Community Columns

Re-examining the place of religion on college campuses

Just as the University of Michigan at Dearborn ignites a firestorm with plans to install footbaths in a campus bathroom for Muslim students, fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers gather for a Christian rock concert in the stadium parking lot.

Religion has permeated our lives in unexpected and, for some, increasingly uncomfortable ways. Questions about how we pursue our religious or spiritual lives are dominating the headlines, talk shows, presidential elections and, increasingly, college campuses.

In America, there has always been discomfort about including religion in public life. In a country founded on the separation of church and state, many Americans describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. But in a world where religion is driving wars and the evangelical vote can steer political decisions, the clarity of that separation has been lost.

Not surprisingly, young people are seeking spiritual answers in increasing numbers. A follow-up to the study, "The Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose," conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, reveals that 80 percent of college freshmen have an interest in spirituality; 81 percent attend religious services occasionally or frequently. While young people entering college have always been thought of as seeking answers to the "big questions," this study implies a new kind of urgency.

Historically, religion has stayed out of the classroom, except as a subject of intellectual study. Faculty, in particular, shied from discussing personal religious beliefs. And, though there are many religiously affiliated institutions, students and parents alike generally expect free inquiry on campuses and many would rebel at any attempt to indoctrinate through the classroom. On college campuses, definite lines are typically drawn between what is believed and what can be shown through rational thought and evidence.

Yet nationwide, colleges and universities are finding greater student interest and participation in issues of spirituality and religious services. As young people seek to explore these paths, the academy must find ways to help.

For today's students, the events of Sept. 11 often drive this search for meaning. Watching the war in Iraq and acts of terrorists driven by religious beliefs has forced them to turn their questions inward. "What do I believe?" is, ironically, a rational response to a world shaped by the fanatical beliefs of others.

Students see Mitt Romney constantly questioned about his Mormon beliefs while a growing number of evangelical students attend secular universities, where they mix with international students. Your son or daughter might find learning to live with a Muslim roommate just another aspect of adjusting to college life.

Addressing these concerns is not antithetical to the role of the college. While our focus has been on intellectual development, campuses nationwide support a wide range of activities to help students grow socially, physically and, yes, spiritually.

Now, the academy must shift the balance among these components, elevating the depth and breadth of the avenues that address spiritual and religious issues. We need to find new ways to examine the quest for meaning because today's students are not only more hungry, but also often less prepared than previous generations to grapple with these questions. One important response comes from the Spirituality in Higher Education Project at the Higher Education Research Institute, which is examining ways to focus on the search for meaning and values, as opposed to specific religious doctrine. Proposed initiatives include courses focusing on finding a meaningful life and career path, revisiting institutional mission statements and finding more structured ways to address each student's development.

Each of us addresses the spiritual dimension of our lives -- or lack thereof -- as we decide how to interpret and interact with the world. For the academy to ignore this component of critical thinking is to fail to serve our students as they prepare for life. To fail to do so puts at risk the state of our nation's soul.

Shirvani is president of California State University, Stanislaus.