What place is there for religion in Oxford today?

We need to talk about religion. It is one of the most disregarded aspects of student life, and yet one of the most important.

Today’s increasingly secular society has an unfortunate habit of neglecting the significance of religion to so many people, both communities and individuals. In our attempts to be equal, non-discriminatory, and unbiased, we have decided that the only solution is to function on the assumption of secularism. Secularism is viewed by many as some sort of ‘neutral ground’ because it takes no preference to one religion or another. Yet because its version of ‘neutrality’ ignores religions, it thus reduces them and places them in a subordinate position to modern secularism. It therefore fails to validate religion and the crucial part it plays in personal identity.

Outright dismissal of religion could be called ignorance.

We take this version of a ‘neutral’ approach in no other case. In LGBTQ+ matters, we do not simply disregard gender and sexuality in favour of a view of everybody as ‘uncategorised’ and genderless. We acknowledge, support, and validate all gender identities and sexual orientations, and aim to properly represent each accordingly. Everyone is given a voice and the opportunity to speak out and educate others to their identity in order to create a safe and understanding environment. It is clear that the aforementioned secular ‘solution’ excludes religious belief and therefore religious persons from modern society. Should not the same validation and empowerment given to the LGBTQ+ community be extended to those of religious faith?

Religious beliefs are too often scorned and disrespected – particularly in Oxford – due to ‘enlightenment’ thinking which undermines religion as an uninformed, unscientific approach which has neither an evidential nor logical base. This position makes radical assumptions about the nature and genesis of religious faith. Its outright dismissal of religion, which is more often than not without a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding of religion at all, could be called ignorance. Certainly it is disrespectful, patronizing, and arrogant above all. This has not made it easy for religious students at Oxford to express their views in a supportive environment. Often these students remain unrepresented within their colleges and the university generally. Some colleges have introduced a Faiths & Beliefs officer, however not all colleges have this kind of position available and thus leaves those experiencing religious difficulties or discrimination without anyone to defend them.

Religion plays a crucial role in the lives of its followers. It is not something we can simply overlook as a separate part of some individuals’ lives that has no bearing upon the way we interact. Religious practice in particular is not easily made compatible with the student life. Student culture revolves around a kind of hedonism built around drinking and sex, which puts those who do not wish to partake in such culture into a tough, even potentially socially isolating, position. As a non-drinker myself, I am often asked whether my choice is “a religious thing,” and although for me it is not, the association distresses me because it indicates division from the rest of student society. Too often is quick judgement made about those who adhere to dedicated religious practices. We need to learn how to value and respect the religious views of others, even if ultimately we disagree personally.

I have decided to start this column in the Oxford Student so as to give our students a platform from which to speak out about a life lived religiously at Oxford. By giving them this space, I aim to encourage openness about religious diversity, and to enable a better understanding of the Oxford experience of all our fellow students. None of us have a complete understanding of everyone else’s faith systems, but I feel that it’s about time we tried to at least begin to become more aware, and therefore more considerate, of our peers. By doing this, I hope to work towards the development of a strong intersectional community of students in Oxford, which supports all people of all religions by giving their opinions and experiences a valued place within the university.