Secular students find value in wisdom and practices of faith traditions
An atheist looking for guidance among religious people may seem ironic at first. Some students that frequent Concordia’s Multi-faith and Spirituality Centre (MFSC), like Nicolas Chevalier, identify as non-believers but still derive benefits from being involved.
Chevalier admits that he had some reservations about Christianity and other religions, but was still curious about them. “At the same time, faith can be something that brings people together, and that is something that is clearly lacking in our society,” he said.
Chevalier met Ashely Crouch, the interfaith facilitator at the MFSC, through a mutual friend. Chevalier often attends events put on by Sustainable Concordia, and since it shares the same building as the MFSC, he ended up participating in a few events there as well. Chevalier considers himself an atheist, yet his involvement with environmental activism complicates that perspective. “With my environmental background, I do believe everything is connected. We’re not just here in a cold existence to reap everything from the earth,” he said.
In all his intersectional organizing and activism efforts, Chevalier tries not to take a “finger pointing” perspective. He said he is drawn to similarities in how interfaith communities create respectful dialogue, even when they disagree.
Chevalier’s family is Christian, but they rarely went to church during his childhood. So while he didn’t know much about religion growing up, Chevalier was never anti-religious, and was always respectful of people’s faith.
A turning point came when his mother passed away from lung cancer about four years ago. It so happened that his family’s neighbour was a priest. “He would come in and he would talk about nothing and everything, in a way that was very comforting. That was definitely something that helped change my view about people who have faith,” Chevalier said.
The role of the campus chaplain at Concordia has been constantly evolving to reflect the changing religious beliefs of the student body, said Ellie Hummel, the chaplain and coordinator at the MFSC.
The chapel at Loyola College became an ecumenical place of worship when Loyola joined with Sir George William College to form Concordia in 1974. The chaplaincy gradually grew to embrace the increasing number of non-Christian students coming to Concordia, becoming multi-faith.
In the last 19 years, since Hummel has been at Concordia, spiritual yet non-religious people have also been welcomed. “We are adjusting our language more,” Hummel said. “We realized there are people who name themselves as secular and humanist, and we want them to know they are included.”
“People could have their typical view of ‘oh, it’s a preacher person just coming here to push their religion’ and that’s not at all what I get from either Ellie or Ashely,” Chevalier said. “They invite people in to come as they are, whether they have faith or not.”
Chevalier thinks the main issue with organized religion is that concentrating power in an institution eventually leads to the people running it being corrupted by that power.
The MFSC’s approach to cultivating a faith-based community is more informal and non-hierarchical. Crouch became the interfaith facilitator at the MFSC a little over a year ago. She said that a lot of new students, when they come to the MFSC for the first time, ask about how they can join. “You don’t have to join, you just belong, you’re just here,” Crouch said. “It’s very intentionally kept that way.
Ultimately, compared to what capitalism and consumer culture offer in terms of living a fulfilled life, Chevalier said he sees a lot of good things coming out of the multifaith chaplaincy. However, he doesn’t necessarily see his participation as political.
“In the traditional politics type of sense, I don’t see it like that, I just see it as people sharing ideas” Chevalier said. “[But] some of my friends who are stronghold atheists would go ‘why are you even talking with these people?’”
While the MFSC offers varied programing, from drumming circles to meditation groups, Hummel said the most important thing they offer is simply the space—a place where people can just drop in and talk to religious people.
“[It] helps you […] realize that you can live with people who don’t necessarily agree and to have a respect around those sorts of things,” Crouch said. “Everybody can grow from that.”
Feature image by Kenneth Gibson