Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Religion and God on campus

Apr 21, 2011

It can be difficult for college students to find a place for religion or spirituality -- or even just quiet reflective time -- in their busy schedules. Juniors are much less likely to regularly attend religious services than freshmen, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, but they still report being spiritual.

What does that mean? What role does college play in a student's religious, spiritual and emotional development? And -- more practically -- at what point should randomly matched roommates swap details about their religious beliefs?

I will be discussing religion and spirituality on Thursday at 1 p.m. with Elizabeth Tenety, the editor of the Post's On Faith section, and Bill McGarvey, co-author of "The Freshman Survival Guide."

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Hello and happy Thursday!

We are now in the midst of Passover and Holy Week -- so I figured it was a good time to chat about religion and spirituality on campus.

Here to help me answer all of your questions are Elizabeth Tenety of the Post's On Faith and Bill McGarvey, the author of "The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful advice for studying, socializing, and everything in between."

Okay -- let's get to those questions!

Hi, this is Bill McGarvey, author of the Freshman Survival Gude: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing and Everything In Between. The book is holistic in that it looks at college life through all the usual practical lenses (roommates, studying, alcohol, sex/dating etc) but it also draws very heavily in every chapter from the voices of campus ministers from every major denomination talking about the college experience from the angle of religion/spirit in addition to the mind and body.

I look forward to chatting with Jenna, Liz and the Post's online readers.

Elizabeth Tenety, editor of On Faith (the Post's religion website) here. One organization I want to be sure to mention today is Interfaith Youth Core, led by On Faith blogger Eboo Patel. They are doing some great work nationwide when it comes to living your faith --and engaging with others --on campus.

Our roommate is convinced he will float upwards, and outwards, past the stars and galaxies, and ultimately arrive at a place called heaven. Until that wonderful day happens, he climbs in his pickup with glasspacks on every exhaust pipe it has, and wakes up everyone, every Sunday morning on his way to church. I have no idea. He wants to teach history. This cannot be a good thing. Should I talk with someone at school who is empowered with the ability to intervene?

maybe you should ask him to look into the history of effective mufflers and common courtesy? ;o) Yes, you should bring it up to the proper folks on campus and ask them to deal with it, if he won't listen to you privately.

When I was in college way back in the late 70s, the school I attended had a JCC and an Orthodox shu nearby even though I'm a Conservative Jew. Moreover, the school's president at the time was also Jewish. When I was a freshman, I attended Yom Kippur services at a large buiding rented by the local Jewish community for that purpose. Later, when I was either a junior or senior (I don't remember which), the president extended an offer to all Jewish students to come to his home for Breaking the Fast on Yom Kippur--I attended services at the Orthodox shul, and then went to the fellow's home for the Break the Fast meal, during which I met his family. But mainly though, I didn't really observe my faith while in college--it's hard to do when you're studying and involved with lots of student government activities.

Thanks for sharing your experiences! It is tough for college students to make time for a lot of things in college (including sleep) -- but sometimes all they need is an invitation from a friend or even, in your case, the president.

Community service seems to be all the rage these days, with record numbers of college students donating their time and talents. How are campus religious groups involved with these efforts? Do you have any examples of really cool programs?

Nearly every campus I've visited or dealt with in my research had incredible resources for service either in an ongoing, local way or through more intensive service programs "alternative spring breaks" that take students to areas hard hit by poverty or natural disasters etc. I've visited relatively small schools (5000 students) who have close to 1000 undergrads volunteering to go on week-long service trips during the year and even several week trips. The ones I've dealt with are generally done through some campus ministry program--though not exclusively. My sense is that for this generation, beyond dogma, doctrine etc...service is a language they understand, and though they might not think of it explicitly it is a religious/spiritual moment for them. The best programs usually incorporate an element of reflection to the service, so students can process their experiences through a broader lens of their own lives/values. These can often be incredibly powerful experiences.

