US freshmen reveal their spiritual side
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As students progress in college, church attendance often declines, previous studies report. "That may create the impression that there is lack of religious commitment, when in fact, it's strong, [but sometimes] more private," says Alexander Astin, one of the principal investigators of the study. The survey shows that 17 percent of freshmen score high on a scale of religious skepticism, while more than half score high on either religious commitment (things such as following religious teachings in daily life) or religious engagement (attending church or reading sacred texts). A follow-up study will measure how their views and practices have changed in two years, when they are college juniors.Skip to next paragraph
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The survey also indicates much tolerance for others' views. Eighty-three percent agree that "nonreligious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers." Mr. Dalton of the Hardee Center sees the broader interest in spirituality not as antireligious but as "just another expression of the search for meaning and transcendence, right alongside religion."
On the second floor of a building at the heart of its busy Boston campus, Northeastern University offers the Sacred Space, an expansive room with softly lit wall panels of translucent green glass. Students stop by to chant, pray, sing, walk in meditative circles, or sometimes just lie on the floor listening to their iPods, says Shelli Jankowski-Smith, director of the Spiritual Life Center.
Set up in 1997, the Sacred Space is also often used by Muslim students for prayer, and the antechamber has an area where they can perform ablutions.
About half the time, the room is reserved by groups or classes. On a recent Thursday morning, several dozen undergraduates took off their shoes and sat on carpet squares or cushions for an introduction to meditation and relaxation techniques, a small part of the curriculum in a wellness class taught by Prof. Dorett Hope of the nursing school.
Ms. Jankowski-Smith asked them to focus on their breath, to let go of thoughts about the past and the future, and to focus on the present. After a few minutes, when the room became palpably still, she told them in a quiet voice to ask themselves these questions: "What is my spirit? Where does it exist?"
Aimee Bailey, a physical therapy major who hadn't known about the Sacred Space, said afterward that the wellness course is adding an important dimension to her studies. "We're supposed to be helping other people be healthy, but no one is taking care of themselves." Compared with science classes, where "there's no room for interpretation," she says, this one asks students to think for themselves. "At first, it's weird.... Students just want the answer - What is wellness? What is spirituality?" Ultimately, they have to find their own answers.
Fostering openness to religious and spiritual diversity is important, but there also need to be boundaries, says Jankowski-Smith, the campus's first full-time director for spiritual life. Some cults "prey on college campuses," she says. She recently drew up guidelines, including a distinction between evangelizing and unacceptable forms of proselytizing.
Spirituality has been integrated much more quickly into the student-life aspects of campus than into the classroom, says Peter Laurence, executive director of the Education as Transformation Project, which works with colleges nationwide to create more dialogue about spirituality. In many cases, it's not the right subject for classroom discussion, he says, but a growing number of professors are finding ways in which the overlap can be appropriate.