More College Students Opt for Religion 101

On college campuses across the country, God has become a growing topic of discussion in dorms and classrooms.

Chaplains, religion professors, and campus ministry representatives report a renewed interest in religion and spirituality among knapsack-toting students.

The focus is manifesting itself in different ways:

*At Pennsylvania State University, the number of student religious groups has doubled from 15 to 30 over the past 10 years.

*The religious studies department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville last fall had its highest enrollment ever; 2,300 students took religious courses, up from 2,000 in 1994.

*Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., offered its first major in religious studies three years ago and has seen a growing number of ethnic religious groups set up on campus.

The move toward religion on college campuses is broad-based and includes everything from Judaism to New Age to Buddhism. It represents a growing interest in religion among Americans in general.

Behind the surge is a search for stability in a fast-changing world. With crime and violence rising, job security diminishing, and divorce still high, more college students are looking to spirituality for answers. Interestingly, many of these students come to school without their own religious convictions.

"There's a lot of anxiety of what the future holds," says Robert Johnson, director of University Ministries at Cornell. "Roughly half of students come from broken homes. They're aware things are adrift, and they want some kind of anchoring security."

Religion scholars say student exploration of spirituality goes in cycles on college campuses. During the 1940s and '50s, for instance, religious organizations such as Hillel for Jews and Westminster for Presbyterians became popular. In the '60s the focus turned more toward peace and social issues.

"The pendulum on American spirituality swings back and forth, but I think we're very clearly in a time of spiritual awakening in this culture," says Rebecca Chopp, a theology professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Just last month, faculty at Candler attended a retreat to discuss student and faculty interest in spirituality. "I could post any class on spirituality and have it filled," Ms. Chopp adds.

The Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a Christian group on 560 college campuses, has seen some increase in student participation over the last year or two.

"But I don't know whether that's a trend or a bullet," says William McConnell, assistant to the president.

Nevertheless, this generation of college students differs from its predecessors, which some point to as a reason for the interest in spiritual issues. The information superhighway has helped expose students to other faiths that they might not have had access to before. In addition, many students today come from a secular environment, where religion was absent from the home.

"They haven't acquired any life skills that would have been shaped in a religious environment, and these are things they want to know about," says Harry Gamble, a religion professor at the University of Virginia. "It could be anything from some standard religious discipline like fasting to pressing questions of religious ethics."

"Basically this generation is Biblically illiterate," adds Mr. Johnson. "They don't know the stories, the hymns. They're coming at the whole religious scene anew and that's exciting. They ask good questions."

Still, the attention to spirituality doesn't mean students are joining a particular religious group or packing the pews.

"People are becoming more willing to discuss Christianity with us. A few years ago, we had a lot more people turn us down when we approached them," says Brian Connell, a senior at the University of Virginia and president of Campus Crusade for Christ. "But on the other hand that doesn't necessarily translate into them being willing to commit to a Christian organization."

Others say students aren't the only ones to probe spiritual matters. The topic of spiritual development is on the agenda of annual meetings of people who work with students.

"There's a tremendous growth in a general kind of spirituality on campuses that's unaffiliated with any historic religious organization," says Thomas Poole, who served as director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs at Penn State for 10 years.

SOME, however, hesitate to call the activity on college campuses a trend.

"I think it's true that Protestant Christianity has seen some upturn in participation," says Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "But when I hear a comment as though religion and spirituality are on the increase I've been at this too long." Religion, she says, has always been important.

Even at Brown, considered more of secular institution than others, 60 to 70 percent of the students identify with some religion, Ms. Nelson says. "Unless you're talking about the classroom, there's no other activity that involves as many members of this university," she says.

But Mr. Connell at Virginia says he believes that more students seem to be open to spirituality. "It seems like fewer and fewer people are willing to dismiss the fact that there might be something more than just the physical," he says. "It might be a reaction to being so materialistic ... for so long."

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