I'd also add that the model of Eboo Patel's Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) is to unite diverse faith groups on campus around a single service project, such as Habitat for Humanity. Once these religious groups have worked together for a social action project, IFYC's Dan Pawlus told me, interfaith dialog happens 'organically.'

A couple years ago, Post reporter William Wan wrote an article about the "Religious Views" prompt on Facebook. At the time, about 150 million of Facebook's 250 million users wrote something in that box. But doing so is no easy task, as he reported:


Such public proclamations of beliefs used to require a baptism in water, or a circumcision, or learning the five pillars of Islam. Now Facebook users announce their spiritual identity with the stroke of a few keys. And what they are typing into the open-ended box offers a revealing peek into modern faith and what happens to that faith as it migrates online.

I am curious to hear your thoughts about the religious views box. Do you leave it blank? Do you put in the name of a major religion? Do you opt for something else?

Here's something I hear over and over from 20-somethings: "I was raised (insert name of religion here) but then I went to college and just stopped." Is there something about college that makes students un-religious? Or does going to college just coincide with the point in life when people question their beliefs?

I've encountered the same answer as well. In our research it became pretty clear that it's not that college necessarily makes them un-religious as much as it's the first time most of these young people are on their own and able to make decisions independent of their parents. I think the more appropriate term for them is "seekers." They are able to begin asking questions on their own...some of them are small issues like 'How should I deal with a bad roommate?' others are much bigger 'Who am I? What should I do with my life?' Fortunately I've found colleges across the country have trememdous resources to help with those big questions, whether it's counseling services or campus ministers etc. One of the guiding principles in writing our Freshman Survival Guide was letting students know the enormous options available on campus on all of these levels. 

As college students get older, they are less likely to attend religious services. Is it possible for these experiences to be replicated on Facebook or broadcast through You Tube? Have you heard of any religious groups going online to find students?

Absolutely. I attended Georgetown and had friends who would watch the broadcasts of local services via webcast when they were not able to make it to church. In terms of spirituality online more generally, increasingly people are finding their favorite pastor, blogger or inspirational writer online. It's easier than ever to find resources tailored to your specific belief system, but it seems to me the downside is two fold: your 'community' exists online, and it's easier to ignore people that disagree with you. So there is lost opportunity for human-to-human exchange there.

Liz makes a great point. The web is an incredible tool and has done enormous good. It helps people form a community of a certain kind--shared interests, backgrounds etc--but I think peoples' faith journeys are ultimately best nourished by the physical community, the act of gathering with those who may be different etc if that's at all possible. That said, I have a friend who is an "Abbess" in an online monastery that tweets the daily prayers to a few hundred people.

Faith and spiritually are such a part of my identity, but not many of my friends share my beliefs. Many are very vocally atheists - and so often I sense that they react to my Christian faith with something like, "Really? But I thought you were smart!" I often hear offhand jokes or comments that blast Christians and/or the Religious Right. I have no desire to challenge their beliefs, but I also feel like I should be able to confront such comments without being considered a brainwashed religious nut. Any suggestions? How really do we begin to openly converse about our faiths (or lack their of) when the rhetoric is so angry?

Unfortunatley that's a common problem I've heard from religiously observant students from across the faith spectrum. While campuses often see themselves as bastions of openness, sometimes that openness doesn't extend to people of faith. I've found that trying to argue faith can be like trying to argue about your own's yours, it's personal, it's a part of you. I would argue that it's important to find people/community on campus who don't judge you as stupid because of your faith. They exist on nearly every campus I know of...hang in there.

Is it okay to miss class for religious reasons? What's the best way to discuss this with your professor?

Most professors will try to accomodate religous commitments etc, my advice would be to speak privately to the prof during office hours or at least send an email explaining the reason for your absence and ask if there's anyway you can make up necessary workload etc

The New York Times had a story this week about gay rights movements on evangelical Christian campuses. Often these student-led movements are met with opposition from administrators who are tasked with upholding religious teachings on the topic (and keeping older alumni happy). How have you seen colleges address this?

