Students reconsidering religion during college years

MSU students, historians question and consider faith during time of turbulent transition, experiences

Contrary to the Wells Hall preacher’s views, Angelo Hankes doesn’t think he’s going to hell for what he believes in.

It only has been when outspoken evangelists get a bit too radical for his taste that the history, philosophy and sociology of science senior has tried to reason with them, which hasn’t gone so well.

“(Once), I was talking to a guy, and the Wells (Hall) preacher didn’t appreciate the way I was trying to educate this (student) who said he was spiritual but didn’t know what to believe (in),” Hankes said. “(And then) the preacher busted in and said, ‘Those are all lies. … This is the way you should learn or else you’re going to hell.’”

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Infographic by Liam Zanyk McLean / Pew Research Center

It’s not the absurdity of those types of messages that Hankes gets hung up on — it is the certainty.
He questions the certainty that some people have in their beliefs that there is only one religion, one higher power, one set of beliefs that are the way.

Hankes said since coming to college, where he has been exposed to people with many different religions, cultures and backgrounds, he has begun to explore his beliefs.

Religious historians agreed this is a challenge many college-aged individuals have had to confront when transitioning from home to college.

As students begin to spread their wings, they often might question: What do I believe?

Spirituality and religion
College can be a time for questioning and exploration for many students.

The decision to be spiritual but not religious is something many might face when they are searching for their beliefs, religious historians said.

It has been a trend amongst young people that has transcended multiple generations; the youth are continuing to become less and less religiously affiliated, said Scot Yoder, an assistant professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities who teaches a course on religion and naturalism.

According to the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of the “younger millenials,” or those born between 1990-94, identify as unaffiliated with any particular religious denomination in 2012.

More individuals of this age report they are not affiliated than any other generation.

But to Yoder, this term “unaffiliated” doesn’t necessarily mean a person has no beliefs — it only means they might not follow a structured path in them.

Yoder also said many individuals become more religious as they grow older.

Yoder said some reasons young people choose not to affiliate include some of the scandals in the Catholic Church and even the conservative parties’ alignment with certain religious beliefs.

Many undecided individuals might believe there is a god or higher being, but they are not sure which religion they belong to, if they belong to a religion, Yoder said.

“(College) is a time when you’re surrounded by interesting people talking about interesting things,” Yoder said. “(And) it’s natural to explore.”

Hankes said this is where he definitely fits, as he considers himself to be spiritual and religiously unaffiliated, but does believe in a god.

This higher being might not be specific to any of the “big three” religions, which are Christianity, Judaism and Islam, he said. “I think there’s something out there, (and) I would agree … but I don’t know what form it is (in),” Hankes said.

According to Fred Graham, a retired MSU religious studies professor and a historian of the Christian faith, people also might be intimidated when it comes to the idea that there is “more to life than what they (see).”

Graham said many Christians believe their God is everywhere, but for many who are undecided, religion is something more than they understand and they aren’t willing to pursue its meaning.

“They’ve seen a beautiful sunset, they’ve seen the grass (and) the cardinals in the spring and they think, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful,’ and it is,” Graham said. “But to seek (it), spiritually, (and discover) what is this mystery? What is this tug at my heart? (They say), ‘Oh, alright. I’m spiritual, but not religious.’”

Sociology junior Lauren Blazofsky said although she sees college as a time for people to question and explore different religions, she always has been strong in her reformed Jewish faith.

Blazofsky, who plans to attend rabbinical school after graduation, said it is important to her that she learns about other religions and understands where others are coming from.

“Religion is ultimately about faith, so there is no way for us to know what is out there or what the true actuality is,” Blazofsky said. “So it really depends on your level of faith.”

Finding independence
For many students, choosing not to religiously affiliate is a chance to be independent, in terms of thinking and acting.

Robert Anderson, a retired religious studies professor at MSU, said many young individuals tend to shy away from the idea of conforming to any sort of greater institution. Such an institution can be political, academic or religious, he said.

“There is more questioning in (any) institution, certainly of the government (or) of (a) university,” Anderson said. “It’s (about) the concepts behind them, (and) it’s not anti-education or anti-political or anti-religion.”

Also, it is more likely for students to have grown up in a homogeneous monolithic culture, and when coming to MSU, Anderson said an individual can experiment in different religions and find out what fits for them.

Psychology and sociology senior Danielle Horak, who now identifies as atheist, said this is exactly how she feels.

Horak was raised Greek Orthodox Catholic and said now that she has strayed away from her family’s beliefs and does not believe in any higher power or in an afterlife, she is more independent and confident in what she believes.

“There’s nothing wrong with living your life in a good-natured way, and if that’s what people choose to do, then that’s great,” Horak said. “… At (a) university, you’re not at home anymore and you’re deciding who you are, (and) it’s common for people to change a little bit or change their beliefs completely.”

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