Campuses Are a Bellwether for Society's Religious Revival


While conducting research for a project on work and spirituality, I asked a recent college graduate what her religious preference was. "Methodist, Taoist, Native American, Quaker, Russian Orthodox, and Jew," she answered with an easy laugh.

Her list sounds contradictory, even confusing, but she is faithful in her own fashion. She works for world peace, practices yoga and meditation, attends a Methodist church, regularly participates in American Indian ceremonies, and shares a group house with others who combine various spiritual practices.

As Americans become more racially and ethnically diverse -- and more comfortable with cultural expressions of diversity -- our understanding of religious pluralism is changing, too. More than 30 years after the easing of immigration laws, the class lists at our elementary schools read less like the ship's manifest at Plymouth Rock and more like the roster at the United Nations. Learning, working, and, increasingly, living together, Americans of different faiths bump into beliefs and behaviors that once seemed unusual, even exotic.

Intriguingly, the growth of religious diversity in our society is paralleled by an increased diversity within individual religious practices. While some observers debate the value of the kind of eclecticism my young respondent described, it does exist, especially among undergraduates. The question facing educators and religious professionals is whether we can accept those new syntheses as valid expressions of religious diversity, or will dismiss them as "cotton candy" spirituality.

In a culture whose ecclesiastic traditions prize creed, consistency, and communal loyalty, the typical student's lodestar -- personal resonance -- seems an irritating self-indulgence. As grownups -- parents, faculty members, or religious professionals -- we are tempted to ignore or impugn what looks like misguided behavior. Dissed, then dismissed, the young Methodist-Taoist-Native American-Quaker-Russian Orthodox-Jew is deemed either overly idealistic or misguided.

The issue is particularly relevant for those working in higher education, because our campuses define the leading edge in this phenomenon as in many other cultural trends. Religion -- or, in the more popular term, "spirituality" -- is thriving among undergraduates, as it is in the country at large. But because college campuses bring together such a wide variety of people, when college students probe for meaning, their conversational partners are as likely to be Jains as Jews, Muslims as Methodists. Judging from U.S. Census statistics, in 10 or 20 years, people in all areas of American society will be in frequent contact with members of many different faiths. The blending of beliefs, mythologies, and practices from varying traditions is likely to become even more commonplace than it is now.

A team of researchers at Indiana University is exploring just how widespread such eclectic practices are, by studying religious expression at a state university, a small liberal-arts college, a historically black college, and a Catholic university. Conrad Cherry, a professor of religious studies and the head of the project, told participants in a conference last year at Princeton University that he and his colleagues have discovered a nascent religious revival.

According to Cherry, undergraduates at all four institutions are interested in spiritual growth and experience. Some follow well-defined religious practices, while others combine teachings from one tradition or even from different faiths. At the Catholic institution, masses are well attended, and at the historically black college, Sunday services draw on both the stately and the ecstatic strains of the black church. Some undergraduates develop their own eclectic systems, or, like the self-described "Jewboos" -- Jews who practice Buddhist meditation -- follow one that already exists. Students are taking courses about religion, participating in religiously oriented extracurricular activities, and acting on their faith by volunteering for community service.

While college chaplains have noticed the explosion of new religious forms, few scholars have considered how demographic changes in the culture at large are affecting religious life at colleges and universities. Helen Rose Ebaugh, a sociologist at the University of Houston, has paid attention. Describing her current research on diversity to conference participants, she said that in 1980, her campus was 80 per cent Anglo, but that by 1995, the figure had dropped to 61 per cent. This year, she said, the student body of 33,000 has a majority of minority students, including Hispanics, blacks, and Asians.

At the same time, religious options on the Houston campus have exploded. As at other universities elsewhere, students can find others with whom to practice Baha'i, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, or Zoroastrianism. There are groups of students practicing rituals of American Indian, Wiccan, or Druid traditions -- attending sweat lodges, celebrating lunar cycles -- while others practice variations of ethnic Christianity that divide not only along denominational lines but along regional ones as well.

