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October 22, 2013

American college students’ worldviews affect what they value, the way they behave and potentially how they learn. We have found that today’s students are divided not dichotomously, between religious and secular, but rather among three distinct worldviews: religious, secular and spiritual. Institutions of higher education need to understand the distinctions among these three worldviews and design curricula that respect students’ diversity. Higher education institutions, like the American population at large, are heterogeneous. So there is no single way to teach millions of students. A student’s worldview is not as easy to detect as his or her race or gender, yet sensitivity to it is easily as important as sensitivity to gender and race differences.

A new study by two Trinity College researchers, professors Barry A. Kosmin and me, in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry (CFI), is based on a national survey and is part of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) series. It was conducted during April and May 2013 at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Drawn from a random sample of publicly available email addresses, more than 1,800 students took part in the online survey in whole or in part, representing 38 four-year colleges and universities. While not a strictly representative sample, it was geographically stratified and designed to capture a variety of institutions of higher education: state and private, religious and secular. As a result, responding students represent a wide spectrum of American students and closely reflect the overall American student population in gender, race and year of study.

U.S. college students participating in ARIS 2013 were asked, “In general would you describe yourself more as a religious, spiritual, or secular person? Select one.” They were nearly evenly divided among the three distinct worldviews: 32% religious, 28% secular, 32% spiritual, and 8% don’t know/not sure. It is important to emphasize that the religious are in minority. Like bellwethers, college students are in the forefront of a more secular American society.

Proof that worldview is important to these students is that it comes tightly packaged with other characteristics. We found an incredible level of cohesion within worldview groups on answers to questions covering a wide array of issues including political alignment; acceptance of evolution and climate change; belief in supernatural phenomena such as miracles or ghosts; and public policy issues, such as women reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, gay adoption, gun control, and affirmative action in college admissions.

Surprisingly, there were no big differences between religious and secular students in choice of major. Students who identify themselves as spiritual were more likely to major in the social and behavioral sciences and were less likely to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However, this appears to be an artifact of their gender; women are less likely to study in STEM. Meanwhile, female respondents tend to be more spiritual while male respondents tend to be more secular. Interestingly, among students who describe themselves as ‘religious’ there were no major gender gaps—the religious worldview attracts males and females evenly.

Among gender differences, however, female students more than males, we found out, tend to believe in miracles and in the efficacy of prayer. Is it because they were more likely to describe themselves as spiritual, or is it attributed to their religious upbringing, or to other factor we have not yet explored? Clearly, it is difficult to determine how, if at all, variations in worldviews orient males and females to approach their years of study and life on campus. For faculty educators and university administrators, here are some particular challenging convictions, which we discovered are distinct to each group of worldviews.

When asked, “Do you believe in miracles?” a strong majority (84%) of religious students affirmed their belief in miracles—far more than secular students (13%) and more than spiritual students (55%). Secular students, in contrast, were mostly committed to reason and rationalism. When asked, “Do you believe in reason/rationalism?” a strong majority (83%) said ‘yes’—far more than religious students (63%) and somewhat greater than spiritual students (73%).

Belief in evolution/Darwinism versus creationism/intelligent design is a wedge issue in American society, challenging religious doctrines and teachings and rattling educational boards around the country. The secular group overwhelmingly endorsed evolution (93%) and rejected creationism (only 5% said ‘yes’). A majority (77%) of spiritual students believed in evolution but a significant minority (26%) believed in creationism or intelligent design. Religious students were split. A majority of religious students believed in creationism/intelligent design, but another majority believed in evolution/Darwinism. Presumably this reflects the split between conservative and liberal religious believers, with about 25% believing in both theories. Could the division of students between these distinct worldviews hinder open exchange of ideas on campus? Could it obstruct how science courses are taught and unnerve the environment in science classes?

In addition to asking students about their worldviews, we asked about their religious identification—a different although obviously related concept. The rise of the “Nones” as a religious identification category was a major finding of the American Religious Identification Surveys in 2001 and 2008. Almost two-thirds of the students who self-identified as Nones in this 2013 sample preferred the secular worldview and the remainder chose the spiritual. Hardly any chose the religious option.

Young people today, especially college students, are distancing themselves from an organized religion—at least one-third profess no religion.

“'I am spiritual but not religious’ is one of the common refrains of our time, especially if you happen to spend a lot of time around college kids taking religion courses,” blogs our colleague Mark Silk. What distinguishes those who identify as spiritual? The spiritual category does not appear to be simply a middle ground between the religious and secular categories. The spiritual are closer to the religious on many metaphysical issues but closer to the secular on public policy and social issues. Their political liberalism along with their mysticism– belief in karma and reincarnation–is part of the reason they differentiate themselves from the religious worldview.

In a world where gender identities are multiplying and racial/ethnic identification is getting blurrier, students’ worldviews appear to be rather distinct and well-formed. Not to mention evenly balanced—about one-third religious, one-third secular, and one-third spiritual. This has implications for everything from campus ministries to the teaching of courses on religion, philosophy, literature, etc. Welcome to the new tripartite world of religion/secularism/spirituality.

Ariela Keysar, a demographer, is associate research professor in the public policy and law program at Trinity College. She is principal director of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008 and 2013.

This article originally appeared in The New England Journal of Higher Education.

increasing access and success, on campus, higher ed, religion

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