Higher Ed

How Religion Is Making a Comeback on College Campuses

A dramatic shift in the global landscape has made religion a pressing issue on college campuses again. Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, authors of No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, on how higher education found faith.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

One in three Americans under the age of 30 reports being religiously unaffiliated, so it may be a surprise to learn that religion is making a comeback on American campuses. It’s not that campuses have become holy places, and religious zealots are not calling the shots. But religion is no longer marginalized from campus life as it was in the late 20th century. A generation ago, many Americans and most colleges and universities could live with the myth that religion was a purely private matter, but today no one questions that religion can have powerful effects on individuals and societies.

During the last four years, we crisscrossed the country visiting more than 50 colleges and universities as directors of the Religion in the Academy project. We spoke with hundreds of faculty, administrators, and students about all the ways they are now engaging religion, and we came away from those conversations with a new sense that adding religion to the mix—in the form of new student life programming, but also in the curriculum, in study centers and programs of research, and in community engagement—can be a net educational gain for everyone.

Today’s interest in religion comes from the bottom up—a significant change from the past. From the colonial days through the 19th century, religion was typically imposed on students from the top down. Now, students themselves are driving a re-engagement with religion. 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—something that many of them would call “spirituality” rather than “religion.”

This highlights a major difference between the religion coming back to campus and the religion of yore. It is very difficult today to draw any neat line of separation between “religion” and the wide variety of “secular” life stances that are also present on campuses. Whether people refer to the values and commitments that shape their lives as religion, spirituality, humanism, secularism, or agnosticism, they are referring to values and commitments that function socially and psychologically in much the same way. On many campuses, the definition of religious life has expanded to encompass all the religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical concerns of students.

Almost without exception, today’s college students have friends who are members of other historic religions, and they want those friends to feel comfortable. This desire to be hospitable to those of different faiths is evident across the country. The student-leaders of a Jewish organization told us they wanted their Hillel center to be a place where everyone, not just Jews, felt welcomed and at home. MIT has a chaplain for Zoroastrian students. The United States Air Force Academy has a Wiccan shrine on campus alongside its large Protestant chapel. Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City retains its solidly Mormon character, but it now has a room on campus designated for Muslim prayers.

Some institutions are excited about this new engagement; others are worried. We found that younger professors are almost always more interested in the topic of religion than their more senior colleagues who completed academic training in the secular heyday of the late 20th century. This does not mean that younger faculty members are necessarily more favorably disposed to religion, but they are more comfortable discussing it. They have grown up in a world where religion is part of everyday news, and where the influences of religion in public and personal life seem obvious.

We also found that elite schools tend to be less open to reengaging religion than non-elite schools. When the general education review committee at Harvard recently suggested adding a course on “faith and reason” to graduation requirements, the university backed off after resistance from some faculty members. By contrast, community colleges often welcome engagement with religion, in part because they serve so many students who still live at home, embedded in their own local faith communities, and who naturally bring religious questions into the learning process.

Evangelical-Christian students are frequently perceived as both the blessing and the bane of religiously-engaged campuses. Evangelicals comprise the largest and most visible religious sub-group in American society, so it’s no surprise that they are often the most visible religious group on campuses as well. It’s also no surprise that they are evangelistic: they are convinced of the rightness of their ideas and ideals and are eager to “share” their faith with those around them, which can make them somewhat prickly interfaith partners.

But this evangelical clarity about their own beliefs is helping everyone around them to become more articulate about their own values and commitments. The religion department at Princeton University, for example, asks students to examine divisive public issues in light of the religious particularities that students bring with them to the classroom. The goal is to give students the opportunity to practice the obsolete political art of talking intelligently and respectfully, as well as argumentatively, with one’s ideological opponents.

Religion’s return to higher education is not without costs. Paying more attention to religion means acknowledging very real differences, and disagreements can be intense. But reengaging religion has one enormous benefit: it prepares students for life in the real world where religion is a significant factor in politics, community and international affairs, interpersonal relations, and individual quests for meaning and purpose.