The standard litany goes something like this: Presbyterians go to church, bring their children, the children grow up, go off on their own, forget about church. Charles Wiley, who’s with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Theology and Worship, said recently that one test of Presbyterians’ commitment to ecumenism is that they’re ecstatic if their adult children go to church, practically any church, once they leave home.
But the stock wisdom only goes so far.
Recent surveys show that many college students do in fact have an intense interest in spiritual matters and that many of them believe in a higher power and pray regularly. On college campuses, groups interested in religion — from Buddhist meditation circles to “alternative spirituality” groups to evangelical Christian Bible studies — meet all over the place, all the time. During Ramadan at some campuses, students who aren’t Muslim join in the fasting, out of solidarity with what they affirm as a spiritual way of life. And many classes in religion are packed, as students try to understand the complex relationships between religion and politics in a world in which suicide bombings and violence in the name of religion make the news nearly every day.
That doesn’t mean, however, that college students have everything figured out. For some, this is a time of intense spiritual unrest — with the freedom to finally explore outside the limits of their families and with other students trying to figure out what matters to them, what they want to do with their lives and what they really believe.
Jennifer Fouse is a PC(USA) pastor who works as a Presbyterian campus minister at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which has about 6,000 undergraduates and about as many graduate students. Each year, she asks the students who get involved with Presbyterian ministry programs at Vanderbilt to list the things they struggle with most. They write about faith — “What does faith really mean?” — and about loneliness and sex.
“Some things haven’t changed since I was in college — I’m 30,” Fouse said. “What’s the same is the partying and the studying and the searching for truth. What has changed is the fear and the chaos they’re living in.” The students are full of questions, she said, but “they don’t know where to go to ask these questions.”
Lucy Forster-Smith, a chaplain at Macalester College in St. Paul, said: “One of the biggest questions coming out of 9/11 is how do we create a world where we can live in harmony,” and how have different religions contributed to the brokenness of the world or to its mending? “That is a question that is very clearly on the minds of young people. They’re highly optimistic about their own world. They’re not cynical, they really believe they can make a difference in the world. Also at times they see that it’s very difficult to make a difference in the world, given the complexity of it.”
A pilot survey released this year — the preliminary results for what will be a broader, longer-term study funded by the John Templeton Foundation — reported strong interest in spiritual matters among third-year college students. The survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, included the responses of 3,680 undergraduates at 46 diverse colleges and universities from around the country.
Among the findings:
Many showed significant levels of personal religious commitment. More than three-quarters (77 percent) said they prayed, 70 percent had attended a religious service in the previous year, and 78 percent discussed religion and spirituality with their friends.
Seven out of 10 students (71 percent) said, “I gain spiritual strength by trusting in a higher power.” And nearly three of four (74 percent) said their religious and spiritual beliefs provided them with strength, support and guidance.
About one in five showed significant religious skepticism. About a quarter (27 percent) said they were indifferent about whether or not there is a supreme being and 22 percent said that believing in supernatural phenomena is foolish.
Students showed general acceptance of the beliefs of others. Asked if “non-religious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious people,” 88 percent said they agreed, and 70 percent said that most people could grow spiritually without being religious.
Many students felt some degree of struggle in their spiritual lives, with nearly half saying they felt angry with God at times. Two-thirds (65 percent) questioned their religious and spiritual beliefs at least occasionally, 68 percent felt unsettled about religious and spiritual matters, and 38 percent felt “disillusioned with my religious upbringing” at least to some extent.
The levels of attendance at church and other worship services declined during the students’ years in college. While just over half of students (52 percent) reported attending religious services frequently when they first entered college as freshmen in 2000, fewer than a third (29 percent) said in a follow-up survey that they attended frequently during their junior year.
The results of that survey match what many college chaplains see and what students report themselves: interest in spirituality is intense, commitment to organized religion is less so, although religious groups of many stripes are active on the campuses. Classes involving world religion — especially those explaining the history and beliefs of such faiths as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — often are full to overflowing.
“What we’re seeing is students are incredibly interested in the religious questions both in terms of the academic study of religion as well as in trying out a lot of different practices of religion,” said Forster-Smith. “Students are very interested in larger spiritual questions, trying to make meaning of their lives given the way the world is shifting so fast. That’s translating into a high degree of interest both in the academic study as well as the practice of religion.”
For many students today, religious diversity also is an accepted part of their world — people of other faiths are their friends, their classmates, their neighbors, just part of the landscape. Last year during Ramadan, for example, students from other faith groups took turns providing the end-of-fast meals each night for the Muslim students at Macalester — with Jewish students providing food one night, Protestants the next, and so on.
Peter Laurence is executive director of the Education as Transformation Project, an initiative created at Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1996 to help colleges and universities figure out how to use their religious diversity as an educational tool.
