For as long as I can remember, I’ve always struggled with the question, “Are you religious?” As a youngin, I was taught about Heaven in school while my mother wondered if perhaps I was the reincarnation of her grandmother who died 11 months before I was born. As a prepubescent, I prayed to some kind of God whenever I was scared while outwardly declaring that I was atheist before I knew what it meant (all the cool kids were doing it). Throughout my Anglican high school years, I danced a non-committal waltz between Christianity, Buddhism, humanism and agnosticism like a confused teen stuck in a very weird ménage à cinq. Slowly, I found myself somewhat relating to bits and pieces from many religions and belief systems. And somehow, I built a window through which to see the world.
Australian millennials live in a country that has prided itself on religious pluralism since its Federation. Today, finding a relationship with religion that also aligns with the progressive ethos of our generation has become a lot more complex than simply adhering to the binaries of previous generations.
I was not surprised to read that according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, religious identity among millennials – and in particular tertiary students is rapidly declining. This begs us to ask, how can definitively declaring our faith be a simple task for anyone anymore – let alone uni students who engage with diverse peers and belief systems on the daily?
Questioning someone’s faith implicitly encompasses greater questions like “Do you participate in organised religion?’ and “Do you believe in God?” This lends itself to questioning the definitions of abstract concepts such as God, belief and even faith itself. It’s no wonder the ‘no religion’ box of the 2011 census was checked by a third of Australian tertiary students over 20 years old.
The census indicates a significant drop in faith, but what it doesn’t analyse is the changing nature of faith. For those who ticked the ‘no religion’ box, only two per cent indicated an alternative belief system such as atheist or agnostic. This means that for 98 per cent of religiously unaffiliated citizens, identifying as ‘non-religious’ does not represent their beliefs and values any more than identifying as ‘religious’ does. However, a lack of religious labelling does not automatically mean a lack of faith. How we experience religion has never been more complex, and the students at Melbourne Uni are no exception.
Perhaps one of the most common trends among uni students is the growing divergence between religion and the state. Elena, a second year Bachelor of Science student, contemplates that students prefer to extract values and lessons taught through religion as moral guidance rather than literal doctrine when making political decisions. “I think young people are more likely to admit they believe in human rights, they believe in justice, they believe in values such as honesty, integrity and love…we are less hung up on what God we do or don’t follow, [but] rather what we stand for as people,” she explains.
Gulsara, Diversity Officer of the Melbourne University Secular Society, also notes, “It’s not too difficult for a person to believe in a religious doctrine but not wish that doctrine to be the policy of their state.” Religious secularists within the club may oppose the condemnation of same-sex marriage by religious institutions, she explains, but they can still find value in the more spiritual aspects of religion.
Affording ourselves the freedom to decide our values based on more than just our religion has become one of the key characteristics of modern faith. Even students who participate in more traditional activities such as organised worship have developed complexities in how they experience religion as opposed to the previous generation.
Lydia, President of the Melbourne University Buddhist Studies Society (MUBSS), explains, “I believe that it is our job to keep the heart of Buddhism, but to speak it in a modern language. This involves…including modern ideas like gender equality into our dialogue.”
This kind of fluid faith has become a way for students to incorporate the liberal ideals of their generation into a learned scripture, turning to different streams of knowledge depending on the situation. Students may turn to science when considering questions about climate, to history for justifying political decisions or a religion when they are seeking to cope with loss.
While for some of us, “no religion” may be the easiest way to explain our affiliations, our experiences with religion and progressive ideals involve a continual balance and negotiation. Between faith and reason, we are enlightened rather than threatened.
For students like Jono, a third year Bachelor of Science student, attending uni has helped him adapt his understanding of Catholicism in light of his degree.
“My views changed when doing the… subject ‘God and the Natural Sciences’. This is where I learnt that I didn?t have to choose between science and religion, and could instead foster a belief which incorporated both,” he explains.
It was Einstein who said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” The two co-exist to help us understand a world so much bigger than who we are, and this move towards co-existence is an incredibly important step away from the dogmatic tendencies of religious exclusivity. The more freedom we feel in defining our religious experiences, the less need there is to define them at all.
So although nearly a third of Australian tertiary students checked ‘no religion’ in the 2011 census, it’s very unlikely that 31 per cent of students find religion an irrelevant part of how they understand the world. Had I taken the census, I would have checked ‘no religion’ too. But I’ve also come to understand that perhaps questioning my faith does not have a definitive answer or label.
At the centre of all religion is the pursuit of meaning, and to simply check ‘no religion’ is to banish yourself into some form of nihilism that, at least for most people, isn’t how we see ourselves and our place in the world. Even if we don’t prescribe to a label of faith, we all do have a set of beliefs that motivate us to do all of this living and breathing and loving in the first place.