Bulls on Faith: Perspectives from USF’s own in a changing world

Faith is personal, but how does education affect it? From student to staff, each have their own perspective and relationship with higher education and religion

By Eaon Hurley Faith Beat Reporter

About half of traditional college age people remain stable in their level of religious commitment and practice (or lack of.) About forty percent show a decline in religiousness. And a small percent of students see an increase in religiousness

Michael DeJonge, professor and chair of the Religious Studies department at USF

Religion is an incredibly sensitive and personal topic, though often pelted like snowballs in debates and equally mishandled in the hands of judgment. It still feels taboo to even broach the subject from time to time.

While nobody wants to talk about it, we should. Pew research has found that 28% of U.S. adults forgo religion and identify with what is being called “nones,” those being atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” Further, Pew reports that a third of U.S. teens are unaffiliated with religion.

More youth are finding freedom of choice in their religion. A number of factors could be leading to the rise of nones among young people, though sometimes higher education is cited as the cause. It’s not an unusual claim, particularly with the rising number of college nones, and is an argument recently favored by politicians.

At USF, perspectives on religion vary from person to person, and higher education doesn’t always sway the student’s path. Many factors play into one’s religious affiliation, and there are times when a college career can cement those perspectives.

Brittney Rink, a senior at the University of South Florida studying digital communication and multimedia journalism, is a Christian. While she grew up in and around the church, she did not fully embrace the religion until several years ago. At the time, she was moving from Iowa to Florida during her senior year of high school, and that is when it clicked for her.

“It was like I’m actively in a moment where God, for me, was like ‘you need to be here, you’re ok, but you have to kind of let go of this life I was living in Iowa,’” Rink said.

While the number of nones rises, Rink has no plans to become one. In fact, her college experience has allowed her spirituality to grow. She’s had opportunities to be a leader at a Christian camp too, an experience she feels was equally beneficial for her, if not more.

“That’s never something that I would have guessed; like I would be baptizing somebody. That was such a moment that was like… I’m supposed to be here,” she said.

While the notion of religious affiliations changing during a college career sustains the arguments of politicians, and among the rising number of nones, it is not unusual for individuals to find themselves staying stagnant. Even during one’s impressionable twenties.

“About half of traditional college-age people remain stable in their level of religious commitment and practice (or lack of.) About forty percent show a decline in religiousness. And a small percent of students see an increase in religiousness,” said Michael DeJonge, professor and chair of the Religious Studies department at USF.

“A big part of the story, then, is also stability,” he said.

DeJonge is speaking about the relationship between religion and emerging adults. The term emerging adult, coined by psychologist Jeffery Arnett, is associated with an openness to exploration, experimentation and discovery, according to DeJonge. Naturally then, among all other shifting sands in their life, students of the emerging adult age may find themselves curious about what’s next in the scope of religion and spirituality.

“Emerging adults are also renegotiating their relationships with their parents, which also means renegotiating their relationship with whatever religious (or non-religious) resources their parents gave them,” DeJonge said.

Plenty of attributes pour into the perception of a student, leaving the reason almost unknown into what, or why, a student’s perception may change.

Dr Marianne Florian, a visiting professor at USF, gives insight into this point.

“I think that it can be a challenge to connect, for example, what you would learn in a biology class with how you view the value of the natural world,” Florian said.

She received her Ph.D. in American Religious Cultures from Emory University. Further in her work, she researched the use of a compassion meditation protocol that hospital chaplains were learning to practice with. The compassion meditation protocol is based on Tibetan Buddhist techniques.

Florian explains that while different religious worldviews may crop up in a student’s career, it is possible that courses on natural worldviews and ideas such as evolutionary theory may conflict with someone’s preconceived ideas, challenging them in new ways.

“I personally find it extremely inspiring, but they can come into conflict, or we can inherit narratives of conflict from our society and our culture,” she said.

Many aspects of a student’s career can challenge them, even outside of faith. For youth and young adults, it can be difficult to navigate in an ever-growing world while grappling with your own view and ideas of it. Especially when your worldviews are shifting themselves. If you find yourself in a time of confusion, young adult or otherwise, and your spirituality is changing just as the world does around us, it is important to remember that it’s natural.

“We all have been there, always, it never ends. Faith does not come without testing… teachers are silent during tests,” Rink said.

DeJonge said religious change “can be both scary and exciting.”

“See if you can find people to talk to who aren’t scared of it, who can help you see that it is an expected part of the growth process to explore different ways of thinking about religion,” he said.

Florians suggests not approaching spiritual evolution as a “DIY project.”

“There are trustworthy mentors and teachers in religious and spiritual traditions, and there are wise people in the world who have our best interests at heart,” she said. “One of the highest priorities for someone who is a relative beginner, or who is maybe at a transition point or even an impasse, it’s not necessary and it’s not skillful to go it alone and think of it as something you have to figure out for yourself, rather be open to help and wisdom that is more experience than one’s own.”