Leaning into Discomfort: Diving into Religious, Spiritual, and Secular Identities

Whenever I mention to friends and colleagues that I am interested in studying and understanding religion, faith, and spirituality on college campuses, I often catch a glimpse of surprise in their eyes because when asked about my religious affiliation, I usually say “I used to be Muslim.” I grew up in a Muslim household where I learned everything I know about my family, culture, and responsibilities. It is in that same household that I realized that I am queer, simultaneously learning that my Muslim family does not, and will never, welcome, accept, or even tolerate my sexuality.

I have not practiced the teachings of Islam since I left home at 19 nor did I practice throughout college. I was adamant about not being religious or spiritual in any way because I believed that religion had hurt me in the past. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to dismantle the internalized homophobia that I acquired being around my unsupportive, albeit entertaining, family. In my mind all of this meant that I could not possibly be religious, and therefore cannot be spiritual. I remember having a conversation with one of my college mentors about my future, and I explained to her that in Arabic, we have a saying: insha'Allah, which translates to “God willing.” For example, it is common to wrap up conversations by saying “see you soon – insha’Allah” to indicate that some things happen outside of our sphere of control. I told her that I believe we are all interconnected and that everything happens for a reason, which is how I manage to get through difficult days. She pointed out to me that I was describing a spiritual connection. Some people call it God, I call it a life philosophy. Throughout my college years, I have found an ideology that explains my understanding of the world around me. I may not label it as a religion or a spiritual doctrine, but it is rooted in spiritual connection nonetheless. And it is a connection that I continue to reexamine, revise, and develop.

During college, my realization of the need for a spiritual compass was crucial to my development as an individual and to my understanding of others. I came into student affairs with a heightened awareness of the importance of how religion and spirituality affect my life and the lives of the students with whom I live and work. I entered my master’s program in student affairs with a zeal for this topical area which I was excited to explore in theory and practice. In a discussion about institutional types during one of my introductory courses, the professor presented a case study that involved a queer person at a religiously-affiliated university. I remember some of my cohort-mates were quick to jump into discussing the homophobia and feelings of isolation that some queer students experience at these institutions and then quickly changed the topic. We did not stop to talk about how such institutions contribute to the students’ lives and how some students, including queer students, need and seek religious and spiritual connections. I felt that my peers were not interested in such conversations. Ever since then, I have sought opportunities to understand faith, religion, and spirituality within the context of higher education and student affairs. I have dedicated many of my class writing projects to exploring these topics, particularly looking at the intersection between queer identities and spiritual beliefs. In my exploration, I have realized that although we as a field acknowledge the importance of the spiritual and moral development of college students, we rarely take the time to fully understand and appreciate these identities of our students.

Another memorable experience stems from a regional conference I attended during my first year of graduate school, during which I was eager to meet with the Spirituality & Religion in Higher Education Knowledge Community. I excitedly introduced myself to the members and noticed that I was the only graduate student. I had a fantastic conversation with the colleagues at the table, and I reflected on why there were not more graduate students there. It could have been because of the low number of graduate students in attendance. Perhaps it was because there were so many Knowledge Communities, and students chose others based on more salient identities and experiences. Finally, it could have been that religion and spirituality are not topics that we highlight frequently in graduate preparation programs. In reality, it was probably a combination of all these reasons. Although this is an isolated incident that cannot, and should not, be generalized to our entire field, we often hear our colleagues saying things like “college students are no longer religious,” suggesting that religiosity and spirituality may be relics of the past. But I am not sure that is the case. I believe we are still living in a world that is dominated by religion, some religions more than others. Religion is connected to spirituality, spirituality is connected to psychosocial development, and development is connected to student success in college. When all of our identities come into the mix with spiritual and religious inclinations and backgrounds, the picture becomes more complicated than a religious or non-religious binary.

Here is one thing I know from my own experience: we cannot have conversations about diversity, inclusion, and social justice without including religious affiliation and spiritual beliefs. I will always be Muslim, even if I do not practice the teachings of Islam (and I have had more bacon than I would like to admit) because it is through that religion that I came to know my sexuality. It is also through my religion that I have come to understand my Syrian-ness. When I go through airport security, I think about my beard and clutch my Syrian passport in the anxiety of being stopped because according to the outside world, I am Muslim. I am not saying that I hate being perceived as Muslim. I am saying that growing up Muslim has become a central part of my experience. It is complex, and it is not easy, to be sure. As I write this, I am thinking about a time when I went to the mosque and the khotba, or sermon, was about the sins of homosexuality. Yes, that happened, and it is not unique to Muslims or Islam. I also remember the peace that I experience when I let go of things that are out of my control and say to myself “everything happens for a reason – insha'Allah.” It turns out, I am spiritual after all! It is just that my spirituality is complex and undefinable. Yours might be the same, and the same applies to our students.

I think about queer students who were affected by oppressive religious practices and who hear about laws that allow for discrimination based on religious beliefs. I think about those same queer students who are in desperate need for connection and hope. I think about people of color, such as myself, who experience community through religious practice and who have known churches and places of worship as sites for resistance, resilience, and healing. I wonder how these students experience religion and spirituality in college. I wonder if they feel as lost as I felt in college. I wonder if they get to answer some of their more complicated questions about the world. I get excited about discussing religion and spirituality because I know, and I have seen, how they can both harm and heal, build and destroy, and I yearn for more intentional conversations about religious, spiritual, and secular identities on college campuses.

Reflecting on why we often do not talk about religion and spirituality in higher education and student affairs, I have realized that part of the problem is that we do not know how to have that conversation. More importantly, we are not sure if we should be having that conversation at all. Many of us avoid talking about religion, deeming it a private matter, so much so that it has become a sort of taboo, especially for those of us who work at secular institutions. Are we supposed to ask students we advise or supervise about their spirituality? Should we allow them the opportunity to talk about their religious identities? Should we have interfaith centers and student groups? How do we celebrate the plurality of beliefs and traditions that exist on our campuses? Do we center religion and spirituality or do we focus on other identities that we deem more relevant to our students' lives and the current sociopolitical climate? I often grapple with these questions, which is part of the reason why I am very excited to be part of the planning committee for the 2018 NASPA Religious, Spiritual, and Secular Identities (RSSI) Conference taking place in New Orleans, Louisiana. I hope this conference provides an opportunity for a large collective conversation that invites higher education practitioners and scholars to examine topics related to religion, spiritual, and secular identities including, and beyond, working directly in campus chaplaincy or religious life functional areas. I am thrilled to dedicate time and energy to deepen my understanding of these identities and their role in holistic college student development and success. This conference will elevate the conversation about religion and spirituality into the spotlight, showcase the fantastic work that is being done in our field, and invite everyone to gain the knowledge, skills, and tools to aid our students to heal their wounds, develop holistically, and build a socially just and authentically inclusive society. Insha’Allah.

Get involved in the #RSSIConference

Submit a Pre-conference Workshop proposal

Deadline: August 6, 2018

Submit a Concurrent Session Proposal

Deadline: September 1, 2018

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Deadline: September 1, 2018


Musbah Shaheen (He/Him/His) serves as the assistant residence director of Department of Residential Life in the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Vermont. Musbah is also a second-year graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program at the University of Vermont.