Religion in College: Oxymoron?

Hardcore partying, sex and alcohol are below-the-surface rudiments of a typical college life. All images of college, whether on the movie screen or described by former students, represent the free and wild side of growing up.
‘Once you go to college, you can do whatever you want’ are the words remembered by many teens anxiously waiting to leave the parental world and enter the ‘real world’ of the university.
With no supervision or limits, collegians are able to express themselves more freely. So with all this in mind, shouldn’t students become less religious or leave their faith altogether in college? While this may hold true for some students, a new study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that students who attend and graduate from college are more likely than others to hold on to their faith.
Reports from ‘Inside Higher Ed’ contradict widely-held assumptions that higher education discourages religious conviction. Who knew that where free will, controversial views and temptations flourish, religion manages to thrive as well? Scholars at Texas assert that ‘it’s not that college necessarily encourages faith, but for all the talk about how intellectuals are out to destroy students’ relationships to God and their religions, the main obstacles to such relationships have to do with maturing and how young people spend their time.’
Mark Regnerus, an assistant professor of sociology, added, ‘Some kids were bound to lose their faith anyway and they do.’
The data analyzed comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which tracked more than 10,000 Americans from adolescence through young adulthood from 1994 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2002, including students from a range of colleges and those who did not attend college at all.
Three factors of religious activity were covered: relative importance of religion to the student, attendance at religious services and disaffiliation from religion. The study showed that for those who did not attend college, there is a decline of 23.7 percent in importance of religion, 76.2 percent in attending religious services and 20.3 percent in disaffiliation from religion.
Interestingly enough, these numbers decrease as education increases. Those students who earned at least a bachelor’s degree only showed a decline of 15 percent in importance of religion, 59.2 percent in attending services and 15.0 percent in disaffiliation from religion, according to the analysis. Although the data showed that some students attend fewer religious activities, their faith still held strong compared to people who did not attend college.
Exposure to a new way of life and new ideas does lead some students to different paths or causes them to examine their religion more closely, but it also strengthens the faith of many students who turn to God and their religion during challenging times in college.
Wade Curtis, a fourth-year astrophysics major, noted that the more diverse classes he takes and the more life experiences college offers him, the stronger his faith becomes. ‘Being a physical science major and learning about the universe and vast life forms made me realize that there has to be a God to create all of this,’ he said.
Curtis is also an avid club member of one of the many Christian student groups on campus. Another student at UC Irvine said that college allows you to find yourself, which leads you to find meaning in your life and to discover your purpose. Vice president of the Muslim Student Union and third-year sociology and English double-major Marya Bangee observed that college has supplemented the ‘basic worldview of [her] religion.’ She added that, as a result of the many resources that MSU and a university education offer, she is able to see Islam in a new way and advance her faith further and more thoroughly. Club members expressed that the lectures and events MSU holds and the relevant classes UCI offers allow students to study their religion and reinforce it.
One MSU member went to an Islamic school for eight years and Catholic school for four years. She commented that this exposure to different religions helped her to gain greater insight into her own religion and to be open to all religions.
An anonymous second-year biological sciences student observed that in college ‘your eyes really open up and you focus on what’s really important as you mature, and religion is the first thing you go to.’
Students raised in spiritual homes are confronted and challenged with many distractions and temptations on campus. Author of ‘University of Destruction: Your Game Plan for Spiritual Victory on Campus,’ David Wheaton describes ‘the three Pillars of Peril’ that students face in college-sex, drugs/alcohol and humanism-and presents a game plan for ‘victory over these pitfalls based on raising your spiritual GPA.’ However, college provides the perfect opportunity to question your moral and ethical standards. The university environment, with all of its possibilities, is the place most people find who they are and choose their identities. As with discovering different political views and varying world perspectives, one’s belief system also comes into query. This inquiry of everything that higher education compels, guides students to either quit their faith, find different sources of spirituality or strengthen their religion.
As Helia Ighani, a second-year political science major and Baha’i club member puts it, there are many things that clash with her faith in college but that helps her to stay true to herself and her religion. For example, at parties she is usually the designated driver and is okay with that because she chooses not to drink.
Nevertheless, the vast array of opportunities in college can be difficult for religious students. For Naz Farahdel, a second-year psychology and social behavior major and Hillel Jewish Student Union member, it is much harder to be religious and kosher in college because there are hardly any kosher restaurants in the area. Thus, she believes that people mold together in college like a melting pot.
Campus Crusade for Christ member Tracy Jang and True Jesus Church Irvine Campus Fellowship member Kerin Husen both joined religious organizations on campus because of their curiosity, comfort with the fellowship and the enjoyment of having great friends for the rest of their time in college.
Shabnam Kalbasi, a second-year music major, believes that faith gives you a sense of direction and priority during strenuous times at college.
Going to college does not necessarily make young adults more or less religious. In the end, students must be responsible for their behavior and choices. Out of 215 student organizations at UCI, 37 are religious organizations. Intellectual engagement, involvement in numerous activities and utter freedom does not hinder faith, but in fact lets students find what is paramount to them and helps in making their own decisions.