That was a great story Jenna...I think the single most surprising thing people mentioned to me that they found in our book is that when we discussed the topic of homosexuality and sexual identity with campus ministers from every major faith tradition, how they ALL spoke in harmony on the topic. These folks are dealing with the reality of students coming out all the time with on campus and the ones we spoke to all spoke about being compassionate and concerned for students' well being. They all spoke very pastorally about the topic and sounded like people that a student struggling with these issues could go and talk to and feel accepted and understood. That said, sadly I'm sure this isn't necessarily more the experience everywhere. More evangelical Christian groups wouldn't participate in our research for the book and the Times' article makes it clear that there are still issues. I think it's probably important for gay students to be careful about who they open up to and make sure if they feel overly judged etc that they go elsewhere for help from someone who is willing to accept them.

Hey Bill! A campus minister here... We have a sophomore in our parish community who is being courted by a large, popular campus religious group. They are active in her sorority and it seems that in order to "move up" in sorority leadership, one must also increase involvement in this group. Yet her parents have expressed worry- she has canceled a study abroad opportunity (that came with a scholarship) to attend a summer bible camp with this group... she seems stressed & depressed, she is not as "put together" this year, has gained weight, and her skin is less clear. She changes her mind about her goals on a weekly basis. The one constant is the influence of this religious group. She is rejecting her parents' advice, since they are not "saved". A conversation with our priest went poorly... We are just worried, want her to be happy and clear-headed, wherever she ends up. Any advice?

This unfortunately happens with some real pressure groups who take advantage of students and alienate them from their friends, family etc...we discuss it on our book a little but we also have an online story here.

that talks about how to spot a cult or pressure group. I'm sorry to hear that she's having this issue...sadly it isn't uncommon. Is she still in relationship at all with her family?

Many private colleges and universities were started by religious groups or orders, but today many of their student bodies are religiously diverse. (For example, only about half of the undergrads at Georgetown report being Catholic. And Catholic University in DC has a large Muslim population.) What are some colleges doing to serve the diverse religious needs of all students?

I'm a Georgetown grad as well and they've been very forward thinking for decades about having diverse religious voices on campus--one of the Imam's I interviewed for the Freshman Survival Guide was from Georgetown's campus ministry. I think most schools of a few thousand students or so offer access to leaders from different faith traditions. Many of them see it as a sign of the strength of their own mission--Catholic, Christian, Jewish etc--not as a watering down.

I ordained myself as Rev Dave of the "Church Sex is Life" back in late 70's at GMU. ... You have to remember this was the time period were being born again was big and folks were knocking on your door to save you. When they came a knocking I would agree to go to their services if they could attend Rev Dave's midnight services. As a history major w/ 4 years of high school Latin I read the manuscripts of similar services back in middle and dark ages by certain Roman Catholic parishes in France and Italy.

Today even colleges run by the Roman Catholic church do not encourage going to mass or religion. However the far rights so called Christian U's like Regent and Liberty do. Something is wrong here. Many Catholic colleges and universities have become to secular ie G'town, Boston College, and Notre Dame

hahaha -- very funny, Rev Dave. Your "church" reminds me of a "religious community" that a group of guys at Georgetown created a few years ago so they could all live in a $2.4 million house without breaking D.C. zoning laws that limit the number of unrelated people who can live under one roof. The name of their nonprofit religious organization? The Apostles of O'Neill.

As far as religious schools not encouraging students to participate in services, I haven't seen any evidence of that. I have been on the campuses of Georgetown and Boston College a few times -- I frequently see posters advertising campus ministry events and hear students talking about their "favorite Jesuits."

But others out there might have more information? I would love to hear your thoughts...

Not so much a question, just making sure your listeners know about the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative inviting institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on campus. This programming might take the form of campus Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular student organizations implementing a specific year-long community service project. It might also involve students from a campus partnering with local religious groups to tackle a specific community challenge together.

