November 12, 2009

Knox students still exploring religion

Professor of political science Sue Hulett spent last year on sabbatical in order to discover the roles spirituality and religion play on the modern college campus, particularly Knox.

“There’s an intriguing basic principle that motivates human behavior: a calling towards something that is ‘other’ and a sense of trying to grasp this ‘other,’” she said. “There are people with great certainty, and there are people who are anti-certainty […] students are very much questioning.”

Hulett, along with two student researchers, surveyed Knox students and faculty to find how they viewed religion and its presence on campus. The 32-question survey asked participants about their religious beliefs and behaviors as well as their feelings on how religion was accepted at Knox both in and out of the classroom. National indicators on student spirituality and religion were also incorporated into her final conclusions.

Only 23 percent of Knox students identified themselves as “neither spiritual or religious.” Of the rest, the large majority said they were somewhat spiritual or religious, while 4 percent identified as “very religious” and 10 percent as “very spiritual”.

In addition, Hulett asked participants about their political views and found that a correlation exists between politics and religion, especially on a campus like Knox where 64 percent of students and 73 percent of the faculty are “liberal” or “very liberal.”

“The more liberal you are, the less religious you tend to be,” she said.

Hulett’s research also shows that the variety of religious beliefs on campus has created a culture of acceptance. Most students agree that the Knox community as a whole is either accepting or neutral towards religion. Still, 8 percent of students responded that student attitudes towards religion were hostile, with Christians being the least comfortable with sharing their faith.

“Students seem to express greater belief that the student body is more hostile than the faculty [towards religion], which I find pretty interesting,” Hulett said.

Overall, though religious beliefs at Knox range from conservative Christian to adamant atheist, most students are in what Hulett calls the “mushy spiritual middle.”

“College is a transitional period in your life,” she said. “Students are open to exploring but are reluctant to get specific [about their beliefs].”

Many factors influence what a student believes religiously, including the people one associates with.

“There are people with good case-building skills who discuss questions in a way that makes sense to you,” Hulett said.

Though religious and spiritual demographics on college campuses today are much different than they were a generation ago, religion still remains an integral part of life for many students.

“C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that you have a voice inside you that calls you to know that there is a God […]and that you have some sort of higher purpose,” said Hulett. “I’ve found this to be very true.”

Hulett submitted her findings to the Journal of Religion and Education in early October.

Anna Meier

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