Religion and college students

The Social Science Research Council has a new website that offers a series of essays about the religious engagement of college students. Here is the SSRC explanation for the website:

Recent studies of college students’ attitudes toward religion suggest that the academy is no longer the bastion of secularism it was once assumed to be. And these studies further reveal that the spiritual landscape on today’s college campuses is virtually unrecognizable from what we’ve seen in the past. Evangelicalism–often in the form of extra-denominational or parachurch campus groups–has eclipsed mainstream Protestantism. Catholicism and Judaism, too, are thriving, as are other faiths.

To help make sense of these changes, the SSRC offers this online guide, which was derived from a series of essays it commissioned from leading authorities in the field of religion and higher education.

SSRC President Craign Calhoun offers further thoughts in his preface to the website:

By now, most college professors have noticed that there is renewed religious engagement among American undergraduates. Or at least they have heard this in the media. Fewer are in active conversations with students about matters of religion. Fewer still have a nuanced understanding of the patterns of their students’ religious participation and exploration.

One reason for this is that much of the religious engagement on American campuses takes place outside the classroom. At the same time, the extent to which professors are engaged with students’ extracurricular lives has declined with the increasing scale of universities, the emphasis on research productivity, and the growth in numbers of non-faculty advisors and other student services professionals. This means that many professors have little first-hand knowledge of the context of their students’ religious or spiritual lives. If they stop to consider these at all, moreover, they are likely to do so on the basis of the memory of their own student days or projection based on what they’ve seen in the media.

Memory can be specifically misleading. As the essays in our forum inform us, the proportionate role of mainline Protestant denominations in campus religious life has declined in recent years. While there are still campus Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, growth has been mostly among Baptists and Catholics and members of other faith communities – from Buddhists to Muslims to observant Jews. What’s more, campus religious life is less denominationally organized. “Parachurch” organizations like the Campus Christian Fellowship play very large roles. These may or may not be formally recognized affiliates of specific campuses; they usually are not organized under chaplaincies. But they are centers of religious engagement – and importantly, this is often intellectual engagement. Students in these organizations discuss how to interpret the content of their courses – often without the knowledge of their instructors – as well as how to understand the big issues of the day. And – contrary to stereotypes – this is an active part of life at schools like Princeton, not just at less elite and more explicitly religious institutions.

The SSRC website can be found here. Among the more interesting essays are “Do Religious Students Do Better?” and “How Does College Affect Students’ Religious Beliefs?”

For those who have worked in college ministry, what has been your experience? Is there a renewed interest in religion on campus? What should the Episcopal Church do in response?

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