Thanks for the suggestion. This is a model that I have found to be increasingly popular with interfaith organizations. Tony Blair's Faith Foundation launched a program a few years ago called Faith Acts, where fellows from across religious traditions worked together on anti-Malaria initiatives. It's an fascinating model to look at and I'd be interested to read research on how engagement with those of another faith through a service project impacts one's beliefs.

I really, really hope that your book did. Which Orthodox Christian Church were consulted? You do know we aren't part of "protestant" or Roman Catholic traditions, right?

Good point. Yes, I'm aware that Orthodox Christian churches are not Roman or protestant. I've spoken to Orthodox priests for other projects, but was not able to track any down that were specifically Orthodox campus  ministries. It's a fair point I will try to address in the next addition. Thanks for saying it.

I have to admit I was amused to see the Agnostics with a table recruiting members. I understand where agnostics come from, but is it me, or shouldn't it be hard to recruit people with a message "we don't know, we don't care"?

You may want to take a look at some of the work of Greg Epstein, Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Epstein is proof that there is spirituality beyond religion, perhaps even beyond belief in God.  One example of this is his work to get campus secularists/humanists/atheists/agnostics to unite around the values that they find 'sacred' --care for other humans, practicing secular meditation, 'celebrating science and critical inquiry.' Read more about humanism on campus here. 

Interesting...I'm not sure I believe in agnostics though, I need more proof...


That's a joke btw...

I am interested in learning about other religions, especially since I was raised in a non-religious family. One problem I observe is when I attend gatherings of students in religious groups, I feel like I am a budding novice and everyone there is an expert. I am not saying I am not usually made to feel welcome, but I would suggest some groups offer introductory sessions explaining their religions.

Good point. It's good to hear you at least feel welcom. Sometimes a little background is helpful though. We published this "Overly simplistic and all-too-brief guide to world religions".

It might help you get started. But I've found that a lot of religious groups are more than willing to share who they are if you ask.

Bill, in the intro to your book, you quote one of my favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Tell me a little bit about why you picked this quote.

I think/hope we're moving into a new paradigm where people are more connected than ever before and are therefore forced to see complexity in the world, in people, in faith experiences etc that they previously might have been able to ignore. Fitzgerald's quote beautifully sums up this notion for me well. Can I handle ideas that may appear to be in conflict and continue to function. I think it's important for young college kids to understand that is one of the challenges as we grow up/get older.

Tomorrow is Earth Day -- and, as we have chatted about before, environmentalism is the new sexy trend on many college campuses. Some religious groups are also doing all they can to protect "God's creation." A couple years ago, environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin wrote a piece about a megachurch in Florida that's working to reduce global warming.

Are any campus ministry groups taking on environmental issues?

Elizabeth has pointed out the interfaith groups. How, if at all, should colleges/universities promote interfaith events and projects. Funding? Isn't college the right time to be promoting/learning to connect with other faiths?

Yes it is, and it's happening a lot on campuses in the US. I was just corresponding with the head of Kansas State's interfaith alliance that deals with all the campus ministries and they clearly are working to share resources, events, promote understanding etc. The study that UCLA did through the Institute for Higher Education Research published the results from a seven-year study of spirituality and higher education and it completely validated everything we’d been talking about in our book. Students need to explore this multifaith dialogue. It's simply a reality in the world they're entering. Check out the UCLA Study here

As a recent college grad, I've had to miss my share of classes due to religious observance. It depends on the environment of the school but I almost never had a problem with professors when I asked to miss class---if you are willing to make up the work and keep up with the reading, most professors really don't mind.

That's great to hear! I am sure that most professors -- given a proper heads-up -- will make such accommodations. The key is not waiting until the last minute.

Etiquette guides always advise against talking about politics or religion. Obviously, a lot of college students talk at length about politics (especially here in DC). But what about religion? Is it a frequent topic of discussion? Should it be?

