RALEIGH--The quest for the meaning of life began this week with a set of four cards handed out randomly at the door. Each card carried a
one-sentence statement. The idea was to get 225 college students from across the country to trade the cards until they found four that
matched their own personal values.
For about 15 minutes, the ballroom inside the Talley Student Center at N.C. State University resembled a beehive. Swarms of students buzzed
across the hardwood floor making trades.
Nicole Collins liked two of the cards she was given. "I am sure extrasensory perception exists," read one. "I am uncertain but lean toward
believing in God," read the other. But the 21-year-old senior at NCSU was eager to trade the others -- one about God answering prayers and
the other about prophesy. They sounded too institutionally religious to her. If Collins was certain about one thing, it was that the Baptist
church of her upbringing, back in Martinsville, Va., no longer fit her emerging spiritual understanding.
"I believe there's something higher and bigger than all of us," Collins said. "But I don't affiliate with the religious thing."
Collins came to "Inward Bound," a three-day conference intended to help college students find their own spiritual paths, ready to ask big
questions about her life and future. She and the other participants, many of whom received small stipends to attend, were spiritual seekers,
eager for some connection to God and to community, but turned off by conventional forms of religious expression, especially creeds and
Increasingly, these students reflect the country as a whole. Although 80 percent of Americans say they are religious, only 54 percent belong
to a religious institution such as a church, synagogue or mosque, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, published
recently by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
What's more, one in six U.S. adults switches faiths over the course of his or her life. The United States is a country of religious seekers
on a journey of self-discovery. Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, where the search for a spiritual identity can be
William Willimon, the dean of the Duke University Chapel, said he sees it all the time. The brightest and most active students are those
most interested in trying to fit a spiritual component to their lives. And while he has reservations about the quest for spirituality
divorced from religion, he said he preferred it to its opposite.
"I'll take the wandering and the self-revelation over the disengaged, detached unexamined life," Willimon said.
The conference, organized by the Self-Knowledge Symposium, a 13-year-old nondenominational student group started at NCSU with a $25,000
grant from the Templeton Foundation, was all about self-examination.
Though they had opportunities to hear from a Catholic monk, a Buddhist teacher, a rabbi, the majority of the conference was spent in small
groups, where students shared their innermost thoughts and tried to figure out their own paths.
In one group, a student talked about how death was forcing her to re-evaluate whether she was living life to its fullest. In the past month,
she said, her boyfriend's brother committed suicide and her grandfather was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Another student wanted to join
the Peace Corps, but said her parents were pushing her to get a business degree and work her way up the corporate ladder.
Not everyone thought baring their souls would help them find a new spiritual path, and many students firmly rooted in one faith tradition
opted out of the group discussion.
"I have found what I was looking for in what I was raised in," said Anisa Kintz, a student from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who
was raised in the Baha'i faith. "I think that's also extremely valid," she added, saying she didn't like the emphasis on conversion to a new
Indeed, scholars says, spirituality has not traditionally been something people come up with. It's something they're born into. A
spirituality cobbled together from different traditions can be vague, amorphous, generic.
"It's hard to be just spiritual," said Nasrin Al-Dawoodi, a senior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a Muslim. "How do you pull it off?
It's fluffy, superficial. Spirituality should be born out of an intensity with a certain practice."
Willimon, the dean of the Duke Chapel, said the danger of a pick-and-choose spiritual quest is that it becomes a commodity like everything
"How do you know this search is not falling into the hands of a capitalistic culture. I pick out a car. I pick out a job. I pick out a god
that suits me?" Willimon asked. "We should not be surprised that students well-schooled in consumerism see religion as something they
But for many students like Emmaleigh Petz-Ritter, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, the chance to talk to students like her
searching for spiritual truths was enough.
"It's profound to be with 200 people looking inward, looking for a path," she said. "A lot of times people are distracted. They don't look
inward. I think it's important to see that people are searching."