See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates



By SSRC President Craig Calhoun 

By now, most college professors have noticed that there is renewed religious engagement among American undergraduates. Or at least they have heard this in the media. Fewer are in active conversations with students about matters of religion. Fewer still have a nuanced understanding of the patterns of their students’ religious participation and exploration.

One reason for this is that much of the religious engagement on American campuses takes place outside the classroom. At the same time, the extent to which professors are engaged with students’ extracurricular lives has declined with the increasing scale of universities, the emphasis on research productivity, and the growth in numbers of non-faculty advisors and other student services professionals. This means that many professors have little first-hand knowledge of the context of their students’ religious or spiritual lives. If they stop to consider these at all, moreover, they are likely to do so on the basis of the memory of their own student days or projection based on what they’ve seen in the media.

Memory can be specifically misleading. As the essays in our forum inform us, the proportionate role of mainline Protestant denominations in campus religious life has declined in recent years. While there are still campus Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, growth has been mostly among Baptists and Catholics and members of other faith communities – from Buddhists to Muslims to observant Jews. What’s more, campus religious life is less denominationally organized. “Parachurch” organizations like the Campus Christian Fellowship play very large roles. These may or may not be formally recognized affiliates of specific campuses; they usually are not organized under chaplaincies. But they are centers of religious engagement – and importantly, this is often intellectual engagement. Students in these organizations discuss how to interpret the content of their courses – often without the knowledge of their instructors – as well as how to understand the big issues of the day. And – contrary to stereotypes – this is an active part of life at schools like Princeton, not just at less elite and more explicitly religious institutions.

Another reason why college faculty – and many others – are less well informed than they might be about the religious engagements of undergraduates is a widespread but misleading interpretation of “secularization.” Sometimes referred to as the “secularization hypothesis” – though many intellectuals have thought of it as something closer to established fact – this is the notion that it is more or less inevitable that religion will recede in importance throughout modernity – and that scientific and scholarly institutions like the university should lead the way. In fact, this forecast has been inaccurate. This doesn’t mean there hasn’t been dramatic change. If by “secularization” we mean that people of faith live in a world where much of public life is organized with little reference to religious faith, then there has been secularization. If we mean that science and technology shape modern society in profound ways and are either disconnected from religious understandings of the world or treated as part of a separate sphere where knowledge rests on different bases, then indeed there has been secularization. But if we mean that there has been a simple decline of religious faith or engagement; if we mean that most people are content with not asking questions of the sort traditionally considered  “religious”; then we are wrong.1 Religious practice declined most precipitously in Western Europe, but even there not evenly and not necessarily permanently. But the United States remained a country of substantial religious engagement – and around the world, becoming modern has not necessarily meant becoming irreligious. Indeed, social scientists have been challenging the secularization hypothesis for years, though it lingers on in the broader intellectual imagination.

A third reason for lack of attention to students’ religious engagements, though, is the actual secularism of significant parts of the academy. By this I mean not necessarily unbelief – which is more widespread than in the general population but less widespread than many academics think. I mean also the division of religious questions from those of science, social science, most professional fields, and even much work in the humanities. The widespread notion that religion is a private rather than a public matter has had an important shaping influence on the academy. It is not just that most faculty members believe professors should avoid bringing their own religious views into the classroom (and certainly should not make them normative); it is that most faculty members move in networks in which religious questions are seldom raised – whether in discussions of institutional organization, public affairs, or their own research. Simply put, they don’t get much practice thinking about religion.

To borrow a phrase from George Marsden’s classic, The Soul of the University, American academia has moved “from Protestant establishment to established nonbelief.”2  In the late 19th century, the attempt to distinguish social science from the more “value-centered” and less scientific humanities shaped the division of faculties we now inherit.3  While religiously motivated engagements in social reform remained prominent through the early 20th century, they were increasingly separated from the “scientific” cores of the different disciplines. During the second half of the 20th century, many American colleges and universities that were founded as religious institutions distanced themselves from this aspect of their heritage. Inside intellectual discussions, a kind of scientific naturalism reigned.

