Field Notes article

“Faith-by-Birth”? Community and Religious Identity

Confirmation at St. John the Evangelist Church in Goshen, IN. Photo Credit: St. John Evangelist-CC.

I am Catholic because my mother lost her driver’s license when I was seventeen.

That is not the entire truth. I am Catholic because my parents are Catholic because their parents are Catholic. I was baptized before I could crawl, a three-month-old baby who slept through Easter Mass and the sacrament that followed. I was sent to Catholic grade school because my parents had attended Catholic grade schools. I chose a Catholic high school because I liked its performing arts program. I applied to Notre Dame on a whim.

For much of my life, my relationship with my faith was lukewarm. I studied for theology tests and attended the occasional Mass. I prayed when I needed something. I didn’t question my beliefs because I didn’t spend much time dwelling on them. This changed during my junior year of high school, when I began preparing for confirmation. I attended biweekly classes in the church basement to discuss topics that I had been exposed to all my life. Yet the tone of the conversation had changed for me. I knew that after participating in this sacrament, I would be recognized as an adult by the Church. I would no longer be able to claim that I was Catholic through my parents’ choice alone.

I didn’t know if I wanted to continue in this faith. I disagreed with several of the Church’s teachings and practices, and I questioned my role as a participant in an institution whose complicated legacy carried persistent negative effects. At the heart of my indecision lay doubt. I didn’t know if I believed in God. I thought that the Gospels were great stories, but I wasn’t sure if they were anything more. My conflicted journey toward confirmation reached its climax while I was on a weekend retreat, a requirement for the sacrament. The retreat leaders were unwavering in their faith and unwilling to discuss reform within the Church. I decided that confirmation was not the right choice for me. I planned to tell this to my mom when she picked me up the next day.

However, my mother had misplaced her driver’s license over the weekend, which meant that my dad was the one to pick me up. My family decided that they would all go with him, and we would get lunch afterward. When I walked out of the retreat building and saw both my parents and my brother in the car, I hesitated. On the journey home, I thought about all the time that had been spent on the confirmation process by myself, my parents, and my sponsor. I didn’t voice my doubts. One month later, I was confirmed.

Nearly three years after that car ride, I sit with my computer and notebook in a quiet area of my dorm. I am talking with madrasa students about the subject of religious conversion and desertion, a continuation of the previous week’s discussion. In some respects, the madrasa students’ religious histories reflect my own. They were all born into Muslim families. They have all pursued religious education, though their study of theology has been much more rigorous than my own. They quote the Quran and cite the Hadith in constant support of their arguments.

Dhulikhel Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive 2018. Photo Credit: Shrestha Digital Photo Service.

“In the Quran, it is said that we should not disdain others just because they do not follow our path,” Manzar Imam, a student from India says. Our conversation on apostasy has broadened to become a reflection on interreligious relations. Manzar continues, “In Islam there is no basis for discriminating against other religions.”

Waqas Khan, a Pakistani student, pushes back against this claim. “Islam does not allow for conversion,” he says. “Islamic law places restrictions on non-Muslims.” He does not believe that Islam alone is vulnerable to these biases. “Every religion considers itself superior to all others,” he says.

This point speaks to some of my own uncertainties regarding my faith. I have often felt like a passive Catholic, someone who was born into my religion and has done little to explore other faiths. I ask the madrasa students in my dialogue group, all of whom are Islamic Studies scholars, whether they have studied other religions with any intensity. They have not. I think that my doubts regarding my beliefs stem in part from the randomness of faith-by-birth. How easily might I have been born a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Buddhist? I struggle to comprehend the historical atrocities that have been carried out in the name of religion when the grounds for belief always appear so tenuous.

Of course, it is overly simplistic to view religion only in this negative light. The benefits of belonging to a faith are considerable, and the existence of religious groups does not in itself create conflict. Without groups, most individuals would be isolated, unloved, disoriented, [and] relatively unproductive” because within those groups we find the interpersonal bonds that we seek to create (Meyers 1999, p.324).

This sentiment is expressed in our discussion on apostasy. Usman Ramazan argues that the creation of categories is not problematic. “The problem is how we act toward other categories of people,” he says. As Rasheed Naseer points out, “Religion is not the only means of discrimination among peoples.”

I have acquired a more nuanced view of the benefits and dangers of religious practice over the past two years at Notre Dame. When I decided to participate in the Madrasa Discourses, I was most interested in the program’s focus on intercultural discussions of science and philosophy. After a year of leading these dialogues, I have come to understand that our religious backgrounds have shaped our perspectives and informed our opinions in every conversation. We found connections to religion in every topic we discussed, from amortality to social media. In some cases, these connections arose from explicit questions that addressed morality and compatibility with one’s faith. However, we often found ourselves discussing religion even when it had not been overtly introduced in the conversation.

From these discussions, I attained an understanding of Islam that I could not have acquired in a textbook. We did not have the advanced theological debates of which these madrasa students are capable, but nevertheless I find that my perspective has grown. My understanding of how these students viewed robot priests and anti-aging technology greatly informed my perception of Islam. I witnessed how they structured their arguments, and how they challenged me to defend my own beliefs. I found myself providing a “Catholic perspective,” even as I explained my tenuous connection to my faith.

Dhulikhel Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive 2018. Photo Credit: Shrestha Digital Photo Service.

I made this connection clear in our discussion on religious conversion. After I shared the story of my confirmation, as well as the current doubts and uncertainties that linger in my beliefs, Faiza Hussain discussed her own exposure to faiths outside of Islam. She compared her current life in Germany to her upbringing in Pakistan and explained that she had no contact with other faiths while she was growing up. In Germany she met many individuals who followed different faiths with varying degrees of devotion, along with those who had converted to their current faith, and those who had left religion altogether. Speaking of Pakistan, Waqas Khan concluded, “When living in a country that is 98% Muslim, it’s really complicated to consider changing religions. We belong to our community.”

The Madrasa Discourses project has brought me into contact with intelligent, passionate students who are motivated to critically engage with new ideas. My discussions with these students have greatly contributed to my personal understanding of faith and my own relationship with Catholicism. I used to consider myself a passive Catholic because I did not fully understand the role that religion has had in shaping my most fundamental beliefs. I too have always belonged to a religious community, and my Catholic education has greatly influenced how I view myself and my place in the world. I have come to understand that my moral perspective has been shaped in large part by my faith. This newfound understanding has not entirely changed my relationship with religion. I am still often frustrated with and critical of the Church. I still have moments of doubt. Before participating in these conversations, I thought that these moments defined me. After having the opportunity to think deeply and critically with these students, I have been able to more thoughtfully consider the root of my beliefs, the choices I have made regarding my faith, and what it means to be Catholic in the world today.


Sydney Schlager
Sydney Schlager is an International Economics and Peace Studies student at the University of Notre Dame. She participated in the one-credit Madrasa Discourses Peace Research Lab course through the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the fall of 2017.