Religion in College

Let me state my bias. I am a recent graduate of Birmingham-Southern College who majored in history and minored in religion. I was religious in college, definitely reforming my beliefs. I work full time as an Associate Youth Minister. I questioned almost everything that I believed in college but came to realize that religion for me isn’t just reading scripture or attending church. College made me really understand what I believed and why I do what I do. It also gave me the opportunity to study religion academically, which questioned my beliefs and strengthened them as time went on.

College brings freedom. No longer do mothers or fathers nag their children to wake up early on a Sunday morning to go sit in a pew. Youth groups are things of the past, and there is no expectation of church attendance. College requires you to prioritize your time, often to the minute. When you have an 8 a.m. and then a 12:30, a nap sounds much better than reading the Bible. And odds are, you don’t set your alarm to wake up any earlier than you have to for that 8 a.m. If you don’t make the time for it, religion becomes much less important.

A study by the University of Michigan found that social sciences and humanities majors often have the largest change in faith. The humanities involve a lot of introspection and exploring of abstract ideas, things that we aren’t entirely sure about and can be understood in so many different ways," says Erin Penny, an English major at Emory University. "This causes us to question what we truly believe and how to reconcile it with all the new truths we find in our work.”

Rachel Davis attended Flagler College, located in St. Augustine, Florida and majored in Religion and Philosophy. She says that she understood where people came from with this study, but that she thinks that college allows for self-examination leading to strengthening of religion, not necessarily removal. Studying the humanities warrants introspection and may turn to a removal of religion, but can also reaffirm beliefs in a stronger, more academic manner.

Other majors did not seem to have a problem reconciling religion with their majors. Education majors in this study remained religious throughout college and often enhanced their prior religious beliefs by the time that they graduated. Hailey Morris was an education major, and she attributes the lack of change to the fact that religion just was not brought up or discussed in her primarily education and psychology classes. Business majors were the middle ground since they had such a broad reach of students. General science majors leave college about as regular on attendance to religious services as they were when they came in, but physical science students understand religion’s importance less as time goes on.

Megan Smith, who majored in Mathematics at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, disagreed with the study.“I think that all areas of study can can equally change in faith. Because the harder sciences point to God in so many ways, and are the literal basis of all softer sciences, I think that presents an even greater opportunity for larger changes in faith,” she says. Religion clearly changes in college, and no matter the major, questions can and will occur when academics and religion collide. These discussions can lead to re-examining previously held beliefs, resulting in either a re-strengthening or questioning of religion itself.

Questioning religion is not always a college problem. Erin identified as agnostic going to college. She attended an extremely religious high school and went into college with cynicism of religion in general, but found that college actually made her more apt to accept others’ beliefs.

Audrey Alexander, a senior at Birmingham-Southern College, says her religious view was "a gradual lessening of being religious through out high school, but I feel like I kinda knew where I stood by college.” It was not Audrey’s biology major or Erin’s English degree that changed it all for them – instead they just confirmed in college what they knew about themselves throughout school. Changing religion in college is not new. In The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1978, a study was performed examining religiosity in college students. It found that the one aspect that remained consistent was that seniors in college were less likely to attend weekly church services than their first-year counterparts. Organized religion fell as students grew in school.

You can remain religious in college, but it does take effort. Davis worshipped with groups on campus including small groups and club activities in addition to working with youth ministries during her junior and senior years. In Rachel’s experience, going to college meant leaving behind many of the groups that strengthened her religion, whether that was a church youth group or family attendance at religious services. College is something new, and without the community to continually push religion, it can fall to the backburner. 

Megan Smith found that her religion morphed in college but did not go away – instead, college allowed her to accept testing her own religion. She also found that even though she attended a Christian university, there were so many disagreements and different beliefs even within Christianity. It was not easier to remain faithful just because of a Christian college; instead, it became smaller details that would be questioned in addition to big picture discussions.

Hailey Morris was not a part of a religious group on campus, but did her final project for the honors program on the Western Wall. She brought both her religion – Judaism – and passion for women’s rights together, strengthening her faith and academic background. She remained part of a strong religious minority on campus, since most of her college was Christian, but said that was not hard. “I do think I have become more involved in Judaism…and I believe that was because of my friendship with Saul and having him bring me to Chabad and Dr. Jacobs inviting me to her house and encouraging me to complete my honors project with Judaism in mind,” she's says. 

“My faith was not threatened, but rather tested and forced to be a bit more creative in its expression for others.” - Rachel Davis

Religion is what you make it in college. You can attend weekly services, read theological books, and be in small groups. Or you can eat another pizza and fall asleep. The choice is up to you. But fret not – religion is always there if you need it, whether it’s in a dorm room or after you receive that prized diploma. Do what’s best for you.

Feature photo: Todd Quakenbush/ VIA Unsplash.