At first glance, they seem to be quite alike. Three students from South Holland all studying at the same university. But that’s where the similarities end. Anouschka is a devout Protestant, atheist Sjors feels that all religion is nonsense, and Martijn can best be described as a Roman Catholic agnostic.
In order to find out how they experience their philosophies of life and how this affects their lives as students, they play a game. A stack of question cards is on the table. They take turns choosing one person and asking a question on the card. Everyone also has two jokers, which allow them to pass the question on to someone else. Under EM’s guidance, they make inquiries about each other and themselves.
How did you decide that your beliefs are
the correct ones and mine aren’t?
As soon as Martijn poses this question and the committed atheist Sjors is about to respond, Martijn and Anouschka burst out laughing. But Sjors remains serious and promptly answers.
“It’s not that difficult. Religious people have to prove that their claim, their faith, is right. I don’t make any claims. For example, Christians say that God exists, so they have to provide proof. I always had my doubts when I heard those stories in school. I was told: if you have doubts, read the Bible. When I was seventeen I read it for the first time and my intuition told me that something didn’t add up. The second time I read it I thought ‘do I really want to worship this god?’ That’s when I reached the conclusion there’s no reason to believe that a god exists.”
Even though this view runs contrary to hers, Anouschka understands his reasoning. “It’s a very complicated question because it remains a question of faith and it’s hard to provide conclusive proof for the question why your religion is the only true religion. Of course I’ve had my doubts as well. I couldn’t find any conclusive evidence, but in the end I came to the conclusion that my faith is important to me. That was enough.”
Martijn fully understands the doubts. “I have them too. But looking at it from a different perspective, as long as there’s no definitive proof that there is no god, I prefer to believe in religion, or at least remain hopeful. Hope is the reason I haven’t definitively abandoned my faith.”
Name: Sjors van Wijngaarden
Studying: Master of Arts in History of Society
Raised in: Sliedrecht
Background: Dutch Reformed Church
Imagine for moment that you change
your own convictions. What faith would
you then adopt and why?
Anouschka reads the question out loud and sighs deeply. ‘Now that’s an interesting one.’ After some hesitation this question is put to Sjors.
“Whew, that’s a tough one. But if I had to choose, I would choose something like the beliefs found in Greek mythology.” As an agnostic, Martijn knows that all eyes are on him. “Difficult… My position is somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if I could really be an atheist, because I would still have the feeling that something was missing. What? The hope. The idea that there’s nothing after you die, that it’s the end. I find that hard to accept.”
Anouschka laughs as she listens to Martijn and Sjors. As far as she’s concerned – at least for now – it’s a foregone conclusion. “There’s something beautiful in every faith, such as loving your fellow man. But in the end I decided that this faith is really my true faith. I never questioned it after that.”
Is a life with or without religion possible
Anouschka reads out the question and, in her enthusiasm, immediately launches into an answer.
“Impossible for me. Religion means too much. It provides comfort and tranquillity, knowing there’s someone up there I can talk to and when things are hard, I can accept that things are out of my hands.” Sjors looks at Anouschka with surprise.
‘’I think it’s bizarre that you’d say life without religion is impossible. It meant a lot to me once too, but at some point it’s not relevant anymore and you discover that it doesn’t enhance your life in any way. You say that religion gives you hope, but I don’t go through life feeling hopeless and fearful.”
Anouschka shows understanding in her response. “There are enough difficult matters in faith that I sometimes struggle with. With some of the stories I think: ‘What does this mean for me?’ But I find hope when I read stories about Jesus. Those stories give me strength.” Sjors still disagrees. “I respect your faith and the idea that people have religious beliefs, but I don’t respect what they believe.” This last remark results in laughter around the table, followed by a brief clarification. “That doesn’t mean I don’t respect you or that religious people are bad people.”
Name: Anouschka Rozendaal
Studying: Master in Health Economics, Policy & Law
Raised in: Groot-Ammers
Background: Reformed Alliance in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands
How does life as a student affect the
way you adhere to your beliefs?
Without hesitation, Sjors passes the question on to Anouschka.
