Campuses see religious revival

by Wendy Yu | 10/18/00 5:00am

Once perceived as a hotbed of rebellion and hedonistic abandon, college campuses across the nation now find their students increasingly interested in exploring questions of faith. More and more students are discovering and committing to a sense of spirituality found in religious communities.

Over 1,000 Dartmouth students are estimated to be active participants in religious life on a regular basis, a number that has been increasing over time, according to Dean of the Tucker Foundation Stuart Lord.

"What happens here will be the foundation for the rest of [students'] lives," Lord said. "There's something very spiritual about these four years."

In search of meaning

Lord characterizes college students as "seekers" of a sense of spirituality and truth, meaning that they are going through a time of exploration and ultimately, a time of decision about their beliefs.

This view is shared by developmental psychology professor John Pfister, who describes college as a time for young adults to question and eventually adopt a perspective of the world.

"College is a time of experimentation, even a time of crisis," Pfister said. "Once these crises are resolved, a general set of religious beliefs are established." He noted that after college, religious beliefs typically stay stable for a long time.

Recent trends

But the concept of college being a time of personal growth is nothing new, and it does not explain the recent upsurge in religion's popularity on campuses.

Various religious leaders have looked to the ever-swinging pendulum of social politics for an explanation.

While youth movements in the 1960s and 1970s revolved around defiance toward the then-dominant conservatism, today's youth are showing some different tendencies in their religiosity.

Humanist Chaplain Thomas Ferrick of Harvard University told The Dartmouth that a rise in conservatism explains increased interest in religion on college campuses and elsewhere.

"Since the days of the Reagan presidency, religion has become prominent everywhere in American life ... stressing values rather than the social issues that were predominant in the '60s and '70s," he said.

"I think it's a step backwards," Ferrick added, arguing that the prevalence of the religious right has deterred the development of our country's social conscience.

At the University of Pennsylvania, 38 percent of students are active in religious life, up from 29 percent four years ago when University Chaplain William Gipson arrived.

Gipson claims one of the reasons why this is so rests on this generation's confusion concerning issues like marriage, vocation and ethics -- issues older generations were given simpler answers to, and fought against.

"Part of [the reason] has to do with the fact that we live in a culture where there are a remarkable number of choices in life, rooted in questions of morals," Gipson told The Dartmouth. "For this generation of undergrads, some have begun to look at religion as a place to really get [their] bearings on some choices in life."

Not an easy life

Despite the growing religious community at Dartmouth and elsewhere, some actively religious students are finding academic campuses to be hostile territory for their beliefs.

"I've definitely found that there is a pervading secular nature on campus," said Joshua Thomas '00, who is now a chaplain intern at St. Helen's Church. "That is a challenge to people who are still developing a faith of their own."

For Thomas, who became more active in religious life when he entered Dartmouth and eventually decided to pursue it professionally, the secular atmosphere inspired him to reflect on his beliefs, and solidified his faith in Christianity.

For other students, though, Dartmouth's secular nature has impaired some of the ideological and physical traditions related to their religious views.

"I do think that there are classes and professors that are hostile to Christianity, because it's seen now culturally as the dominant WASP-y thing," said Jeremy Ware '01, chairman of The Navigators, a Christian student organization.

Ware said he considered none of the classes he had taken to be "mature in Christianity" apart from a course on New Testament Greek in the Greek department.

Students of Islamic faith face even stronger challenges, in the form of dietary and ritual restrictions that are difficult to maintain at the College.

For example, Muslim students must pray five times a day and attend Friday prayer services, which are held at 1:30 p.m. -- five minutes before classes during the 12 hour slot end.

"Students have to make a choice [between classes and prayer], which is unfair," said Al-Nur President Yousuf Haque '02, who thinks it is difficult to be a Muslim student at Dartmouth.

Recently however, the College has been more receptive to joint suggestions made by Al-Nur and Hillel concerning changes in Dining Services to accommodate religious needs.

"I think [the College] has room for improvement, but recently the school has become more interested in hearing our concerns," Haque said. "Dartmouth is making strong efforts to communicate with us more effectively."

Strictly Taboo

Communication, it seems, is key to maintaining a balance between diversity and strong religious beliefs.

However, some feel that communication is exactly what is most difficult when issues of religion are raised.

"Religion at Dartmouth is frequently an extremely polarizing subject. It's sad, but it seems to be that way," said Randy Testa, senior lecturer in the education department. "As a community, we don't have a common language."

"Students avoid discussions of religion because they become quickly so political," he added. "Some students don't know how to talk about their faith in a way that isn't either proselytizing or just out and out off-putting, without sounding sanctimonious."

Gipson confirmed this view by comparing religion to such subjects as politics and sex in past years.

"Civil people were instructed not to discuss it in mixed company," Gipson said.

"Religion is in that category alone now," he added.

However, he believes that there is a lot of potential for people of different faiths to unite on common ground, over mutual goals such as fighting violence, poverty and human rights violations.

Ryan Bouton '01, student director of the Campus Crusade for Christ, said he does not want to side-step conflicts about religious faith, however.

"Part of being a Christian is telling people what we found -- telling people about God and Christ," Bouton said. "That's something that's very frowned upon here."

"People would rather me be religious in a corner where no one saw me," he added.

Tucker Dean Lord said that some efforts at conversion on campus are appropriate, but not others.

"Building relationships in a spiritual community is the goal," he said, adding that while building a relationship affects both parties, only the target of an effort to convert is supposed to change.

Lord added that when people are open to exploration of different faiths, with the tolerance to understand others' views, "[we will] live in a world that values all people," which, for him, is the ultimate goal.

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