By KELLY BURNS
School of Communication
University of Miami
The years spent as a college student are unforgettable times in a person’s life.
Students are surrounded by thousands of people of different ethnicities, economic statuses, family structures and even belief systems. Upon entering college, we expect these differences and even look forward to them, yet we aren’t always ready for the ways they impact us.
“College is the only time you will have so much access to people of different faiths,” said Joe Lortie, campus chaplain for 13 years at the University of Miami. “From the moment a student gets to campus they are surrounded by differing views.”
For students entering college, they are often confronted with viewpoints they never knew existed. For so long, youth are surrounded by the views of family and friends. Upon entering college, however, the doors open, and students finally get to question what they’ve been taught and decide for themselves what they believe.
“I remember my first day of classes, I had a religion class,” said sophomore Samantha Valdes. “I didn’t even know there were so many different ones to choose from. I know that sounds naïve, but I’d never questioned what I’d always been told was true.”
According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, in 2008, more than 200 million people consider themselves affiliated with some sort of religious group.
Yet, spirituality on a college campus is not often at the forefront of the minds of students. With classes, clubs and parties, seeking some sort of spiritual connection doesn’t always seem important.
“Statistics say that about 78 percent of students who associate themselves with some sort of religion at the beginning of their college careers no longer believe that when they graduate,” said Lortie.
While some studies show an increased interest in spirituality during the college years, a new trend shows that the opposite is happening.
“I grew up in a very spiritual family,” said Valdes. “But since being at UM, I’ve just gotten really busy.”
The United States itself was founded in part so that people could have religious freedom. Religion has at times invaded politics and the education system. Though predominately a Christian nation, the United States is still a melting pot of beliefs.
At the University of Miami, a non-sectarian school with a diverse culture of its own, spiritual life is thriving.
With more than 15 religious student organizations ranging from the Soka Buddhist Students Organization, Campus Crusade for Christ and even groups such as Secular Humanists Atheists and Agnostics for Reasoning Knowledge and Science (SHAARKS), which have no particular beliefs, students have a variety of outlets to examine their beliefs.
While there are some groups that focus solely on their desire to increase membership and are pushing for a greater campus awareness of their group, other groups such as Jews and Muslims (JAM) are striving for a sense of unity between the groups.
“Unity is all that we’re searching for,” said Rachael Golberg, secretary and treasurer of JAM. “We want to bridge the gap our ancestors created.”
JAM is a group aimed at increasing the conversation between the Jewish and Muslim population on campus. The age-long struggle stems from the Biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael.
“It’s an important part of our beliefs, but it shouldn’t interfere with our ability to work together on campus,” said Golberg.
Some of JAM’s events aimed at bridging the gap between the groups include Abraham’s Tent, a discussion between leaders in the Muslim and Jewish Community, and the first annual Hand in Hand conference that took place in fall 2010.
Unity on campus is also shown through the campus’ Christian organizations. These groups have one of the largest presences on campus with six organizations just devoted to different Christian denominations.
The largest group, Campus Crusade for Christ has about 90 active members; University Christian Fellowship has 50 members, the Catholic Student Association has 40 members, and the other Christian groups, the Wesley Foundation, the Episcopalian ministry, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship range in size from eight to 25 members.
“Sometimes I think there could be more unity. We all believe the same basic things and yet. On campus we’re so divided,” said sophomore Amanda Malueg. “Ultimately I think that’s what keeps us from making a difference.”
“At Emory (University in Atlanta), there was an inter-religious council. There was a Jain group, Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and even Christians,” said Beth Bostrom Chaplain at the Wesley Foundation “The students themselves formed the group and they met every month with representatives from each of the religious groups to help each other understand. Similar to what JAM is beginning to do,” Bostrom explained.
However, for students who don’t believe in a higher power, the fear they feel about “coming out” can be disheartening.
“It’s similar in a way to the gay community in the sense that there’s such a stigma attached to being an atheist,” said Jonathon Armstrong, a UM graduate student and president of SHAARKS. “People say things like ‘you don’t have morals’ and we want to show people that’s not true.”
The stereotypes placed on those who don’t believe in any specific religion in particular can hinder students from freely speaking out.
“While the Christian groups can express what they want, we often feel we have no way to do that,” said Armstrong. “So sometimes we’ll just get dinner, talk and discuss ideas together. It’s nice to have a group of people who believe the same thing as you.”
Throughout history, people have turned to a belief in a higher power to answer questions about the universe. Now, we have science to answer some of those questions for us. But how is it that something like religion, can still be so pervasive in all areas of life? Is it merely tradition, or are people truly still searching for a greater meaning?
“I think everyone somehow is spiritual,” said Bostrom.
“Every week, we have a table on the Rock that reads ‘free spiritual’ readings, and some weeks we’ll have students lined up to hear what we have to say,” said Lortie. “Students seem to be searching for something that shows that there’s something bigger out there. Bigger than the exams, bigger than the stress.”
Scholars are also starting to see the positive aspects of having some sort of religious belief. Dr. Michel, a religion professor at UM, conducted a study that highlighted the positive effects of religion.
“Religion can be looked at is a social force that motivates people to better themselves and society. In the study, we found that religiosity seemed to cause more self control,” McCullough said. “This can offer an explanation as to why religious people tend to have less depression, lower levels of substance abuse and less delinquency.”
The study published in the Psychological Bulletin in January 2009, has caused people to look more at not just why people tend to believe in a higher power but also the effects of it.
Some students however, think of spirituality as something much simpler.
“It’s all about love,” said Malueg. “That’s really all there is.”
For more information on spirituality on campus visit: http://www.miami.edu/index.php/student_life/spiritual_life/ for a list of religious organizations and ways to contact the leaders.