Keeping up with God on campus

Nadia Dreid

Tom Hutchison spent more than 10 years praying God would heal him of his depression. Raised a Southern Baptist, he became more religious the worse his depression became. He was sure the cure would have to come from on high.

“It wasn’t until I got out of the Navy and started going to college that I actually realized that depression is a disorder,” Hutchison said. “It’s not spiritual warfare, it’s not something that can usually be healed by praying.”

After this realization, Hutchison’s belief in God changed.

“I had a realization that I’d spent years, over a decade of my life, praying and asking God to help me and I was never helped,” Hutchison said. “But when I went on my own and sought treatment . . . I kind of realized we don’t always need God to save us.”

Hutchison’s treatment for depression was helped along by a book on mindfulness meditation.

“Then I found out mindfulness meditation is actually based in Buddhist practice, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist meditation,” Hutchison said.

Now he classifies himself an agnostic/Buddhist, though Hutchison admits he adheres to Buddhism as a philosophy more than a belief system.

Now a first year graduate student in Georgia Southern’s doctor of psychology program, Hutchison has not found it hard to maintain his religious identity on campus.

“I think it’s easy for me because I actually get kind of stubborn,” Hutchison said. “But I can see where it would be really difficult for a lot of people, especially who identify as nonreligious or something other than Christian, because there’s such a large Christian population here.”

However, for Christy Hines, attending college in the Bible Belt did not make maintaining her Christian convictions any easier. A nontraditional student, she struggled to find her place in Christian campus life.

“I was not accepted at all. I tried to go to some of the youth groups, but I’m not a youth, so it’s hard for me,” Hines said. “I’ve taken a different route that’s not very religious.”

Though Hines tried to maintain her religious identity, she said that her need for acceptance often led to her going outside of her comfort zone to make friends.

“I find myself drinking and partying more. My house is always an open place for people to come and hang out and drink,” Hines said. “There are things that I do in my life and things that I talk about that have changed dramatically since I’ve been coming to school.”

Hines said that the change in her behavior has even trickled down to her speech.

“You know how medical people talk in medical speak? Christians, Muslims, Jews, they all have a way that they speak, to people, about people,” Hines said. “That’s how I used to talk.”

Now she doesn’t talk about religion at all, for fear that her friends will judge her. One of the things that Hines struggles with most is that as an older student, she feels more responsible for her behavior.

“The bad thing is that I’m aware of what I’m doing,” Hines said. “I feel so bad about it the next day. I’m like ‘You could have been a light to these kids, and I’m not a light to people anymore.’”

Hines said that although she is trying, she is unsure how to regain the spirituality she once had while still maintaining her social life – but she would not urge others to take her path.

“Don’t lose who you are,” Hines said. “If you have religious convictions, don’t falter away from them because somebody says it’s not cool.”

For Laila Abdi, it’s not about being cool as much as being alone.

A junior multimedia production and film major, she was raised in a practicing Muslim family near Atlanta, where there is a large and thriving Muslim population. Coming to Statesboro, where the number of Muslims is much smaller, made for a different environment.

“Coming to college, my belief in my religion didn’t change,” Abdi said. “But the more I was around people who weren’t like me, I tended to forget. My practice changed.”

Once she realized she was drifting away from her spirituality, Abdi did her best to pull herself back, by reading the Qur’an more often and attending Friday prayers at the mosque. However, there are far less resources available for Muslims in Statesboro, no fellowship groups or regular on-campus meetings.

“When you’re driving throughout Statesboro, you see churches on almost every road,” Abdi said. “You don’t often see a mosque or any other type of religious temple.”

Still, Abdi does the best with what she has. It can be difficult to maintain her religious identity among the temptations of college, but she tries to take it all in stride.

“It’s not as hard as it seems,” Abdi said. “Just know that everything around you currently is super temporary.”

Lost their religion?

The Secular Student Alliance provides a sense of community for Georgia Southern students who don’t believe in a higher power.

“It’s really tough, especially in the South,” Alex Robinson, the organization’s vice president, said. “Some people who question their religion or are full-out atheists don’t really know that there’s a lot of us out here.”

In fact, nonbelievers of all types are on the rise. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that nearly six percent of Americans identified as atheist or agnostic. An even larger 14 percent of the American public classified themselves as having no religious affiliation.

It can be difficult for atheist and agnostic students to be understood by their peers, Robinson said.

“You know, a lot of people think atheists are Satanists,” Robinson said. “Which makes no sense. You know, the cliché ‘people are afraid of the unknown’ seems kind of true.”

Which is why the organization encourages people of all beliefs (or lack thereof) to attend a meeting and see what the group is about.

The Secular Student Alliance meets Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. in the Russell Union, room 2084.