Faith finds a place on campus
Religion is increasingly being explored and embraced by secular college students nationwide.
By ALAN FINDER
Published May 5, 2007
Peter J. Gomes has been at Harvard University for 37 years, and said he remembers when religious people on campus felt ostracized. To be seen as religious often meant being dismissed as not very bright, he said.
No longer. At Harvard these days, said Gomes, the university preacher, "There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years."
Across the country, on secular campuses as varied as Colgate University in New York, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember.
More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.
A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112, 000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
Compared with 10 or 15 years ago, "there is a greater interest in religion on campus, both intellectually and spiritually, " said Charles L. Cohen, a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who for a number of years ran an interdisciplinary major in religious studies. The program was created seven years ago and has 70 to 75 majors each year.
University officials explained the surge of interest in religion as partly a result of the rise of the religious right in politics, which they said has made questions of faith more talked about generally. In addition, they said, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, underscored for many the influence of religion on world affairs. And an influx of evangelical students at secular universities, along with an increasing number of international students, has meant that students arrive with a broader array of religious experiences.
Gomes (pronounced like "homes") said a more diverse student body at Harvard had meant that "the place is more representative of mainstream America."
"That provides a group of people who don't leave their religion at home, " he said.
At Berkeley, a vast number of undergraduates are Asian-American, with many coming from observant Christian homes, said the Rev. Randy Bare, the Presbyterian campus pastor. "That's new, and it's a remarkable shift, " Bare said.
There are 50 to 60 Christian groups on campus, and student attendance at Catholic and Presbyterian churches near campus has picked up significantly, he said. On many other campuses, though, the renewed interest in faith and spirituality has not necessarily translated into increased attendance at religious services.
The Rev. Lloyd Steffen, the chaplain at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, is among those who think the war in Iraq has contributed to the interest in religion among students. "I suspect a lot of that has to do with uncertainty over the war, " Steffen said.
"My theory is that the baby boomers decided they weren't going to impose their religious life on their children the way their parents imposed it on them, " Steffen said. "The idea was to let them come to it themselves. And then they get to campus and things happen; someone dies, a suicide occurs. Real issues arise for them, and they sometimes feel that they don't have resources to deal with them. And sometimes they turn to religion and courses in religion."
Increased participation in community service may also reflect spiritual yearning of students. "We don't use that kind of spiritual language anymore, " said Rebecca S. Chopp, the Colgate president. "But if you look at the students, they do."
Some sociologists who study religion are skeptical that students' attitudes have changed significantly, citing a lack of data to compare current students with those of previous generations. But even some of those concerned about the data say something has shifted.
"All I hear from everybody is yes, there is growing interest in religion and spirituality and an openness on college campuses, " said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. "Everybody who is talking about it says something seems to be going on."