One of the first tasks of the project was to survey about 650 chaplains and campus ministers at U.S. colleges and universities, Laurence has written, saying that “74 percent reported an increase in religious diversity among their students, 39 percent said that the increase had prompted the formation of more student religious groups, 26 percent had noted an increase in student interest in religion and 9 percent found that greater diversity produced greater tension among students.”
And Laurence said in an interview that students who are not comfortable aligning themselves with a particular religious tradition often consider themselves to be “spiritual” rather than atheist, agnostic or purely secular.
“The research generally finds a shift away from traditional religious expressions,” Laurence said, into a category that’s been described as “spiritual but not religious.”
Laurence acknowledged “an evangelical student will talk about spirituality in a much different way than a Wiccan,” but said there are some common elements in what people usually mean — often involving a sense of holistic, intuitive interconnectedness. “Usually they describe spirituality as a connecting factor that transcends boundaries,” Laurence said. “It connects us with each other, with the world around us, and it doesn’t have parameters on it the way religion tends to do.”
Whether they go to church or not, “students are asking questions about their faith or about their spirituality,” said Rob Spach, a PC(USA) minister who’s chaplain at Davidson College in North Carolina. “It’s not uncommon for me to meet students who say they are spiritual but not religious. I think that the church is not necessarily well perceived by a lot of students. …There are a lot of students who don’t feel that the church embodies a lot of the highest ideals they want from spirituality.”
Overall, however, “interest is up, involvement is up” in a whole range of religious groups, Spach said. Evangelical Christian groups are strong on campus, as is a progressive Christian fellowship, and in both groups, “they don’t feel like oddballs if they get up and go to church on Sunday mornings.” So in a dorm, some students are “dead drunk at 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning,” he said, and others “get up and go to church at 10:30 on a Sunday morning.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and well-known preacher who teaches religion at Piedmont College in Georgia, spoke last spring to the National Association of College and University Chaplains. She said she’d recently visited Duke University, where 22 different religious groups meet in the chapel. And Taylor said that college chaplains “are working boundaries no one has ever worked before,” as the pluralism that’s present in the culture generally is accentuated on college campuses.
“It will be a few more years yet,” Taylor said, “before third and fourth generation immigrants have amassed the capital to significantly change the skylines of American cities, building Hindu temples that dwarf First Presbyterian churches or Muslim masjids that bring suburban traffic to a standstill on Friday afternoons.” But the change, she said, is coming.
According to Laurence, the challenge for colleges and universities in a multi-cultural world is to find a way to be hospitable and open to students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, without explicitly endorsing any one view.
He has just put the finishing touches on a new “religious diversity kit,” due out this fall and presented by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which is a 200-page document illustrating what some schools are doing in response to that increasing diversity, from creating multi-faith spaces and celebrations to accommodating religious dietary restrictions.
Schools with historic Christian ties are experiencing the same sorts of changes, although not always at the same pace as, for example, large public universities. But several years ago, when one historically Catholic college surveyed its students, it found that 40 percent weren’t Catholic, Laurence said. “Their challenge,” he said, “was how to remain a Catholic institution while acknowledging religious diversity and in some ways accommodating it.”
At Macalester College, a Presbyterian-related school, only 3 percent of the students identify themselves as Presbyterian, and 64 percent list “no religious preference.” At Davidson College, a Presbyterian-related school, in Davidson, N.C., the numbers of Catholic and Jewish students are growing, and about a quarter of the students list “no religious affiliation” (some of those, Spach said, just don’t bother to fill in the blank, but others really intend to claim no religious affiliation).
According to Laurence, most colleges are responding to this diversity not by trying a hands-off approach to religion — that’s more likely to happen in elementary and secondary public schools — but by acknowledging openly that spirituality is important to many students and encouraging not just tolerance, but a real sense of religious pluralism — a more active and conscious engagement with the religious diversity that exists.
“Even the publicly-funded universities are finding ways to accommodate religious diversity without endorsing either religion or non-religion or any particular religion,” Laurence said. “Usually what they do is make it possible for student activities to encompass religious activities. They have facilities on campus,” where religious groups can gather and worship, and “they enable all of this without endorsing anybody. In higher education there doesn’t seem to keep an arms length from religion. Rather it’s the opposite: more and more are finding ways to use religious diversity as an educational tool.”
For some students, the diversity around them is like an open door — drawing them into ways of thinking they never knew existed. For others, it brings them back to their roots, makes them think harder about what they believe and why.
Brad Beckham, 21, is a molecular biology major at Vanderbilt from Mississippi. While Beckham’s family is Presbyterian going back generations, he said Vanderbilt has students from all 50 states and about as many countries, including Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, “all the basic religions. If you want diversity,” Beckham said, “you’ve got it here.”
Beckham said he went looking for Christian fellowship at college from the beginning, and said lots of students he knows — even at his fraternity — are open to talking about spiritual things.
