WASHINGTON - Contrary to what many think, today's college campuses are hotbeds of religiosity and prayer, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California.
A survey of 112,232 current freshmen attending 236 colleges and universities (18 percent of them connected with religions) sponsored by the institute finds 8 out of 10 say they attend religious services, believe in God, and are interested in spirituality.
The institute, based in Los Angeles, has been surveying college students for 38 years. This is the first study of the "spiritual life of college students." A follow-up study is planned in 2007 when the freshmen are juniors to see if college affects their attitudes.
"In some ways, our study has taken us by surprise. It has given me a new appreciation for college students," said Helen Astin, a co-director of the study, which was unveiled at a press conference yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington.
Calling herself a Greek Orthodox who prays but does not go to church, Ms. Astin said she was encouraged by the results. "This is a very interesting generation of college students. They are compassionate and caring."
The survey, which will be available on the Web at www.spirituality.ucla.edu, found that 80 percent said they are interested in spirituality, 76 percent said they are searching for a purpose or meaning in life, 74 percent discuss philosophy of life with friends, 81 percent said they attend religious services, 80 percent said they discuss religion or spirituality with friends, 79 percent said they believe in God, and 69 percent said they pray.
Asked what they pray about, they said they pray for loved ones, out of gratitude, for forgiveness, and for help in solving problems.
Sixty-four percent said their spirituality was a source of personal joy. But 48 percent said they also at one time or another had "felt angry with God" and 52 percent said they disagreed with their families about religious matters.
The survey started in 2003 with 3,700 students from 46 colleges and universities and was expanded last fall to the larger group of students, who answered a six-page questionnaire. It is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation and was designed to examine the "growing interest on college campuses to include spiritual development as a core component of a liberal arts education."
There seems to be no similar benchmark study that would indicate if this generation of students is remarkably different from previous generations. David Scott of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst said there are 30-year cycles of "caring" and "selfishness" in America among students. The last was in the '60s, he said. "This study shows this cycle may be a much bigger one."
Alexander Astin, who headed the survey, said religious affiliation in mainstream religions is declining while spirituality is increasing. The study differentiated spirituality from religious commitment to a particular belief. Spirituality was defined as associated with spiritual quest, an ethic of caring, a compassionate self-concept, and an ecumenical world view.
He said students broke down into two "clear-cut religious clusters" at opposite ends of the spectrum. One included religions such as Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, and "other Christians," all of whom evinced little religious skepticism but lively religious engagement. Skepticism was defined as including beliefs such as the universe arose by chance, science eventually will explain everything, and disbelief in life after death. The other cluster included Unitarians, Episcopalians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Eastern Orthodox believers, who scored high on charitable involvement but showed significantly more skepticism about religion.
Asked for their religious preference, 28 percent said they were Catholic, 17 percent said they had none, 13 percent were Baptist, 11 percent checked "other Christian," 6 percent said Methodist, 5 percent said Lutheran, 4 percent said Presbyterian, 3 percent said Church of Christ, 3 percent checked "other religion," 2 percent said Episcopalian, 2 percent said Jewish, and 1 percent or fewer checked Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Islamic, United Church of Christ, Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-day Adventist, Unitarian, and Quaker.
Students who say they are regularly engaged in religious practices, such as attending church services, are three times more likely to be politically conservative than liberal. And religious skeptics are more likely to be liberal. Those who go regularly to church are much less likely to believe that abortion should be legal, that sex out of marriage is permissible, that gays should be married, or that marijuana should be legalized. Forty-four percent of those who are highly engaged in their religions favor increased military spending, compared with 30 percent who are less involved in religious practices.
The survey's analysts said that more spiritual and religious students are physically healthier and tend to have better eating habits and do not smoke. But they reported being no more psychologically healthy than other students.
Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, issued a statement saying, "For years, educators have heard the depressing news that students' goals for college learning have become narrow and instrumental. This study shows us that students are more idealistic in their expectations of college than we have known."
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Contrary to what many think, today's college campuses are hotbeds of religiosity and prayer, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California. A survey of 112,232 current freshmen attending 236 colleges and universities sponsored by the institute finds 8 out of 10 say they attend religious services.