What do students find when discovering themselves at university? Are they led to question their beliefs or even discard them entirely? Rodain Joubert and Leigh Raymond investigate the religious culture at Rhodes.
Although Rhodes is a secular institution, it has long been a university that has made room for various religious views. Although there is no formal religious education offered, a vast number of official societies exist for different belief systems and an even larger number of independent groups exist for minorities and alternate religious ideas.
However, with the inevitable mixing of different faiths and cultures, as well as the newfound independence that most new students experience after arriving at Rhodes, one may question whether the university environment does indeed promote one’s religious vindications or actually cause one to reassess them.
Francis Williamson, a lecturer in Philosophy at Rhodes University, believes that the dominant academic and student culture at Rhodes is one of religious indifference. “Rhodes treats religion as optional rather than deep or pervasive,” he explained. “Science has no need for religion. There’s an ongoing indifference to religion amongst a lot of students.”
He adds that this is not necessarily an indication that Atheism is dominant, but rather that a considerable number of students simply don’t care as much about religion as they used to. The religious neutrality of the institution itself is also reflected in the closure of the Faculty of Divinity after an academic review in 1997. The former faculty was sponsored by churches and had a focus on the Christian belief system. Gradually attendance at Theology classes lessened and, after the review, it was decided that the Faculty of Divinity be closed. This was to cut down on staffing costs and support the advancement of other departments such as Ichthyology and Environmental Science.
In the past, many traditional religions viewed sexual freedom or alternative sexuality as being sinful. This is currently changing and despite the comparatively strict sexual regulations of many mainstream religions, many people have found ways to reconcile religion and their sexuality. Moreover, the counselling centre managed discussion groups last year centred on reconciling sexuality and religion.
Kyle de Boer, a fifth year Drama student, has few problems with integrating his own sexuality into his religious views. He also points out that some religious groups interpret their faith differently to accommodate more sexual practices, though he still disagrees with institutional religious groups. “Religion is about interpretation and being willing to accept someone else’s interpretation of things,” he said. “I have a problem with the way that some societies assume a truth.” He also feels that it’s become a fashion to turn atheist, but acknowledges the need for a concept of disbelief to complement belief. “God favours multiplicity if anything.”
By tradition, there has also been a history of conflict between Darwinism and Creationism. The Faculty of Science also has several religious staff members within its ranks. Pat Terry, Dean of Science, is a practising Christian. He doesn’t describe himself as deeply religious, but the contention between religion and modern science is a point of interest for him and he has given several speeches on the topic.
Terry feels that the modern information age has affected the prevalence of religious beliefs. “Access to information has changed the behaviour of people,” he said. “Religion doesn’t have the same kind of power and awe anymore.” He also points to religious organisations and decisions of the past being responsible for a few of the tensions that exist today, and says that attempting to “naïvely put God into Science” is one of the reasons why contention between the two is still felt. He says that science and religion ask two separate questions about our existence: one being “how?” and the other being “why?”
Second year BA student Louise Hunneyball agrees that “pious” religion is dying out. “This generation is more relaxed about religion,” she said. She believes that there’s a big emphasis on making religion more “hip” at Rhodes to appeal to the student population and promote it as something more rewarding than simply following a set of rules. She also doesn’t approve of religious societies acting too aggressively. While she is religious herself, her own beliefs don’t dominate her worldview.
Simon Croudace, a second year BSc student, says he gives religion due consideration but doesn’t believe in a higher being himself. He views himself as reasonably tolerant, however, and says that his opinion of any society related in some way to religion, the university’s new Atheist Society included, relies entirely on whether or not they’re overly aggressive in the promotion of their own views. “To each their own,” he said, “Religion is not an issue at Rhodes.”
Still, some acknowledge that their beliefs have been reinforced during their time at Rhodes. One such person is Andrew Cuyler, a former Rhodes student and active Pagan. He says that everyone needs intelligent debate and discussion, and religion is not above this. Even while exploring the various beliefs and cultures present at Rhodes, he says that his own spiritual choices were ultimately reinforced thanks to the religious openness and diversity present in Grahamstown.
No matter where it may lead, Cuyler maintains that the freedom of religion at Rhodes is a significant and defining factor of the University. “Religion is one of the most personal aspects of a person’s life,” he said, “People have to find their own truth. That’s what’s important.”