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Meeting the Moment: Campuses Must Respond to Students’ Evolving Views of Religion and Spirituality

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Senior Level Undergraduate
August 16, 2023 Harmeet Kaur Kamboj Interfaith America

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 3, August 2023

Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

As colleges and universities maintain and grow their investment in diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, some have turned their attention to the ways in which religion informs how students move through their campus communities. While a number of these institutions have invested financial and staffing capacity to support students of minority religious backgrounds, such as Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist students, few have addressed the rising wholesale disaffiliation of young people from religious institutions. The rise of atheist, agnostic, secular Humanist, and other non-theist identities on college and university campuses may indicate a need to divest from chaplaincy and spiritual life programming, but the issue is far more complex. Although students are rapidly disaffiliating from institutionalized religion, many maintain a spiritual posture and practice and continue to wonder about their place in the world and broader universe. How can campus educators meet this moment of practical complexity and respond to students’ evolving views of religion and spirituality?

Digging Into Data on Religious (Dis)affiliation

While anecdotal evidence on the decline of religious participation among Gen Z is abundant, social scientists are also conducting extensive studies to understand how young people orient themselves within and around communities, institutions, the world, and even the universe. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2022 Census of American Religion, today’s 18-29 year olds are more likely (38 percent) than older generations to identify as “religiously unaffiliated.” The next largest religious identities among 18-29 year olds are Hispanic Catholic (10 percent) and white mainline Protestant (10 percent). While we may argue that young people of every generation tend to embrace secularism and become more religious as they age, the same PRRI survey found that today’s American young adults (age 18-29) are more likely to religiously disaffiliate than the same age bracket has been in the past: Compared to today’s 38 percent of young adults, only one in ten (10 percent) 18-29 year olds in 1986 identified as religiously unaffiliated. As recently as 2006, that number was less than one quarter (23 percent).

Despite a higher tendency to disaffiliate from religious identities, younger Americans have not written off spirituality as a personal practice wholesale. A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that half (50 percent) of American teenagers (age 13-17) feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing, just under half (46 percent) think about the meaning and purpose of life, and a notable 40 percent feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe.

The Changing Face of Spirituality

How do we square the reality of rapid religious disaffiliation with the consistent tendency to wonder at the big unknowns of the human experience? The answer may lay in changing attitudes toward institutions, more generally. In the Morning Consult’s 2020 tracker of Gen Z’s views and outlook, young Americans aged 13-23 expressed a steadily increasing distrust of both public and private institutions. While views on religious institutions were not polled in Morning Consult’s tracker, a separate 2020 study by Springtide Research found that young Americans (age 13-25) rated their trust in religious institutions a 4.5 out of 10, lower than their trust in public schools, the medical system, nonprofit organizations, and even banks. What’s more, the vast majority (80 percent) of religiously unaffiliated 13-25 year olds rated their trust in religious institutions a 5 or below. Notably, more than half (52 percent) of young people who did affiliate with a religion rated their trust in religious institutions a 5 or below.

While these numbers are staggering, they are not necessarily surprising, given the unfortunate influx of public information available about rampant abuse and corruption among institutionalized religious groups around the world. But as the earlier Pew study suggests, an allergy to institutions is not necessarily keeping young people on college campuses away from investigating and leaning into spirituality and spiritual practice. In my role on the higher education team at Interfaith America, I see in real time how young Americans on college and university campuses are navigating their lived spiritualities. In the most recent cohort of the Building Interfaith Leadership Initiative (BILI) Launchpad Fellowship, a joint venture between Interfaith America and Hebrew College’s Miller Center for Interreligious Leadership and Learning, five of the 27 undergraduates who matriculated into the program identified as “spiritual.” One of these five students expressed their recent affiliation with Paganism. Despite these five students’ choice not to identify with an institutionalized religious tradition, they stood out to their peers, professors, and mentors on campus as fierce interfaith leaders, and all five demonstrated a deep passion for cooperation across religious and worldview difference throughout the fellowship program.

Resources to Respond

While these five students represent a fraction of a percent of the population of college and university students in the United States, they and their cohort of 27 young interfaith leaders represent a microcosm of the evolving landscape of lived religion on campuses across the country. At Interfaith America, we are taking note of these rapid changes and transforming our student-facing programs to meet this moment of transition. We are not the only ones doing so.

The Secular Student Alliance is a national nonprofit and chapter organization supporting atheist, agnostic, and non-theist students across the country with support and resources to build welcoming pluralistic communities and promote secular values. Today, they boast over 200 student-run chapters across the country.

University chaplain’s offices and offices of religious and spiritual life are accumulating staff and resources to support religiously unaffiliated students. Tufts University, for example, has housed a Humanist Chaplaincy since 2014 and currently employs a part-time Humanist chaplain to support students of a “variety of walks of life.”

Finally, the Association of Chaplains and Spiritual Leaders in Higher Education (ACSLHE) is at the forefront of thinking around the inclusion of religiously unaffiliated students in spiritual life on campus, dedicating two workshops during their first ever in-person conference to engaging unaffiliated and Humanist college/university students.


10 Key Findings About the Religious Lives of U.S. Teens and Their Parents. Pew Research Center. (2020, September 9). https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/09/10/10-key-findings-about-the-religious-lives-of-u-s-teens-and-their-parents/ft_2020-09-10_religionkeytakeaways_06/

2022 Census of American Religion: Religious Affiliation Updates and Trends. PRRI. (2023, March 13). https://www.prri.org/spotlight/prri-2022-american-values-atlas-religious-affiliation-updates-and-trends/

ACSLHE - 2023 Conference Schedule. (2023, January 30). Association of Chaplains and Spiritual Leaders in Higher Education.https://www.nacuc.net/2023-Conference-Schedule

Building Interfaith Leadership Initiative (BILI) Launchpad Fellowship. (n.d.). Hebrew College. Retrieved July 17, 2023, from https://hebrewcollege.edu/community-learning/professional-development/interreligious-engagement/building-interfaith-leadership-initiative/

History of the Humanist Chaplaincy. (n.d.). Tufts Humanist Chaplaincy. Retrieved July 17, 2023, from https://chaplaincy.tufts.edu/humanist/history-of-the-humanist-chaplaincy/

Homepage. (n.d.). Secular Student Alliance. Retrieved July 17, 2023, from https://secularstudents.org/

Laughlin, N. (2020, June 21). How 2020 is Impacting Gen Z’s Worldview | Gen Z Data. Morning Consult Pro. https://pro.morningconsult.com/trackers/gen-z-worldview-tracker#trust-in-governmental-institutions-has-fallen-across-the-board

Singer, K., & Packard, J. (2021, February 19). Trust in religious institutions is low among Gen Z – but young people are keeping the faith in other ways. Religion in Public. https://religioninpublic.blog/2021/02/19/trust-in-religious-institutions-is-low-among-gen-z-but-young-people-are-keeping-the-faith-in-other-ways/