School Spirit: College Students Are Increasingly Tolerant and Interested in Exploring Spirituality along with the Academic Staples. So Why Are Universities Reluctant to Meet Their Demands?

Article excerpt

when a phalanx of Westboro Baptist Church members converged on the Stanford University campus two years ago, waving "God Hates Fags" banners and decrying the evils of homosexuality, Shaowei Lin cringed. Many students bypassed the hatemongers without hesitating, their thoughts on more scholarly matters like papers and tests. But Lin, now a senior at Stanford and a member of the Chi Alpha Christian fellowship, couldn't suppress his disappointment. He felt the circuslike demonstration would encourage students to equate religion with dogmatism and intolerance. "That kind of hatred isn't Christ-like at all," he says.

In answer to the Westboro display, a number of student members of Stanford's Christian community organized a counter-demonstration on the quad. They hoisted signs that read "God Is Love," and instead of lashing out against homosexuals, they talked to onlookers about Christ's compassion for all people. The event, Lin says, generated discussion among students of all faiths, reminding them that holy mindsets don't have to be holier-than-thou. "Students here are very strong in their faith but accepting of people with different viewpoints," he says. "When I share my faith with people, I don't expect them to believe absolutely everything I say. In fact, I'd worry if they did."

The rally was a spontaneous one, staged by a handful of undergrads with a few hours to spare, but the spiritual attitude it reflected has acquired broad social significance for many scientists and statisticians, including a professor emeritus of higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles. Alexander Astin has been casting an inquisitive eye on college students' spiritual development and involvement since 2003, and last fall, he and his colleagues administered surveys to 112,232 first-year students at 236 American colleges and universities. Students' responses to questions like "Do you pray?" and "How would you describe your current views about spiritual/religious matters?" helped researchers assess the zeitgeist of spiritual life on campus.

Drawing sweeping conclusions about the spirituality of college students is about as easy as discerning the typical political perspective of a nation rent by a deep red-blue divide. Nevertheless, the researchers have extracted a few broad generalizations from the multiplicity of students' spiritual journeys. Among the marquee findings: Traditional measures of devotion are at an all-time low, with less than half of current students saying they attend religious services frequently. Still, four in five students indicate they are interested in spirituality and "believe in the sacredness of life." They're eager to learn more--two-thirds say college should help them develop personal values--and they see a variety of paths to enlightenment: Sixty-four percent agree that most people can grow spiritually without being religious.

The split the study reveals between students' "religiousness" and their "spirituality" is, in fact, surprisingly pronounced. "People think of spirituality as a more inclusive, generic construct," Astin explains. "All students seeking to give meaning to the events of their lives are going about a spiritual task." Students who see themselves as being very spiritual have a high self-reported "ethic of caring" and are likely to express interest in a variety of religions and cultures. Those who describe themselves as being strongly religious, however, score high on a different set of indices, social conservatism and lack of religious skepticism among them.

This divide suggests religiousness and spirituality do not necessarily coexist among today's college students, and that many undergraduates are coming to identify the pursuit of self-examination as an alternative to church attendance. The notion that organized religious ritual may not be the only way to practice spirituality may explain the numbers gap between self-described spirituality and religiousness, but some critics argue that separating religion from spirituality in a meaningful way--as the UCLA study attempts to do--is too simplistic a proposition. …