A Question of Faith

Religion and higher education. We have a weird, frightened, tenuous relationship with religion at secular institutions of higher education.

This topic has been floating around in my head for a while but has most recently been brought to the fore by this week’s book club co-sponsored by @The_SA_Blog and @CronkNews. For the summer #SAChat book club, I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. Roose transferred to Liberty University for a semester while an undergrad at Brown and, after maintaining an “undercover” persona while there, wrote a book about it. It’s a pretty interesting tale of student development, cultural understanding, and growth. It’s also a fascinating read if you don’t know much about Evangelical Christianity, which at present, is the most popular form of organized religion in the U.S. (in a recent Pew Survey, it ekes out Catholicism by a little over 2%, accounting for 26.3% of adults.

There has been a renewed discussion within Student Affairs on examining spirituality and religion in the context of our work, even at secular institutions, as faith and spirituality are rather important for many students. However, I don’t think I am alone in saying that at secular institutions, we are still a little afraid of religion. Now, I am not the most spiritual of folks out there. However, raised in the Episcopal tradition and a professed atheist since my teen years, I have a pretty keen understanding of faith, community, spirituality, and identity pertaining to those issues. I’m rather wary of the spiritual development models that I learned about in grad school (Fowler, I’m looking at you), mostly because they were Christian-centric and did not allow for conversion or non-affiliation with faith.

But I feel strongly that spiritual development is very important in that it encompasses a variety of moral, cognitive, interpersonal, and personal elements that challenge many students. As an individual, I have a set of beliefs that are obviously at odds with just about every organized religion out there; in fact, I’m part of 1.6% of American adults who identify as atheists (and I would wager that there is some serious variety of thinking within that group). So I know that when I am working with a student, I am almost guaranteed to have a different belief system (in terms of faith and religion) than they do. This thought rang clear for me while reading The Unlikely Disciple because one of the central tenets of Liberty University is that everyone has approximately the same religious belief system.

My main concern in thinking about spirituality and Student Affairs is to what extent are we marginalizing students based on their beliefs through an apprehension to engage in matters of faith?

I haven’t done any  first-hand research on this topic,  so I can’t authoritatively speak to the attitudes of SA professionals at secular and public institutions regarding conversations and experiences about faith, but I think this is an important area to think about. There are many questions that I think we should consider with regard to this topic:

  • Are we comfortable engaging with students about their faith?
  • Are we comfortable talking about what they believe, why they believe it, and what that means in their lives?
  • Are we comfortable having these conversations with our colleagues and peers?
  • Do we understand the legal role of religion in public higher education and are we able to apply the concepts of freedom of religion holistically without creating an environment of fear of religion?
  • Are we stewards of our own faith and spirituality in such a way that allows for open dialogue, sharing, and interfaith collaboration?

Throughout the course of human history, innumerable wars have been waged over religious beliefs (mostly associated with money, power, greed, and land, but religion was involved). But public opinion shows that most Americans today don’t believe that it’s “my way or the highway (to hell)” concerning their religious beliefs. 70% of affiliated Americans believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and 68% believe that there are multiple ways to interpret the teachings of their religion (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). This means that most people are probably fairly open to having collaborative, constructive conversations about faith without writing off everyone else in the room. And we should have these conversations, because religious activity can have very close ties to community service, social justice, community, identity,  a sense of belonging and other positive outcomes that are central to the the goals of our work in Student Affairs.

Weigh in on the conversation here:

2 thoughts on “A Question of Faith

  1. I selected number 3, but then again I am a Chaplain at a private University. Not a Christian Chaplain, I’m the Pagan Chaplain and I find that spirituality and religion (not necessarily one in the same) are truly important to students of multiple faiths. The key for professionals is to understand that if a student trusts you they will eventually talk to you about how it fits into their life, what conflicts they have with it (or not), and that they are just looking for someone to listen. Allowing them to explore without the “threat” of conversion, dogma or punishment is key. Listening is easy, feeling that someone thought highly enough of you to listen to you lasts a life time.

    1. Mary, thank you for reading and for sharing your experience. I love what you said about listening; it’s so true that we must be open to allow that non-judgmental space for students to determine what they need or want to share or discuss.

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