Navigating Faith in a Post-Faith Society

Alicia Hamilton is a History student at Harvard University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in England in 2016. Alicia is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.  

Colleges are widely acknowledged as the place where young people go to broaden their worldview, grow their minds, and challenge their beliefs; changes which often result in students straying from religion. However, over the course of my first two years of college, my Christian faith became more a part of my identity than it ever was before. Thus, as I embarked on my three months of study in London, one of the first things I wondered about was how the values and beliefs I already held dear would impact my immersion into a new culture.

Officially Christian, Actually Post-Faith

Navigating Faith in a Post-Faith SocietyDuring orientation, one of the study abroad staff described London as a “post-faith” city. With that, I began to realize that my Christian experience in London would be a little different than I expected. Although you can usually find a church (and a Starbucks) on every street corner in the States, as I roamed through the streets of Central London I saw remarkably few churches. The churches I did see, though monumental in size and grandeur in comparison to my home church located in our local YMCA, seemed to only serve as reminders of the former importance of the Church in London.

Ironically, in a country that recognizes Christianity as its official religion, the spiritual landscape seems much more reserved than it is in the States. In New York my normal routine brought me into contact with people preaching about the coming of the Lord in the streets and youth groups with pamphlets on the train platforms. In London, these people were nowhere to be found. This realization left me worrying that Londoners would be put off by the openness with which I express my faith. Would people think I was odd if I paused to pray before digging into my fish and chips at a pub? Would the crucifix I often wear around my neck be seen as obnoxious?

Fitting in with Friends

I worried not only about my ability to fit in with Londoners but also with my American peers studying abroad. The pub culture in England is one of the things that college-aged students from the States go giddy over. On the plane ride over, I already heard excited chatter about visits to pubs after classes. My American peers’ eagerness over the prospect of indulging in their first legal drink while in London was palpable.

Ironically, in a country that recognizes Christianity as its official religion, the spiritual landscape seems much more reserved than it is in the States.

But for me, that prospect was a source of fear and discomfort. As an expression of my faith I had made the decision that for now I will abstain from drinking. Thus I began to dread the countless conversations I would have to engage in whilst explaining why I had a glass of water in my hand and not a half-pint of beer. Moreover, I didn’t want my American friends to assume that not drinking meant I was no fun, or even worse that I would judge them for choosing to drink.

At the moment, the semester has just begun, so I don’t yet know how my faith will shape my time abroad and thus my fears and concerns are still fresh. However, I am hoping that through participating in the University College London’s Christian Union, I will learn how to best navigate the faith landscape of the city. Although I traditionally attend an evangelical church at home, I am excited at the prospect of exploring different churches and meeting Christians from all walks of life while in London.

By the end of the semester, I hope to learn about the role of Christianity (in all its forms) in the modern post-faith London and strengthen my own beliefs as I work to make room for Jesus during my time abroad.

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