Questions about religion were compartmentalized in most disciplines; although interest has ebbed and flowed, in most cases this contributed to their marginalization. Political scientists may study religious affiliation as a factor explaining voting behavior, thus, but few are clear about the enormous influence of religious thinkers on the development of political theory. There has been a scramble in fields like international relations to find a way to think about the role of religion after generations of “realist” assumptions about the secular character and interests of states. Sociologists of religion address what goes on inside a specific domain defined as religion – church attendance or charity or fights over homosexuality – but sociologists in general do not challenge a compartmentalized understanding of modern social life that implies that religion has its own place but (normally) little influence on the nature of society itself. This situation may be changing: many new inquiries are underway and some challenge the idea of a “differentiation of spheres” in which, for example, religion and public reason are separated.

Renewed attention to religion has been driven largely by the extent to which it has assumed manifest importance in public life. Debates over evolution and creation have escaped the control of “legitimate” science. Questions about Islam have escaped the boundaries of “Islamic societies” in the Middle East or Asia and thus of the scholarly communities once focused on them. Evangelical Christians have become a prominent public influence in America – as religious nationalism has been prominent elsewhere. The growth of Christianity outside the West is exerting a profound change on Christianity in the West. But amid all these questions about the larger public sphere, attention must also be paid to the religious engagements of students. Professors need to understand their students better, and students are important parts of the reality social science seeks more generally to understand.

This online forum seeks to provide a better basis for understanding the religious engagements of contemporary undergraduates. It is intended first and foremost for college teachers, but also for all those working to strengthen the educational experience of American students. The contributions by leading scholars to this site are based both on research to identify trends and on the thinking of their various authors about how to understand patterns and issues. Of course social science research tells only part of the story – and this is all the more true because there hasn’t been nearly enough research on this topic. There are, for example, surveys that gather data about substantial samples of undergraduates nationally, but it is hard to connect these patterns to individual campuses – neither Princeton nor Penn State, Calvin College nor Carleton is simply average. Moreover, these surveys don’t ask as many of the basic questions about faith and approaches to life as we would wish.4  Likewise, there are local and in-depth studies of particular groups of religiously active students – many by contributors to this forum – but while the number is expanding rapidly it is still small.

What we have done is bring together a number of  essays that discuss different aspects of the religious engagements of American undergraduates based on the best data now available. We have also invited our contributors to discuss some of the ways in which the data are imperfect and where new research may be important. In addition, we have created an online guide, which summarizes key elements of the debates in an accessible style. This guide also contains an extended annotated bibliography to help readers pursue their understanding of the current thinking on these topics. The forum is necessarily incomplete, as our knowledge is; we intend it also to spur new research. New essays will be added to the forum over the next several months. We hope this can be an immediate service to those seeking a better understanding of the religious engagements of undergraduates, and a longer term service to social scientists who seek a better understanding of the place of religion in contemporary social life.


1   Indeed, as Jose Casanova has shown, even the notion that religion remained focused in the private sphere is misleading. See Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). There is a vast literature on secularism and secularization with emphases ranging from the accounting of specifically religious activities, to analyzing different regimes for achieving political neutrality toward religions, to seeking to understand world views. For one important new statement – with references to the existing literature and an attempt to refocus it – see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). Some time ago, Robert Wuthnow helpfully suggested that rather than thinking in terms of secularization, we think about the “restructuring” of religion and its relationship to American life; see The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Somewhat similarly, the French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger has written of the “recomposition” of religion. See La religion en miettes ou la question des sectes (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1999).

2 George Marsden, The Soul of the University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

3 See Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

4 This is changing with renewed attention to religion. See, for example, Sherry L. Hoppe and Bruce W. Speck, eds., Spirituality in Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).