College is expected to change your beliefs. But while everyone changes, everyone changes differently. Our last installment looking at religion in college featured three students whose beliefs are reinforced by their experiences at the College of William and Mary. Two students don’t find the College to be as affirming.
Hanif Yadzi ’10 found that a combination of classes and fellow Muslims affected his beliefs.
“There are two main things,” Yadzi said. “One was my experience sitting in philosophy class, where all my ideas were challenged in a direct way and I was encouraged to challenge the ideas I was brought up with. The other thing was being a part of a faith community where people within your identity category don’t share your ideas. So, we’re part of the same religion, but you and I have totally different ideas.”
Yadzi doesn’t describe his Shia’a Muslim identity as a faith so much as a set of beliefs, and that set of beliefs is not separate from any of his other beliefs.
“When I encounter a new idea, I judge it on its merits, and I try to engage with it critically,” he said. “And the line between ‘is an Islamic idea versus not an Islamic idea’… that is a line that has become more fuzzy.”
Yadzi transferred to the College after spending two years at Rutger’s University, where the Muslim community is approximately 4,000 students.
“When I came here, I had a lot more room to explore individually and to read on my own, and to be part of a community that was more social than communal,” he said.
Yadzi noted that being at a school with a small Muslim population is difficult, yet beneficial.
“Living a Muslim lifestyle in a non-Muslim environment is hard,” he said. “It was, in a sense, easier to be a Muslim in college because I could have ownership of my religious identity, whereas at home my family had a big role in defining it. So I feel my Islam is mine; I feel a sense of ownership of it.”
The college environment was not a drastic change for Yadzi, who grew up near a college campus in Texas.
“My family was part of the MSA [Muslim Student Association] of their college,” he said. “I was born when they were in college … My faith experience began with college students, so basically I’ve been doing that all my life.”
A philosophy major who has switched to history, Yadzi said he always asks two questions when critically analyzing an idea, “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” Yadzi’s encounter with philosophy initially tested his identity.
“There was a time in my life when my ideas determined my identity,” he said. “So an attack on my ideas was an attack on who I was. This is a huge problem of fundamentalism and all religions. Now I feel like you can attack my ideas, but the important thing is that I have good ideas or true ideas.”
Yadzi further found a way to incorporate his academic studies with his religious beliefs.
“I made a distinction between religion and my knowledge and understanding of religion,” he said. “I believe that religion cannot be false because Islam means to submit to the will of God as you understand it. And the will of God has to correspond to truth and reality, and so whenever you encounter something you believe is true, then you know that is bringing you a step closer to understanding that ultimate reality, which is God. So you should never be afraid of encountering a true thing, or engaging with an idea that contradicts something in your repertoire.”
Islam’s ritual component also affected the way Yadzi incorporated ideas.
“The locus of Islam is the practice,” he said. “These are very tangible physical things — they’re not dependent on ideas. There was a time when I said, ‘I’m going to radically reevaluate and see what role they have in my life,’ I came to the conclusion that, ‘Yes, they have a role.’”
Yadzi’s impression of philosophy has changed over his college career. He was initially impressed by the rational edifice of the subject.
“I was really enamored by it and thought it had all the answers to all the questions,” he said. “But then when I realized the limits of rationality, that brought me closer to a sympathetic understanding of theological concepts. When I saw that modern Western philosophy doesn’t have the ability to answer all the fundamental questions about life, and there was a lot that was arbitrary and kind of irrational in Western thought, too … I’m OK with believing there’s a God without having evidence because there are a lot of other things that I believe in without evidence, too. I believe in these things because I have a clear and distinct impression that they are true. For me God was one of those things.”
Yadzi’s experience in the classroom may have brought him to that conclusion, but it was a personal experience that confirmed his belief in God.
“I went on a pilgrimage and had a spiritual and emotional experience that made me convinced there was something bigger than myself in the universe,” he said. “But those experiences, by definition, can only convince the people who’ve had them. So I’m convinced that there is a God. But I’m never going to be so presumptuous as to say my conception and understanding of God is correct, and I’m never going to be afraid if something questions that God.”
As for the effect college has had on his beliefs, Yadzi said the most important learning experience was not a set of ideas, but a relationship of ideas.
“I learned to match the strength of my conviction in the truth or falsehood of an idea with the amount of my knowledge regarding that idea. You should be the most convinced about the things you know the most about, and you should be the least tenacious about the ideas you know the least about,” he said.
Another senior at the College has found his faith to be more personal since coming to college. Prior to life at the College he was regularly involved in his home church, but since then his spirituality has become less corporal and more private. He wished to remain anonymous, because the personal nature of the discussion was “almost as if you’re reading my diary.”
Finding a sense of ownership of his faith, he finds that his Christianity has turned to apathy upon coming to college. He describes his current faith as, “A few shreds of what I had in high school. In high school, I had a somewhat stronger faith in Christianity. But coming to college, it was not so much an experience that changed or questioned my faith; it was more that it weakened it to the point of apathy.”
However, his confidence in apathy is stronger than his faith in his former Christianity.
“I think it’s good, because even though I say I’m apathetic, I feel like I’m making my own decision, and I’m not going to church out of habit or routine,” he said. “I’m not going to church because I’m choosing not to go to church. I’ve definitely put a lot of thought into it. I keep a specific religious thought journal, so I’ve definitely matured in the college environment religiously.”
He said his maturation comes from comparing his ideas of religion to morality.
“I’m trying to figure out whether or not religion seems like a moral compass that should guide you in certain situations,” he said. “I don’t know what to think of it, it’s still a mess.”
He said he explores these thoughts in his journal as opposed to conversations because he’d “rather talk about girls.”
His idea of religion as something on the backburner comes from a long-term view.
“The way I look at it, I have another 60 to 70 years to figure it out, and as long as I keep some minimal thought to this process, it’s something that’s relatively important to me. I don’t want to throw it away completely,” he said. “I don’t think I need to determine an answer in college; I need to determine an answer sometime.”
He believes this passivity stems from his focus on time-consuming schoolwork and different relationships.
“I’ve been so busy with schoolwork. The main point is that it really depends on who your circle of friends is, your main crew of friends,” he said. “I know a lot of people that have a very strong inner circle of friends that are very solidified and rooted and grounded in their faith, and that just self-perpetuates that strength in their religion’s faith. But if you’re not part of that circle, it’s either up to you, or it’s going to fall though. I’ve sort of become apathetic. I haven’t ditched it, but I’m certainly not as dedicated as before.”
Despite describing himself as apathetic, he is still interested in religion.
“I’m intrinsically curious as to spiritual faith,” he said. “I believe that there’s more to the physical world. How much more there is, I don’t know, I have no idea. But I like to entertain the idea that there is a supreme being, and I’m still uncertain how much of that is true.”
Describing the difference between home and college, he said his questioning has come from the diversity in college.
“Part of it is you’re exposed to novel people, novel personalities, novel thoughts,” he said. “I’ve lived in my hometown for 21 years, so it’s the same people that I’ve grown up with forever. But at college there’s a lot of diverse thought, so that puts obstacles in your faith, and if your faith isn’t strong enough, you’re going to question that.”
College and the overall college community had a significant impact on both students’ religious beliefs in opposite ways. While one strengthened his faith when coming to college, the other only questioned his further. In next week’s installment, a Christian with supernatural experiences and a Jewish student who kept Shebbat for an entire semester discuss their stories.