Is Religion Making a Rebound On College Campuses?


College students tend to pray for a lot of things: a passable grade on tomorrow's poli sci midterm, a game-winning touchdown against that dreaded conference rival, some edible food to stomach in the dining hall. Prayer books, however, are often seldom seen on campus.

The independence and autonomy of college life can bring the waning of religious affiliation. New social scenery and crammed daily routines leave many without any time or inclination for faith, while others use college to rebel against their religious upbringing. Data from the Social Science Research Council pinpoints 22 as the age of lowest average religion activity, and sociologists Mark D. Regnerus and Jeremy E. Uecker note that nearly 70% of those who attended church at least once a month in high school saw their attendance decline in subsequent years. Sixty-four percent of those currently enrolled in four-year institutions have curbed religious practice, they say.

"People who attend college leave home," adds Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf. "That is to say, they leave their church, the community incentives to attend it, and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don't go to services or stray in their faith."

It's a feasible concept. One of the most powerful aspects of organized religion is community, Friedersdorf says. When a fresh-faced freshman leaves his church, synagogue, or mosque and joins a dorm hall, a lecture, or a Greek organization, that desire for community is filled.

But not everyone throws away religion while throwing a cap and tassel. Though 64% of students do lessen their religious activity, the remaining 36% don't just maintain their faith. Some connect to it even more.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has 15 evangelical clubs and groups. Christian Kairos retreats are offered at universities across the country, there are 715 American schools with Hillel, a foundation of Jewish practice and culture, and religious studies majors have increased by 22% over the past decade to a healthy 47,000 students.

It underscores an important movement in campus religion. While many major universities required some sort of formalized religious activity from students, the last of those policies were abolished over half a century ago. Today, religion is enforced on campus through social groups and clubs. For those seeking that communal aspect of organized religion, clubs with looser structures and similarly-aged members are more appealing than just attending a local temple.

Embracing religion can enrich the college experience itself, says Daily Beast writer Douglas Jacobsen. Classes at Princeton encourage students to bring their religious perspectives and involvement to lectures to encourage diverse discourse. And while religion at home may have functioned as tradition, religion at school can double as a tool to make friends and find common interest with other students. Despite popular belief, it seems that augmenting religion could be a boost to social life, not a hindrance.

"Religion was typically imposed on students from the top down. Now, students themselves are driving a re-engagement with religion." Jacobsen says. "Religion, for them, is not necessarily the old-fashioned 'organized' religion handed down to them by their elders, but rather a personal exploration of meaning, purpose, values, and global diversity."

While I personally have seen my religious activity decline since I began college in 2011, I can attest to the desire to make faith your own, rather than a rigid tradition that's inherited. Today's social media era and generally tolerant college culture makes it easy to explore religion and still have a prospering social life. It requires effort, there's no doubt about that, and sometimes effort can be hard when you're buried with papers and social plans. But it's also important to remember that a wane in religious activity doesn't necessarily mean a wane in religious zeal or religious devotion.

As Jacobsen's headline alludes to, religion is making an individualized but powerful return to college campuses. It's interesting to note that, according to Jacobsen's research, "elite" universities were less open to reengaging with religion than non-elites.

What's best about this movement is that it's not imposing. I've been accosted by religious clubs handing out filers, but a few steps later I'll be stopped by another group that's entirely secular. It means that religion is fitting into the college mold, and that ultimately makes religion more digestible as a college student. Without external pressure, religion at school can become as much of a learning experience as lectures themselves.