Generation Y asks why

Steven Harbaugh

Studies find college students searching for spirituality

A survey has shown that more students are attending college with the expectation of growing spiritually. The same survey found four out of five incoming freshman are interested in becoming spiritual.

Credit: Andrew popik

College students might not be lining the pews of the local church or synagogue, but they are thinking spiritually. Four in five incoming college freshmen have an interest in spirituality, and three in four new freshmen are searching for the meaning or purpose of life, according to a new study by the UCLA Higher Education Institute.

The study also found a majority of incoming college freshmen reported that they expected their colleges would help them develop spiritually. Another survey by Reboot, a nonprofit Jewish networking group, had similar findings.

At Kent State Hillel and other religious organizations, students become involved for a variety of reasons.

“I consider myself Jewish culturally rather than spiritually, and that’s why I became involved in Hillel,” said Catherine Cunningham, senior art history and sociology major, noting that she rarely attends religious services but does organize other events like an upcoming Forum on Freedom focusing on the crisis in Darfur.

Avant-garde spirituality

Church attendance rates among college-aged students still lag behind their elders’. This is because young people are now engaging spiritually in new, innovative ways — like Christian rock concerts and conversations with their peers, according to Reboot’s Web site. These nontraditional forms of spiritual engagement are a product of the times, said Paul Milton, adviser for The Impact Movement, a Christian organization on campus.

“Students are a lot more savvy than in recent years,” Milton said. “Young people are really in tune to what is going on in the world, and I think many are involved in spiritual activities.”

Churches are becoming more contemporary, Milton said. Milton’s own church, Akron’s The Chapel, has incorporated rock concerts into its evening services and manage to draw crowds of 400 to 500 young people in their 20s.

“They’re not necessarily the traditional, organ-led, hymn-singing services they used to be,” Milton added.

Turning away from God

But despite more young people being “spiritual,” that does not necessarily correlate with practicing consistently within a particular religious affiliation. The Reboot study found that 23 percent of Generation Y, like Generation X, does not identify with a religious denomination or don’t believe in God.

At the Center for Inquiry-On Campus, a collaborative of more than 150 free thought campus organizations, Zachary Miner, the center’s campus and community organizer, has a different view on the studies.

“The term ‘spiritual’ is a bit of a grab-bag,” he said. “The types of things that are included in the term ‘spiritual’ are vague by the authors of the study. What that shows, interestingly, is that students are tending to step away from traditional religion and go more toward their vague idea of spirituality.”

The studies included spiritual conversations with friends and other vague spiritual activities to clarify a person as spiritual, something that Miner said does not define as a true practicing follower of a religion.

“Some of those people engaging in those conversations are the thoughtful, morally-conscious people interested in the world that are prime candidates to be secular humanists,” he said, adding that studies show as students progress through their college years, they are more apt to turn away from God and organized religion.

Both the UCLA and Reboot studies were conducted nationwide by sampling thousands of newly admitted college students in different geographic locations. The UCLA study, in particular, will be conducted again on the same students once they are juniors to assess any correlation between college attendance and spirituality.

Contact religion and culture reporter Steven Harbaugh at [email protected].