Mounted on the top of each domed parapet of the Macleay Museum and glinting in the dull afternoon sun is a Christian cross, overlooking the stream of students on Science Road below and gradually forming a silhouette against the fading sky behind it. They seem out of place, rare symbols of religiosity in a deliberately secular institution. Nonetheless, religion has always been present on campus, and in modern times has become far more diverse and student-led. For many students, religion forms a large part of their university life and influences their study, friendships, and broader experiences.
Owen Robson, a fifth year science and arts student and President of the Evangelical Union, says his faith forms a part of everything he does, whether studying, working, hanging out, or even watching Netflix. In terms of forming friendships, he says “being a Christian doesn’t change who you’re friends with … The big thing for me at least is letting people know I’m a Christian. It’s who I am, and so it’s important that people I meet and become friends with know that, though at times it can feel weird to share”. When it comes to study, Owen says being Christian gives him two things: assurance and perspective. “I know that whatever happens at uni, whether I ace an essay or flunk an exam, I have assurance that Jesus has died for me, and was risen back to life, and this has granted me an eternal relationship with God.”
Second year commerce student Mariessa also points to the positive impact of religion in dealing with study-related stress. Mariessa is Vice President of the University of Sydney Union’s (USU) Buddhist society Unibodhi, and says the weekly meditation classes and Dharma talks they run help tremendously. More generally, Buddhist principles make her more resilient and able to cope with life’s hardships, she believes. “I think meditating on a daily basis helps me to ease my mind and to understand that our study and exams are a process and not just a race or accolade collection of HDs.”
For second year International and Global Studies student and practising Muslim Aleena, her experience of religion at university has been complex. On the whole, her religion remains a fairly private issue that most people are respectful and tolerant towards. “I have never experienced open hostility myself or discrimination because of my religion, but at the same time I am aware that there are those who are hostile and are going to make their message heard.” Last year, the Islamic Prayer room in the Old Teacher’s College was vandalised and anti-Islamic flyers were left behind. But Aleena prefers to focus on the positives, which for her is the predominant acceptance of her religion on campus.
Owen agrees, saying university is generally a positive environment for someone of faith. He finds conversations with other students are usually helpful and encouraging despite Christians sometimes holding different views from others, though he acknowledges this is not always the case for other religions. “There’s been some anti-Semitic and anti-Islam behaviour on campus, as well as across the country, which is just so rubbish”, he says. “It’s places like universities, with their diverse range of social, religious, economic and ethnic backgrounds that are so great for good dialogue and discussion … we pray that they too can experience the same kind of experience that I’ve had”.
Religion’s ambiguous role in the University’s early days resulted in a sense of distance between main religious bodies and the University itself, and this distance remains in the present. Chris Wilks, secretary of the Catholic Society, is aware that his opinions as a Catholic will often be counter to those of his peers and teachers. In tutorials, he believes, “debates can only be held within certain theoretical parameters and if you stray too far outside those boundaries, you will usually be collectively talked down. That is not to say every class is hostile but more, to adapt the Orwellian phrase, the attitude of ‘all ideas are equal, but some are more equal than others’ permeates most classes”.
Last year, the USU nearly deregistered the Evangelical Union because of requirements placed on executives to be practicing members of the Christian Church. Some, including Chris, saw this as a demonstration of the often antagonistic views held by student politicians towards religious societies, particularly Christian groups.
Isabella, a fourth year International and Global Studies student, and one of the Vice Presidents of the Evangelical Union, comments on a similar trend. “There’s this incredible shift that’s occurring towards more tolerance, ensuring minorities are not discriminated against, encouraging people to have their own opinions, and promoting diversity among students. I think this is a great thing, and there are some real changes happening on campus to help those who have historically felt marginalised … But there’s also a strange sense that we haven’t quite worked out the place of religion in [our] current social environment.” Despite the University supporting a drive towards greater tolerance and diversity, she says it can feel as though “Christianity and Christians haven’t been invited along for the ride … Which isn’t to say that the university environment is hostile. More that it’s a challenging place to navigate as a religious person”.
On one point everyone is unanimous; “University has certainly reinforced my faith,” Chris says, “particularly by being involved at Cathsoc. By being exposed to an environment where your beliefs are in the minority, it has led to me becoming more active in my faith life”. Isabella agrees, saying university has made a big impact on her faith. “It has strengthened my faith and helped me to fill in blanks and be more certain of what I believe in and why I believe it.” Owen, speaking about the view of some that logical thinking and faith are opposed, says, “University study in subjects like physics has only confirmed my faith. As I look at the balance of the universe, how can I not say there’s a creator?” Aleena summarises these positions, saying, “University can present a number of challenges when it comes to being religious, but at the end of the day my time here has been very positive and university has allowed my faith to grow and develop more than ever before in my life”.