Religion and spirituality on the rise for current college students


Instead of giving up chocolate for Lent, Angel Zamary is attending Stations of the Cross, a… Instead of giving up chocolate for Lent, Angel Zamary is attending Stations of the Cross, a reenactment of the final hours of Jesus, at the Newman Center every Friday.

She also set one personal goal: to become a more positive person.

“I guess you could say I’m giving up negativity,” she said.

The story of a saint? Not at all. Zamary, a sophomore at Pitt, is studying Spanish and foresees a law profession in her future.

Students like Zamary are at the forefront of a trend reminiscent of the 1960s that is affecting life on college campuses across the country: religion and spirituality.

Eight in 10 students are attending religious services, discussing religion with friends and “searching for meaning and purpose in life,” researchers report. Over two-thirds of students say they pray. Being religious or spiritual, furthermore, has been found to contribute to a sense of psychological well-being.

Many American college students struggle with maintaining a healthy mind. One in five students seek personal counseling in college, and studies indicate that 61 percent of students are depressed frequently or occasionally when first starting college. The numbers only continue to rise – 77 percent of college juniors feel depressed frequently or occasionally.

Students, however, seem to feel better about themselves if they see themselves as spiritual.

In 2005, the Higher Education Research Institution at the University of California, Los Angeles, launched a major, multi-year research program to examine the spiritual development of undergraduate students during their college years. The poll of 112,232 freshmen at 236 colleges and universities shows that today’s entering college students report high levels of spiritual interest and religious involvement.

About four in five report that they attend religious services and discuss religion or spirituality with friends and family. More than three-fourths believe in God, and more than two in three say that their religious or spiritual beliefs “provide me with strength, support and guidance.”

“A positive side of belonging to an organized religion,” Paula Kane, a professor of religious studies at Pitt, said, “is the community of caring people that comes with it.”

Four in five indicate “having an interest in spirituality” and “believing in the sacredness of life,” and nearly two-thirds say that “my spirituality is a source of joy.”

“Many believe in being a good person without belonging to a religious tradition,” Kane said. “They follow the ethical standards for living as a human being instead of following a religious group.”

According to Kane, a spiritual experience gives a person a sense of the limits of religion. Spiritual people usually see other people and their spiritual paths as equally important.

Kane has observed a tendency toward the spiritual, not the religious, experience. And American polls are charting a decline in church membership and a growth in spiritual involvement.

“Religion can give a person reason, purpose and direction,” Steve Haasch said, sitting next to his wife Ginny at a table in Schenly Cafe at the William Pitt Union.

The Haaschs are both 64 years old and missionaries with Campus Light Ministries, and Steve Haasch is a chaplain with the University of Pittsburgh Association of Chaplains.

Almost every Wednesday from 12 to 2 p.m., the Haasches’ sit at a table adorned with a blue tablecloth, pamphlets and Hershey’s mini chocolate bars. On a yellow piece of paper in boldface print is the question “Is religion a fire escape?” Placed beside it is a piece of paper lined with numbered spaces for students to write their responses.

“The question has been controversial today,” Steve Haaschs said.

The majority of the 30 students who responded said no. One student wrote, “Goes both ways – escape from bad stuff and good stuff.” Another wrote, “Yes,” crossed it out, then wrote, “No, not at all because it provides no actual solution.”

Billy Jones, a sophomore, stopped to talk to the Haaschses.

“I’m taking this class, and I’m learning that religion is really a cop-out,” he said. “It’s all about money and consumerism.”

“Have you read the New Testament?” Haaschs said after he offered the student a CD of the New Testament that contains an MP3 version of the book.

“If you listen for 20 minutes a day, it will give you an idea as to what is and what is not true.”

“I mean, my dad is a born-again Christian, but I, I don’t know. I guess I’ll take it,” Jones said. He picked up a piece of chocolate and walked away with the CD.

The college years are a time for experimenting. Away from parents and no longer obliged to follow a certain religion, students have the room to question: Do I want to experience more or different religions? Do I want to strengthen my current religious beliefs? Do I want to rebel?

“The American college experience provides students with four years to question everything, to determine values, ethics and religious beliefs,” said Sahar Oz, the assistant director of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.

At public universities like Pitt, where students are from all over the world, are from every race and speak over 100 languages, students have the opportunity to open their eyes to explore and to test themselves.

“Not just Hillel but other ethnic and religious groups also help students to define themselves,” Oz said.

When Zamary came to Pitt as a freshman, she made a decision to continue practicing Catholicism.

“It wasn’t until college that I appreciated my religious practices,” she said. “Religion used to be a routine for me. I went to church every Sunday with my family. Now it offers me stability and makes me feel connected.”

Most of her friends, she concludes, are spiritual people.

“I like to be around positive, up-beat people. And it’s not to say that only spiritual people are positive and up-beat,” she said. “I’ve always been an independent person and now I’m doing my own thing. I need time to be on my own two feet, to make my own decisions.”