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

3. College Campuses: “Religious Desert” or “Spiritual Bazaar”?

Muslim Harvard University students
participate in a candle light peace vigil
Photo: William B. Plowman  

Religious Diversity on Campus

To some, it was the end of an era. In December 2006 Gene R. Nichol, the president of the College of William and Mary, a small public university in Virginia, ordered the removal of a gold altar cross from permanent display in the campus chapel.

Critics called the move, at America’s second-oldest university, a rejection of over 300 years of history and tradition. A petition protesting the decision called it “an example of an animus toward religion in general and Christianity in particular.”

But to others, it was the only reasonable move to make. On a campus that now hosts a multicultural and multi-faith student body, the “experience of the chapel is not the same for all of us,” wrote Nichol in a public letter defending his decision.  

It’s just one example of the profound changes taking place in the relationship between religion and college campuses. According to Conrad Cherry, Betty DeBerg, and Amanda Porterfield, such change is an example of the “protean flexibility” of American religion. Campus religion needs to “assume new shapes as social and cultural conditions change.”

The role of organized religion on American campuses has typically been defined according to a “secularization narrative” – the idea that higher education poses a threat to religious faith. But as Schmalzbauer suggests, religion is not disappearing on campus. Rather it has undergone an important transformation. The Protestant denominational ministries that dominated the campus landscape in the 1950s and 1960s now share space with a host of new and creative religious organizations that cater to the diverse profile of today’s students.

In addition to the growing presence of evangelical parachurch groups like Campus Crusadethe Navigators, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Catholic and Jewish campus ministries are increasingly popular.  Muslim  and Hindu student groups have mushroomed, as have informal religious spaces for students like Chabad housesSchmalzbauer has also documented the rise of alternative religious groups – from Mormons to Wiccans. “A webpage on ‘Student Pagan Organizations’ lists groups on 113 campuses,” he says.

As Professor Diane Winston points out, this diversity means that students searching for new ways to look at the world have a wealth of options to choose from. “Because college campuses bring together such a wide variety of people, when college students probe for meaning, their conversational partners are as likely to be Jains as Jews, Muslims as Methodists,” she wrote in a 1998 editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Instead of seeing American society as undergoing a process of “secularization,” she says, we might do well to consider the term “diffusion,” which better describes “the scattering of religious ideas, beliefs and behaviors” across not only college campuses but all areas of public life.

Following this demographic “diffusion,” contemporary researchers note that overall college campuses have become increasingly respectful and tolerant of religious diversity. In a 2006 study of NYU students,  90% expressed the opinion that NYU is supportive of “diverse religious groups,” 87% feel “comfortable expressing their religious views on campus,” and 86% agree that “there is more than one religious path.” Bryant  found that Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish freshmen displayed a high degree of security and stability in terms of their religious beliefs and identities.

One ethnographic study  of four college campuses – including a secular state school – concluded, “We found religion on the four campuses sufficiently vital and inviting to make us wonder if it had ever been more so in the past…[T]he ethos of decentered, diverse, religiously tolerant institutions of higher education is a breeding ground for vital religious practice and teaching.”

Other studies are less positive. The few studies that have looked at the growth of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism on campus report that tensions still exist. Some scholars note that Muslim students have trouble trying to find safe spaces to pray during college. Prema Kurien’s forum essay  describes the challenges of setting up a Hindu organization on college campuses.

Whether an upswing in religious life on campus suggests an increased degree of tolerance, or merely greater visibility on campus by a more diverse student population, what these findings indicate are that more and more attention is being paid to the diverse religious lives of students on campus.

Other factors that might influence participation – such as the availability of funding for these organizations, or the use of emails, blogs and listservs, which make it easier than ever to organize religious and other groups – remain to be investigated in order to understand the connection between higher education and a vibrant, diverse and tolerant religious life.

There is one way to keep things in perspective, however. As Regnerus and Uecker  note:

“College campuses are less hostile to organized religious expression and its retention than are other contexts encountered by emerging adults, such as the workplace.”

Further Reading:

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Bryant, A. N. 2006. “Assessing the Gender Climate of an Evangelical Student Subculture in the United States.” Gender and Education 18(6): 613-634.

Cawthon, T. W. and C. Jones. 2004. “A Description of Tradition and Contemporary Campus Ministries.” College Student Affairs Journal 23(2): 158-172.

Cherry, C. and B. A. DeBerg, et al. 2001. Religion on Campus: What Religion Really Means to Today’s Undergraduates. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Jaschik, S. 2006. “The ‘Great Divide’ in Religious Studies.” Inside Higher Ed. 20 November 2006. (Available online:

Kim, R. Y. 2004. “Second-Generation Korean American Evangelicals: Ethnic, Multiethnic, or White Campus Ministries?” Sociology of Religion 65(1):19-34.

Kim, R. Y. 2006. God’s New Whiz Kids? Korean American Evangelicals on Campus. New York: NYU Press.

Lee, J. and A. Matzken, et al. 2006. “Understanding Students’ Religious and Spiritual Pursuits: A Case Study at New York University.” Journal of College and Character 2.

Mahoney, K. A. and J. Schmalzbauer, et al. 2001. “Religion: A Comeback on Campus.” Liberal Education 87(4): 36-41.

Marsden, G. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

McMurtrie, B. 1999. “Pluralism and Prayer Under One Roof.” Chronicle of Higher Education 46(15): A48-A50.

Nash, R. J. 2001. Religious Pluralism in the Academy: Opening the Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang.

Nasir, N. i. S. and J. Al-Amin. 2006. “Creating Identity-Safe Spaces on College Campuses for Muslim Students.” Change 38(2): 22-27.

Pascarella, E. T. and P. T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reisberg, L. 2000. “Campus Witches May Wear Black, But Don’t Look for Hats or Broomsticks.” Chronicle of Higher Education 47(8): A49-A50.

Riley, N. S. 2004. God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sloan, D. 1994. Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and Higher Education. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.

Smith, C., ed. 2003. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Swidey, N. 2003. “God on the Quad.” Boston Globe 30 November 2003.

Wuthnow, R. 1998. After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California, Berkeley.