Of gender, race, and spirituality

The spiritual dimension of college students' lives has been coming into focus in recent years. But the snapshot looks different depending on which group is in the frame.

A new analysis in a multiyear study of US college freshmen divides the picture according to race and gender, revealing who is committed to church, who is searching for meaning, and who is skeptical of or struggling with issues of faith.

African-American students score highest on many measures of spirituality, and women generally score higher than men, but there are gender differences within racial groups as well. The study of more than 100,000 freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, looks at a range of practices and attitudes. It will measure them again when the students reach their junior year.

"In many diversity programs, religion has not yet taken its place among the other elements of diversity, and this [study] may cause people to feel that it's time," says Peter Laurence, executive director of the Education as Transformation Project, which works with colleges around the United States to establish a dialogue on religious pluralism.

Some of the biggest differences in the study emerge in the following categories:

• "Religious commitment" (following religious teachings in everyday life and gaining strength by trusting in a higher power): Forty-seven percent of African-Americans scored high on this scale, compared with 25 percent of whites, 23 percent of Latinos, and 22 percent of Asian Americans.

• "Spiritual quest" (interest in finding answers to the mysteries of life and developing a meaningful philosophy of life): African-Americans scored the highest on this (36 percent), with other groups ranging from 23 to 34 percent.

• "Ethic of caring" (commitment to helping others in difficulty and making the world a better place): Twenty-five percent of African-Americans scored high, versus 13 percent of students overall.

The gaps partly reflect students' religious affiliations. For instance, Baptists tend to score higher than most religious groups on these scales, and nearly half of the African-American students are Baptist, compared with 11 percent of whites.

"I wouldn't say there's anything inherently spiritual about being African- American - what we're talking about here is cultural background and influences, says Theophus "Thee" Smith, a religion professor at Emory University in Atlanta who was not involved in the study.

Professor Smith was surprised that Latinos did not score higher. "[I expected] religious identity and spiritual affirmations might be accentuated among minorities in predominantly white institutions," he says.

As for gender differences, 30 percent of women versus 21 percent of men scored high on religious commitment. The study also found that 20 percent of women and 10 percent of men are very active in charitable giving and community service.

Helen Astin, a principal investigator, says gender differences were no surprise, but "trying to understand why gets a little more complex; we all have our own interpretations - whether sociological ones, psychological ones, or biological ones."

Despite the differences, the broader study highlights what many young people share. "College students ... are very often trying to develop a philosophy of life," Smith says. "There's very much a kind of energy to say, 'This is what I believe about God; in high school I was told I need to believe [this or that], and now I'm in college and I want to say what I have figured out for myself, or I want to explore what I am figuring out.' "

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