Religion Stories Graphic

Self-discovery is an important part of the college experience for many students. However, for some, gaining perspective can mean leaving behind a former part of their identities.

After growing up in religious households, many young people begin to question their beliefs while living on their own in college. For some, LGBTQ identity plays a role in this process.

Bri Chafin, a senior who uses they/them pronouns, said that when they entered college, they identified as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, often referred to as the Mormon Church.

Chafin said being in college, developing their own beliefs and realizing they were non-binary caused them to question the teachings of the church. The church doctrines that defined family and gender roles did not align with their beliefs, Chafin said.

“[In] exploring myself I started to realize my sort of thoughts, the way I identified myself gender-wise and the different people I'm attracted to,” Chafin said. “I started consciously thinking about that more, whereas in high school I never really had.”

During their first year of college, Chafin began more deeply reading the church’s scripture and began to see the divide between their own beliefs and those of the church.

“Reading their views on how they define sexuality, gender, families, and gender roles, is when I saw there was a fundamental difference,’ Chafin said. “There was a fundamental difference in how I was seeing these things and how the church was seeing these things.

Michelle Simental, a junior, began questioning her upbringing in the Catholic Church when it denounced the Obama Administration’s ruling on same-sex marriage.

“After Obama voted for same-sex marriage, the Sunday after it happened, the priest told everyone that we do not believe in that, we do not agree with that,” Simental said. “It just turned me off to the thought of being a part of that, and ever since then, I stopped going to church.”

After leaving the Church her junior year of high school, Simental wanted to explore other religions, so she chose to attend John Brown University, in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, for her first year of college. However, being taught religious tenets that she did not agree with drove her away from the school, Simental said.

“Having to go to chapel every week and sit through all these conversations about things that I didn't agree with,” Simental said. “Like the LGBTQ+ community – the way that everyone talked about it, how everyone was so set in stone about it – it turned me completely off about just finding myself in religion.”

Simental said she left JBU – and her search for religion – because she felt unwelcome there as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“I wasn't comfortable in that environment, and I recently discovered myself, and so I didn't feel like I could be myself,” Simental said. “For a while, I considered myself an atheist because I just didn't think I believed, but now I just say I'm spiritual and I don't belong to anything.”

For some LGBTQ students, growing up in households and environments comes with conflicting views and beliefs.

Stephen Hereth, an assistant professor of philosophy, who uses pronouns ze/zir, said as a bisexual person, growing up in a religious, Southern Baptist family in Atlanta presented challenges.

“My parents were very Baptist, conservative Republicans and my family was generally anti-LGBTQ, and so was the church and the local environments,” Hereth said. “Growing up [in my community] was difficult by the time I figured out that I was queer.”

It took years for Hereth to come out, and to freely identify as bisexual in an environment that felt safe, ze said. Around other LGBTQ people and in an inclusive program, Hereth finally felt comfortable to come out while completing a Ph.D. program in Seattle.

Hereth now identifies as a zootheist, after spending years as what ze considered a liberal Christian. To Hereth, being a zootheist means believing in multiple God-heads outside of the traditional Holy Trinity, ze said.

“I’m a theist, I believe in God,” Hereth said. “I was a very liberal Christian for a long time but now I don’t think I’m technically an orthodox Christian anymore, so I’m what’s called a zootheist.”

Hereth thinks college offers many resources for helping to find oneself that might not be available elsewhere, making it a perfect place to explore identity, belief and faith.

“The purpose of going to college or university is to learn all sorts of things and ask questions,” Hereth said. “The expectation that you get to question and think about everything except your own religious views in college, that pressure is unreasonable.”

Chafin said studying at the UofA has opened them up to new ideas and viewpoints.

“My classes have definitely opened me up to new ideas,” Chafin said. “I took an Eastern religion class and my beliefs don't really fit into any of them, and so I just kind of call myself spiritual.”

Hereth thinks students that are going through conversion or questioning their faith, should let it happen, ze said.

“People think that once they start having doubts and questions that it's downhill from there, I think often that’s not the case,” Hereth said. “People have periods where they just go down in the depths of their doubts and they actually deepen their faith, and when they come back up, sometimes it's changed in small ways, but it's more theirs.”

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