“I’m a member of NSR, a Christian student association. This connection makes my faith a logical part of my life as a student. It was a conscious choice to join NSR after finishing secondary school. My thinking was that I went to university, where perhaps there are many people who aren’t religious. I wanted to find a way to remain engaged with my faith.”
Martijn states he didn’t consciously make any choice in this matter. “I get that it’s nice to meet up with people once in a while to talk about your faith, but that’s something I already do outside of university. This makes me actively think about the subject and you also talk to people who feel differently about it.” Anouschka isn’t worried that she’s living in a bubble because of the Christian nature of NSR. “In my study I’m in contact with plenty of people who have a different background.”
Are there times in your life as a student
when it’s awkward to express your
Martijn puts this question to Sjors who, after thinking about it for a moment, can’t come up with any situations where this has happened. While he hasn’t experienced it at university, it has happened when he returns to his hometown.
“Things are sometimes different when I go home to Sliedrecht. My opinions aren’t always appreciated, but personally, I get enjoyment from that.” He then changes his mind and plays his joker card. “I’m curious how you would answer this, Anouschka. I imagine it’s a bit more difficult for you.”
According to Anouschka, any awkwardness is purely in her mind. “When I started university, I was worried people might think: ‘Hey – she’s Christian, what’s she doing here in a science-based study? Did she give this any thought?’ But I quickly found out that people are very receptive to this discussion and find it interesting. I haven’t gotten into many heated discussions.” Sjors immediately offers to start one, but the discussion is deferred for now. This is followed by a confession from Martijn.
“I won’t deny that the way I present myself depends on who I’m with. I won’t lie if someone asks me, I’ll simply tell them what I believe, but I don’t initiate conversations about my Catholic background. I don’t know why that is. I guess I find it difficult to have a conflicting opinion.”
What was the most difficult faith-related
moment of your academic life?
This question is directed at the ‘Doubting Thomas’ Martijn, and he’s ready with his answer.
“Since starting my bachelor programme in History, I have had more understanding for atheism. I increasingly think Christianity could just be an illusion. As a child you don’t know any better than to accept religion as the truth. But the more you learn and experience, the more you start doubting and putting things into perspective.”
Anouschka says that her experience has been different. “I haven’t often been challenged to ponder the combination of my studies and my faith since starting university. The only time where I’ve thought about it is during a course covering health policy and law. Then you’re confronted with issues like euthanasia and abortion. Then I discover that I sometimes have a different point of view on some issues.”
Name: Martijn Schoolenberg
Studying: Master of Arts in History of Society
Raised in: Rotterdam
Background: Roman Catholic
How does your life as a student differ
from the life of a student with a different
Just like the previous question about student life, Sjors immediately puts this question to Anouschka. ‘I knew it,’ she says with a laugh.
“I think the main difference is in values and ethics. I think marriage is a wonderful institution. In my opinion sex is meant for that one special person and being faithful to that person is important. Many students probably feel differently about this. NSR is also different from other associations. Sure, we all like beer, but the goal of our society evenings isn’t to get drunk and go home with someone.”
“That’s something I’m familiar with,” says Sjors. At first his words create confusion at the table, but he quickly explains himself. “I mean, not me personally, but I’ve seen this with friends in Sliedrecht. Sex before marriage is still an issue for some of my friends.” Otherwise, he doesn’t see religion playing much of a role in student life. “Beforehand I thought it would have a bigger impact, but the subject simply doesn’t come up that much.” Martijn agrees. “It’s never been an issue. I drink alcohol when I want, and sex before marriage isn’t an issue either.”
What do you like most about your faith?
Anouschka is ready to answer this final question right away.
“The way Jesus conducted himself during his life and how he sacrificed himself. His sacrifice allows us to live in freedom. It’s not like I feel my life is less free because I live the way I do now. Parting from my faith would feel like losing a piece of me.” For Martijn, what resonates most – besides the search for hope – is the concept of love. “For me, religion is a way to get into contact with someone and forge a strong bond. I find this expression of love a beautiful thing.” Sjors concludes the discussion with some more down-to-earth wisdom. “The fact that you’re free. The idea that there’s no longer anyone who knows what you’re thinking, dreaming or feeling, expecting everything you do to be done in his name. That’s what I like most about my beliefs.”