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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2008
Vol. 35 No. 3

Between Secularism and Pluralism:
Religious Clubs on the Queen’s University

Hannah Dick

While there may be debate over whether secularization is a feature of contemporary society,1  Paul Bramadat suggests that,

If some (even merely institutional) form of secularization seems to be evident in North American culture in general, it is especially evident in the social and academic contexts of secular universities. Although most universities in North America began as outgrowths of Christian denominations, during the past century the majority of these institutions have become explicitly secular.2  

In contrast, Conrad Cherry, Betty A. DeBerg and Amanda Porterfield conclude in Religion on Campus, an ethnographic examination of the state of religious practice on four American university and college campuses, that post-secondary institutions in the United States have “become more optional and pluralistic,” rather than more secular.3  At Queen’s University, a non-religious institution with Christian origins, both secularism as well as pluralism inform the religious landscape. Following Paul Bramadat’s suggestion that an evangelical club at McMaster University, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), is on the “periphery” of the university campus,4  this paper explores the ways that religious clubs at Queen’s resist marginalization and re-centralize religion in the lives of their members by negotiating the secular and pluralist terrain of the campus. Interviews with club leaders and participants, supplemented with data from club websites, student media, and external research, will be used to explore four areas: the proximity of clubs to one another; possibilities for interfaith dialogue; potential competition between religious clubs and local faith communities; and, the challenges posed by the secular learning environment.

It is important to point out at the outset that the fluid nature of campus religious clubs has significant implications for any study of religiosity in the post-secondary context. A rapidly changing constituency, combined with usually annual turnover of student leadership, as well as the relative ease and immediacy with which one can establish a new campus club, means that groups which are thriving in one academic term can easily decline or die out in the next. As such, the results of any examination of the particular clubs active and present on a university campus at a given point in time are not all-encompassing in terms of widespread applicability. Nevertheless, while the groups examined in this study have been active and present on the Queen’s University campus during the period from 2003-2007, it is important to keep in mind that the results elucidated herein use these specific examples in order to highlight more widespread trends. That is, the form and function of campus religious clubs in general is of interest, rather than the particular views and goals of different groups. This focus hopefully offsets the limitations implied by the variable nature of these clubs.

Due to the fact that conducting interviews with representatives from every single religious club active on the Queen’s campus over a four-year period was impossible – either because some clubs were uninterested or unwilling to participate, or because of other external factors such as timing – this focus on general rather than specific traits also reduces the problem of a necessarily limited survey group. Over the four-year period, interviews were conducted with representatives from nine campus religious clubs: the Campus Association for Baha’i Studies; Campus for Christ [Campus Crusade for Christ]; the Queen’s Catholics; Queen’s Christian Fellowship (QCF); Queen’s Hillel; the Queen’s University Muslim Students’ Association (QUMSA); the Soka Gakkai International Club at Queen’s; the Thaqalayn Muslim Association; and, the Unitarian Universalist Club at Queen’s (UUCQ). The Queen’s Sikh Students’ Association, while contacted, did not respond to inquiries for an interview. However, an interview with the local Sikh community – to which the campus group is tangentially connected – provides some useful insight on the campus club. Other clubs disappeared (the Orthodox Christian Fellowship) or emerged (Relevant Church) after the ethnographic research data was gathered. As a result, some current (2007) campus clubs are not represented in this analysis. However, information from club websites ‘fills in the gaps’ in a number of cases. Furthermore, the cited interviews were conducted with a diverse variety of campus clubs: some have long histories on the campus (such as QCF, founded at Queen’s in 1929),5  while others were very recently established (such as the Queen’s Catholics, established in 2005);6  some are hugely populated (such as Queen’s Hillel), while others are numerically small (such as UUCQ); and, the clubs discussed adhere to a wide variety of faiths. The diversity of sources thus additionally reduces any potential methodological problems.

In addition, it is important to point out the particularities of the Queen’s context while at the same time comparing the results with other Canadian and American university campuses. Founded in 1841, Queen’s University is one of Canada’s leading post-secondary institutions. It is located in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, a mid-sized city with a population of approximately 116,000. The city is home to a number of institutions, including Queen’s, St. Lawrence College, and the Royal Military College of Canada; various hospitals; military establishments such as Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston; and, a number of federal correctional facilities. The institutional quality of the city renders the post-secondary educational context unique. Queen’s has a reputation for a high number of non-local students, a very concentrated student ‘ghetto’ housing area in close proximity to the university campus, and a high level of extracurricular involvement amongst the student body. Indeed, one member of Campus for Christ explains that these particular features of Queen’s make the campus particularly ripe for evangelism: “I would say a large percentage of the success of the Queen’s Campus Crusade is a direct result of the social dynamics of the campus. Things like the spirit, the fact that everyone sort of lives around here, no one goes home every weekend, people like to get involved in stuff”.7  This proximity, along with the, “large clubs environment of Queen’s,” is highlighted by a representative of the Soka Gakkai Buddhism Club.8  While these characteristics distinguish Queen’s from many other North American university campuses, hopefully they do not render the results herein inapplicable to other contexts. Ultimately, by comparing the results with Bramadat’s findings as well as Cherry, DeBerg and Porterfield’s conclusions, this paper will attempt to demonstrate that Queen’s represents a more concentrated version of trends which are present on other post-secondary campuses as well.

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