A recent rise in student religious involvement at Yale has drawn attention from many of those involved in the University’s religious community. And according to a recent nationwide survey of college freshmen, the significance of spirituality in higher education may not be limited to Yale.
More than two-thirds of students nationwide believe it is “essential” or “very important” that their college experience enhance their self-understanding and facilitate their personal development, according to a recent report issued by the Higher Education Research Institute.
University Chaplain Rev. Frederick Streets, who served as a consultant for the HERI study, said Yale did not participate in its research. But the University launched its own survey in 1999, when the Chaplain’s Office endeavored to study individualism, religiosity and community at Yale through a series of one-on-one student and faculty interviews.
The Yale survey found that 45 percent of a 70-student sample identified themselves as “religious,” while 77 percent considered themselves either somewhat or very “spiritual.” Thirty-nine percent of undergraduates also indicated that they were a member of an organized religious community — a figure Streets suspects has continued to climb in recent years.
“It certainly has been the result of some religious groups being more aggressive in the culture, articulating their point of view about social issues and national policies,” Streets said. “But also we’re seeing an awareness — students are far more conscious as a global community, aware of the rest of the world in ways they weren’t 25 years ago.”
Streets said the returns on the freshman religious preference card, mailed to all incoming students asking them to indicate their religious affiliation, are high, with 900 of roughly 1,300 students replying.
Undergraduate Dean Peter Salovey, however, said he has not perceived much change over the past 20 years.
“I will say that any time you see the results of a survey of college student spirituality, people are always surprised by the degree of faith that college students have,” he said. “The one thing that is consistent … that I’ve seen is when people guess the level of college student interest in matters of spirituality, they underestimate that interest.”
But where such spiritual guidance should originate from is debated. The HERI study emphasized the place of spiritual development in college curricula and class discussion. Though the study found that only 30 percent of surveyed faculty members agree that “colleges should be concerned with facilitating students’ spiritual development,” Streets said he sees the merits in maintaining a distinction between religion in the academic and extracurricular settings.
“Generally speaking, we would reflect that finding of the national study — that religion and spiritual issues are not discussed as much across the curriculum in classes,” he said. “On the other hand, that wouldn’t be sufficient to stand alone, because Yale encourages students to explore it in so many other ways.”
Salovey said that though the University encourages spiritual development primarily through the programs of the Chaplain’s Office, the administration does not explicitly restrict religious discussion in classroom settings.
“We are usually very reluctant to interfere with the freedom of a student-teacher relationship in the classroom,” he said. “If spiritual issues make sense to be discussed in the context of the class, it might make sense to discuss them.”
Membership in such organizations as Yale Students for Christ has also grown in recent years, YSC staff member Sang Yun ’93 said. Yun said he estimates there are between 50 and 60 freshmen currently involved in YSC’s weekly Bible study program, and he said this number has increased in the past two years.
Yun said he agrees that a separation between formal schooling and religious education does have its place at a secular university, but he said he thinks tolerance of religion — and religiosity — is equally important.
“At times it can feel like there’s a double standard, that if someone has a very strong political or social agenda, they are allowed to discuss it,” Yun said. “When it comes to any kind of religious topic, there should be not only an openness and an evenness … but also an openness to explore.”
Ellen Ray ’09, a member of YSC and participant in the Bible study program, said she sees the college years as a critical time for spiritual development.
“My faith right now is probably the most important thing I’m doing, and it’s making me grow probably more than any of my classes are, but in a very different way,” she said. “It gives me a real source of calm when it comes to my studies.”