For most faculty members and administrators, grappling with religious differences -- whether the "otherness" of non-Western religions or the eclecticism of young seekers -- is difficult. As a rule, Americans don't like talking about religion. Religious conviction, even more than sex, is a taboo subject. Our discomfort results, in part, from an attenuated notion of religious tolerance. We support people's freedom to do and believe whatever they want -- until that freedom intrudes on the rights of others.

But in a complex, interconnected world, what constitutes intrusion? Are evangelicals intruding when they proselytize in the student union? Are Muslims and Orthodox Jews intruding when they ask the cafeteria to accommodate their dietary requirements? Are Wiccans intruding when they hold a midnight ceremony on the dormitory lawn?

And, most provocatively, is a Methodist-Taoist-Native American-Quaker-Russian Orthodox-Jew intruding on our notion of appropriate religiosity?

Those are the questions that confront us as we consider how our campuses -- and our society -- will cope with religious differences as those differences multiply in the future. The challenge of multiple, competing religious absolutes is the Gordian knot of the next century. As the United States grows more diverse, questions that have always challenged us will become unavoidable: How do we live with and learn from people who think, believe, and behave differently from us? How do we teach our children to respect such differences?

We can start with our words. We no longer live in a Christian nation, or even a Judeo-Christian one. As The New York Times Magazine reported in December, the United States is now home to 800,000 Hindus (compared with 70,000 in 1977) and to as many Muslims as Presbyterians. The numbers of Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Eastern Orthodox, and Baha'i in this country are also increasing. But our conceptual framework has not kept up with our lived experience. Protestant, Catholic, Jew -- the American trinity posited by the sociologist Will Herberg in the 1950s -- still defines the way most Americans think about religious diversity.

Scholars of religion also ought to renounce language that demeans religious difference. "Syncretism," a term for the intermingling of different beliefs and practices, is frequently applied to third-world religions. But many Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Asians who are described as practitioners of syncretism complain that the word has a distinctly negative cast: After all, it is rarely used to define Christianity, even though that religion combines elements of Judaism and paganism with its own teachings. At best, the term "syncretism" trivializes non-Western religious experiences; at worst, it demonizes them.

"Cafeteria-style" religion, the contemporary appellation for the borrowing of symbols and practices in Western traditions -- for example, Jews putting up Christmas trees -- is equally derogatory. It smacks of the marketplace, suggesting a spiritual path constructed from whimsical picking and choosing.

Why bother with semantics? Because the ways in which the next generation of citizens sees the world and their place in it is being shaped in today's college classrooms, conversations, and extracurricular activities. Suggesting how scholars might use language without subtly derogatory connotations, several participants at the Princeton conference introduced the term "trans-religiosity" as a neutral, if somewhat cumbersome, description of distinctive but conjoined spiritual beliefs and ritual practices. Trans-religiosity, a term used by African scholars, refers to an individual's participation in different traditions without feeling any contradictions.

In addition to weighing their words, educators also should be mindful of the frames of reference, or narrative conventions, they use in the classroom. Until recently, historians of American religion organized their stories according to a model that assumed the decreasing importance of religion in the nation's life. Now, a new generation of scholars has challenged that assumption, arguing that Protestant Christianity's privileged status in the culture has given way to a vibrant cacophony of voices. Likewise, the exclusion of religion from public life, which sociologists have called "secularization," does not accurately describe the place of religion in society in the late 20th century. "Diffusion" may be a better term, signaling the scattering of religious ideas, beliefs, and behaviors in arenas ranging from medicine (for example, medical-school courses on spirituality and health) to computing (the magazine Christian Computing) to cyberspace (chat rooms and Web sites devoted to religious topics).

Professors also can encourage students to talk about their beliefs and backgrounds when those are relevant to a discussion. Religious diversity may spark conversation not just in religion classrooms, but also in courses in literature, history, anthropology, sociology, journalism, and area studies.

Like the sexual revolution that swept through campuses beginning in the late 1960s, the current religious revival won't be stopped by clucking tongues and disapproving glances. It won't disappear even if we ignore it. Now, as in the past, young people are exploring new ways of believing and behaving in their search for a richer, more meaningful way of being in the world. Rather than dismiss their attempts, we should try to learn along with them.

Diane Winston is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University.

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 01/16/98
Section: Opinion
Page: A60

Page last revised 080499