Are College Students Losing Their Religion?

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I was born and raised in Calabasas, California. Try not to judge me because I promise it isn’t as bougie as it sounds. Years before the Kardashians invaded with their expensive clothing stores and reality TV show crew, my hometown was a simple suburb in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

I have a vivid childhood memory from when I was about seven years old, spending the weekend with my grandmother. Just a week or so after Thanksgiving, the holiday season was in full swing and she decided to take me shopping at an outlet mall about an hour away from home.

As we strolled through the brightly lit mall, hand in hand, I paid close attention to the festive holiday decorations. The flowery wreaths above store entrances and the giant Christmas tree decked out in twinkly lights were undeniably beautiful, but confusing to me.

“Grammy,” I said, looking up at my grandmother with a puzzled expression, “Why does the mall only have Christmas decorations and not Hanukah ones?”

She giggled to herself and tried her best to explain to me that most people aren’t Jewish by using select phrases like “Jews are a special people” and “it’s hard to decorate for all the different holidays.”

Regardless, this came as an absolute shock to me. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish town and never really having traveled elsewhere, I had always thought that most people were Jewish. Of course I had a few friends who celebrated Christmas and told me they were Christian, but I genuinely thought that this was rare. My seven-year-old mind had little context to back the understanding that the world is a diverse place made up of majorities and minorities.

Reflecting on this memory left me wanting to learn more about how my peers have come to their own conclusions about religion. Everyone’s relationship with religion is unique, and as college students, we are at a pivotal time in our spiritual journeys.

My investigation began as all great ones do – by surfing the web. I wanted to find out information specific to people my age, so I looked into surveys conducted on religious beliefs and Millennials. Right away, a statistic from the Pew Research Center shot out at me:

One-in-four members of the Millennial generation are unaffiliated with any particular religion.

Further into the study’s analysis, it was revealed that we are the least religious generation of the past three. More and more people are choosing not to identify with specific religious denominations. This was intriguing, but not exactly surprising. I wanted to understand why I would have come to this assumption on my own, so I spoke with Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmed, president of Minaret of Freedom Institution and Muslim chaplain at AU.

Ahmed prefaced his answers by stating that most of his experiences are specific to Muslim students; however, he feels that young people generally arrive at the same questions when developing their relationship with religion.

Students look for connections and correlations between faith and their daily lives because they are attempting to understand the relevancy of religion. “One of the most important things that religion does is provide meaning to life,” Ahmed said. Therefore his sermons and Quran study focus on current events and the typical problems that young people face.

But what about when religion serves as a point of contention in daily life? It’s no secret that it is a polarizing subject. Many accredit some of the world’s biggest wars and tragedies to the divisive nature of religion. News stories such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill killings and the Charlie Hebdo murders are presented in the mainstream media as conflicts of beliefs.

“Whenever I hear people criticize religion as a source of conflict they almost invariably are talking not about religious teachings, but about religious identity. People who want to divide the world into us and the other,” said Ahmed. “It’s an unfortunate side product of religion that has something to do with human beings’ tendency to want to look at things collectively rather than individually.”

Fast-forward a few years through my personal spiritual journey. I have been privileged with many opportunities that have broadened my perspective and left me with what I would like to consider an open mind. My parents enrolled me in confirmation classes after my Bat Mitzvah at age 13. At the time, we were members of a reform synagogue that could be considered progressive in its religious teachings. In class we would discuss Judaism in relation to other religions and how our Jewish identities help us make moral choices throughout our daily lives.

I associate many of my core values with the Jewish teachings that my parents and role models instilled in me throughout my adolescence. However, families across the world have raised morally upstanding children without religious influence.

“Clearly, it’s possible to be an upright person and to be spiritual without actually having the religious guidance. The take I put on it is that the purpose of religious guidance is to help you reach that state of spirituality. It is easier when you’re guided,” said Ahmed. “I could go out without making any reference to any map or GPS and try to drive from here to Pittsburgh, but it’s just so much easier if I accept the guidance.”

Attending AU was the final step in bursting my bubble. There is a noticeable Jewish community on campus, but it is the active presence, not the quantity of its members, that allows it to be known. Initially, I clung to what was familiar by becoming an active member of my school’s chapter of Hillel and joining Alpha Epsilon Phi, a historically Jewish sorority. However, as my college journey progressed, my interests expanded and my social circle diversified.

I’ve met students who have denounced their religious upbringings and others who were atheists and have now found God. I have friends who received their education through Catholic school, but now their political views conflict with the curriculum. I know others who have used their Southern Baptist routes to help them champion a just cause.

My generation may continue to move away from organized religion, but being religious or spiritual doesn’t mean diving all in. It could mean getting involved with a spiritual life center—an opportunity for various faiths to coexist— or volunteering through a group on campus.

A person’s religious identity or spiritual beliefs are only as important as her morals and virtues.

Maddi is a junior at American University, majoring in print journalism and minoring in international studies. Born and raised in Southern CA, she'd like to think she's found harmony between her chill, laid back nature and the fast-paced lifestyle of The District. East meets West. Biggie meets Tupac. An avid reader and travel enthusiast, Maddi aspires to be one of the great storytellers.

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