My first meaningful discussion about religion on the UW-Madison campus occurred at the residence hall I stayed at my freshmen year. A floormate and I were the only two people sitting in the lounge that day, and we had recently begun to become friends. She started the conversation by asking me what my thoughts were about religion. I didn’t know how to respond — as my mind raced with thoughts, I wondered if she would think I was weird if I admitted how much my religion has truly influenced my life. As we discussed the role of our religious beliefs in shaping who we were as people, I was surprised to see how much in common we both had. My friend did not have any specific religion she observed but still expressed feeling spiritual.
We expressed many commonalities about the role of religion: we both agreed that many religions strive to promote peace among their devotees and emphasize the goal for one to be the best version of themselves. At the end of the conversation, I was surprised at how smoothly the conversation had gone and how much I had enjoyed it. Typically, religion was not a topic that was discussed in my high school classes. In fact, religion was considered a divisive topic. This is because many people associated religion with religious extremists that resort to violence if they feel there is a threat to their faith. Furthermore, because religions often provide guidance to their followers on how to be moral, they can create divides between who is a good vs. bad person. After the conversation with my friend, though, I realized that instead of being divisive, religion could be a topic of unity. We both had respect for each other’s opinions and beliefs and made a conscious effort to understand how those beliefs guided our daily actions and interactions with other people.
After this conversation, I wanted to seek out more opportunities that would allow me to learn about various religions, beliefs, customs and how others worship (or do not worship) on campus. My desire was further fueled by memories of my childhood trips to India. When I visited India, we not only visited the holiest site for Sikhs (the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib) but also various Hindu temples or Mandirs. I had the opportunity to witness pujas (Hindu worship ritual) being performed. In my grandparents’ village, located close to the Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) where we went every day, was a Mosque. Every morning and evening, I heard prayers recited over the loudspeaker from the Mosque. It was beautiful to see how peacefully people of many religious backgrounds co-existed in the village.
Putting together my experiences of religion, I realized religion impacts the lives of people in all parts of the world – from Punjab, India to the Leopold dorm in Madison, WI. Historically, religion is responsible for many of the world’s cultural and civilizational developments, influencing law, politics, literature, music, education and much more. As an interfaith fellow, I will have the chance to better understand how religion functions in our culture. I am excited to expand on that initial discussion about religion with my friend and build deeper, meaningful connections with the other CRGC fellows and our campus community.
How have you seen conversations about religion happening on campus? How are these conversations similar or different than what you would expect?