But Jenna, talking about religion and politics is what we do at On Faith! And yes, it can be very sensitive, but that's because religion is so central to so many people's lives. Like other groups, organizations or cliques on campus, religious students often congregate through Bible study, shabbat services or weekly mass.  Bill can speak to this as well, but since so many students do come to campus with religious backgrounds, finding a home in a religious community can be one way of connecting to their past or their family's traditions, which can be especially important when you are far away from home.
Religion informs our world in so many ways (one only look at the headlines on any given day to see how these conflicts manifest themselves). Perhaps that is why a 2005 study found an increase in religion majors after 9/11 --I count myself among this group. In order to understand world events, students and universities are finding they need to have a basic understanding of religion. This can be more of an objective study of religion rather than faith-sharing, but is an important part of religious exchange on campus.

Hey wait is Liz plugging another Post blog on our Q&A!!?!? No fair! ;)

Seriously though Liz is right. Students often come from religous households and--as the UCLA study I plugged earlier says: they may become less religious but their spirituality grows. That's fertile ground to talk about the big questions that major religous traditions all try to address. My hope is that students see these places as resources and not simply extensions of their parents' view of God, faith etc.

Hey, if Liz is plugging On Faith, can I plug the book trailer video we just did for the Freshman Survival Guide, Yes? it is ;o)

Freshman Survival Guide Book trailer video.


Why? Why do religious people always want to tell me about their religion? I'm not interested and it's not appropriate for work, the grocery store, the neighborhood picnic, etc. Just be serene in your own faith, share it with your family and fellow parishioners, but stop wanting to explain to me why I'm wrong. Why try to find a way to discuss something that need not be discusses?

Passing along these thoughts from a reader...

I'm wondering if you've found a resurgence of interest in today's college students in devotional practices or saints. I have friends who are college-age, and I've been surprised and interested that even those who no longer self-identify as religious or Catholic might pray to a favorite saint in a time of need "St. Anthony come around, something's lost..." or Saint Gerard Majella for women who are trying to conceive or having a difficult pregnancy.

Yes, I think there are many young people out there who weren't raised in any particular tradition who are grabbing whatever seems relevant to their lives. Some of the devotional practices I would include in that. Older generations might have abandoned them but some younger people look at those practices and don't associate it with the same baggage older generations do, so they pick it up for themselves,

Thanks to Bill for his expert insights and to Jenna for hosting the religion crew this week! If you're interested in discussions about life's big question about how they intersect with today's headlines, I hope you'll check out On Faith. (We're tackling Christian use of Jewish rituals, the morality of budget cuts and the Book of Mormon musical this week --and I'm planning a post on Lady Gaga's 'Judas' before the week is up!) Lots to discuss online and on campus. Thanks, Jenna.

I think our time is almost up. I just wanted to thank Jenna for inviting me to this discussion. It was great to connect with Liz again as well, whom I interacted with when she was still at Georgetown. I'm a big fan of the Campus Overload blog and plug it a lot on our Facebook page for the Freshman Survival Gude.

Great questions! Thank you to everyone who joined in -- and thanks to Bill and Liz for joining me today!

Next week we will be chatting about unpaid internships with Ross Perlin, the author of the forthcoming “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”

Have a great weekend!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Elizabeth Tenety
Elizabeth Tenety is editor of On Faith, and producer of Divine Impulses, the Post's religion interview series. She blogs at Under God, a daily discussion on religion in the news.
Bill McGarvey
Bill McGarvey is a writer and editor who has written extensively on the intersection of faith and culture. He was the editor-in-chief of, from 2004-2010 and is the author of the just-released Freshman Survival Guide, [], (Center Street Press, Hachette Book Group). He has also written for NPR, Time Out New York, Commonweal, America, The Tablet (London), Factual (Spain) and Book magazine. In addition, McGarvey is a singer/songwriter whose music [] has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Billboard and Performing Songwriter.
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