques make it easy to pray despite packed university schedules.

These students’ experiences varied greatly when first settling in at the University of Edinburgh. For instance Clare, a devout Catholic, fitted in instantly, whereas Mariam, now the Vice-President of the Islamic Society, initially felt ostracised. Whilst all four of the students interviewed have now found their feet in Scotland’s capital, and the university’s Chaplaincy was unanimously thanked for its support, these interviews highlighted that Edinburgh has some pressing social issues in need of being addressed.

From day one, the British university system, albeit unwittingly, isolates any students who are unwilling to participate in, or be surrounded by, alcohol-fuelled activity. Freshers’ Week is a fantastic opportunity for new students to socialise with their peers and explore exciting new places by attending university organised events. However, at these events alcohol consumption is often encouraged. Take Edinburgh University’s 2014 Freshers’ Week for instance, the ‘highlights’ of which included; Basshunter at Potterrow, a ceilidh, Hot Dub Time Machine and The Big Cheese, all of which take place in environments which encourage intoxication. As such, many religious students instantly feel uncomfortable and even excluded from ‘university life’. EUSA attempts to include everyone in their Freshers’ Week guide with a three page spread on Faith-Based Events located towards the back of the programme. However, all sober meet-ups finish by 9pm, leaving students to return to university halls that are still in full-swing, pre-drinking mode. Mariam, the Vice-President of Islamic Society, now chooses to remove herself entirely from all situations involving alcohol, drugs, and sex. But when reflecting on previous experiences she admitted that, “when you’re sober and everyone else is drunk, it’s very intimidating”.

Other universities have directly attempted to resolve this issue. For example, St Andrews has recently found a solution by offering their students alcohol-free accommodation. In doing so, the university acknowledges that not all students like to drink and therefore have shown a commitment towards creating an inclusive university experience for everyone. A St Andrews University spokeswoman said: “We’re proud that our Students’ Association is working to shape new attitudes towards responsible alcohol consumption and making our student experience more inclusive. We want our students to think about their lifestyle choices, and to support the choices of others.” Whilst alcohol consumption doesn’t contradict the dictates of all religions, these sentiments suggest a shared ideal of respect, upheld by both religious and non-religious students.

In addition to alcohol consumption, the four interviewees addressed the widely discussed issue of ‘lad culture’.This morally dubious culture is heralded by sexist chants and racist insults; it is no surprise that the majority of our society condemns it.

Clare, an Arts student and devout Catholic, spoke of how Catholic males are often pressured to give in to ‘lad culture’. Lad culture scrutinises men with fewer ‘notches on the bed post’, and if a guy is still a virgin or hasn’t had sex in a while, that is seen as a bad thing. However, when Clare asked her atheist, self-confessed ‘lad’ friend what was wrong with going through a ‘dry spell’, he sat silently with no answer. It seems that websites such as The Lad Bible, reported by league tables to be the UK’s 12th most popular site, are at the centre of this rising culture. Muslim student Adam, pointed out that, “the media encourages ‘lad culture’ via hyper-sexualisation and creating these celebrity images who abuse and take advantage of women.” Most people who involve themselves with this culture don’t seem to either question the values that are under threat, or realise that they are insulting many fellow students. Owen stated that: “Whilst the ‘lads’ love it, everyone else finds it somewhere on the scale between minor inconvenience and a genuine threat to their wellbeing.” EUSA are slowly tackling this aspect of ‘university life’ as their 2013 End Rape Culture and Lad Banter on Campus campaign starts to create better social environments on campus.

In the interviews, the University of Edinburgh was largely praised for its diverse multiculturalism. Like Adam, Clare, Owen and Mariam, my atheist flatmate argued that, “there’s a nice mix of religions, races, ethnicities, and that’s the beauty of Edinburgh University”. However, Mariam brought to my attention that, “the university has to do more to include all of their communities because it’s not an atheist university”.

For example, whilst Pollock Halls offers halal meat in the JMCC, in campus cafes such as Appleton Tower Foyer, neither halal nor kosher meat is offered. Both Jews and Muslims therefore find it hard to source a quick lunch on campus when they are under tight time constraints.

National problems such as ‘lad culture’ must be tackled on a larger scale in order to have a greater social impact. However, smaller issues including catering and accommodation can be improved at the University of Edinburgh, so that people of all religious and non-religious backgrounds have the best university experience possible.


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