“We do a lot with the idea of why do bad things happen to good people, that’s a big overall topic,” he said. And at the Presbyterian fellowship, “we’ve been doing a lot of struggle with what is faith really and why should we have it? … A lot of my friends have grown up in one religion or another, we’re all really strong in that religion, but we don’t really know what that religion is. As a Presbyterian, what are my actual beliefs? What does it mean to be a Christian?”
Patricia Massey is co-moderator of the 2003 Presbyterian Youth Connection Assembly and a 19-year-old sophomore at Davidson. She’s involved in both a Presbyterian fellowship and in weekly ecumenical worship that incorporates Taizé and other forms of contemplative worship.
“I’m proud to be part of the Presbyterian church and I really value that,” Massey said. But she thinks one aspect of a liberal arts education is “hearing viewpoints you’ve never heard before,” and “for me ecumenical worship is a part of that. It’s really about worshipping with brothers and sisters of the faith and not necessarily those people you’re always most comfortable around. That has meant a lot to me. That has enabled me to meet new people and be more challenged in my faith.”
Massey also spoke, as did others, of the distinct awareness at her school that not all Christian groups are alike. Non-denominational groups such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are active at many schools — at Davidson, one of the biggest is Campus Outreach — but there also are groups such as Sanctuary, which is interested in peace, justice and human rights issues.
“When most people who are not involved in religious life at all think about Christians, they think about these sort of very evangelical, Campus Outreach, Young Life groups,” Massey said. The ecumenical fellowship, which includes mainline Protestants and Catholics, struggled with what name to give its worship services — now called “Weekly College Worship” — and whether to include the word “Christian” in the title.
“Sometimes frankly the word Christian, especially to a person who has had a bad experience in a church, can be a scary word,” Massey said. Some thought if they to were put up a sign advertising Christian worship, “it would really scare some people away because of some of the stereotypes of pressure that sometimes go with that.”
At Macalester, Forster-Smith said she sees lots of sorting out of religious identity — and lots of students who mix elements from different faith traditions, students who consider themselves both Jewish and Buddhist, for example. Forster-Smith said she’s also seeing more students whose parents did not raise them with any religious upbringing “who find themselves claiming a faith tradition during their college years.”
The Higher Education Research Institute survey also found that while students’ interest in spiritual matters remains high, often their professors are reluctant to talk about religion or faith in class at all. Some think “anything non-academic is really not appropriate for an institution of higher education,” Laurence said.
Professors who teach religion also say that some students are more open than others to exploring their own faith and the complicated questions that serious study of religion can open up.
“I find that a lot of our students come in thinking they’re going to get one thing and they’re presented with something really different,” said David Hall, an assistant professor of religion at Centre College in Kentucky, where students are required to take at least one class in religion. ‘They realize it’s a lot more complicated than they thought. There are some students who really dig that, and there are others who really don’t like it at all.”
Hall also teaches a three-week January course on “Basketball as Religion,” which has won him considerable media attention and which his wife suggested one year while they were watching the frenzy of “March Madness” on TV.
“It was a blast, we had a great time,” he said of the class, in which students spend time both studying in the classroom and playing ball. “I hope that I gave people a chance to think more broadly about what religion is and what role religion plays in society and culture in general. We tend to think of religions as these easily definable, easily delineated things. … But the phenomenon of religion is far more complicated than that, and it plays a much broader and a much more subtle role in everyday culture than people realize.”
Some colleges are also, with support from the Lilly Endowment, reintroducing students to the idea of vocation in career exploration, asking them to consider how the work they do and the way they choose to live can make a difference in the world.
At Davidson, for example, “we understand what we’re doing is not just training people to be scholars, but to lead lives of leadership and service,” Spach said. Students are encouraged to think not just of how much money they can make, but also about what it means to serve the common good.
In the Macalester “Lives of Commitment” program, first-year students will spend time this year working with refugee and immigrant communities. In 2003, student Sara Johnson wrote about what it had been like for her to tutor Terrell, a fourth-grader, for a year.
Johnson wrote that she learned from Terrell that something that had been easy for her to learn — reading — could be frustrating and difficult for others. She learned about trust and empathy and hard work and not giving up.
“Suddenly I understood the power of children–how just their presence can make you feel like the whole world is at your fingertips,” she wrote. “Next to me sat this small human being, representing the potential we all possess. To him, a huge victory was getting through eight pages of a small book. If that was enough to make him happy all night, how could I ever be unhappy? How could I ever feel defeated?”
All around him, Spach sees students struggling with big life questions. “Who is saved, and how do I know that?” What is spiritual discipline? How can one grow in faith and relate to those of other religious traditions? What does it mean to work for peace and justice in the world?
Every day, the world news hammers it home.
“You can’t ignore the fact,” Massey said, “that there is so much pain in those spaces where religion is the issue.”