- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

By Conrad Cherry, Betty A. DeBerg and Amanda Porterfield
University of North Carolina Press, $24.95, 316 pages

Every so often there emerges a book that attempts to defy common sense. Such is "Religion on Campus," by Conrad Cherry, Betty A. DeBerg and Amanda Porterfield. These professors of religion challenge the widely accepted notion that American universities are secular institutions that confine religion to a periphery of the curriculum, thus rendering religious education and practice a matter of individual choice and thereby reducing its influence on the character formation of our youth.
As a result of their investigation of four university campuses, the authors insist that most students are either pious members of a denomination, or are on a spiritual journey, or are at the very least deeply respectful of religious traditions. They contend that contemporary students are not indifferent to religion but merely cultivate their spirituality in an innovative manner: that is, outside the confines of dogmatic or organized institutions. And they maintain that students express their religious sensibilities in multiple ways. Thus, they conclude that diversity of faith, rather than secularization, is a more appropriate description of religious life on campus.
This bold thesis would be interesting if it emerged from solid research. However, this study is deeply flawed both in its methods and conclusions. First, the writers commit the gravest of all sins according to any recognizable standard of scholarship: They refuse to identify their sources. They state that in order to ensure the "full and candid cooperation" of their sources, they promised anonymity to those who participated in their research. So, we are not told the names of the universities under scrutiny nor the names of the professors and students who are interviewed. The reader is therefore expected to accept the results of this study blindly, without the possibility of independent confirmation.
The concealing of sources begs an obvious question: If religion is widely accepted and tolerated on university campuses, why do the sources prefer to remain anonymous? This cloak of secrecy casts doubt on the extent to which religion on campus is as vibrant as the authors claim. Evidently, religious faith and practice are sensitive issues which still inspire discrimination and hostility in a predominantly secular culture.
Second, the writers choose their subjects randomly, while nonetheless suggesting that the four universities selected are somewhat representative of broader trends. Hence, they examine a large, state university; a Protestant institution; a Roman Catholic school; and a university committed to educating African Americans. But three of these schools are either denominational or have denominational roots, thus stacking the cards in favor of a more self-consciously religious student body. Furthermore, the writers do not address an essential question: What percentage of the national student body attends denominational schools?
Only if 75 percent of the American student body attends denominational schools which is obviously not the case can the concentration on these 3 universities in like proportion be warranted. And finally, as anyone who has ever set foot in a university knows, these institutions are so vast and diverse that they are almost miniature cities, each very different from the other. The examination of four schools is therefore by no means representative of any larger pattern. The authors draw conclusions based on limited and arbitrary research.
Third, the writers stretch their definition of religion to the point that it is meaningless. They conclude that undergraduates can best be characterized as "spiritual" rather than "religious." Spirituality is defined as "a personal experience of God or ultimate values." This usually connotes "a quest or a journey" and a tendency toward "bricolage," that is "the bringing together of diverse religious symbols and images, forever recombining and forming new spiritualities."
Thus, most students are identified as "spiritual seekers": They wander from one denomination to the other and have little regard "for boundaries dividing religious denominations, traditions or organizations." This fluid and vague definition of religion shows only that students require first and foremost an education in logical and consistent thought. The authors are attempting to give coherence to what appears to be a confused student body.
In the final analysis, the authors have not succeeded in overthrowing the established notion that by and large, religion, which was once the unifying source for higher education, is today one of many disciplines which is offered to students. As a result, the predominant ethos in most universities, is not a genuine respect for religion, but rather a supreme confidence that the individual's own inclinations are the ultimate guide to establishing a moral compass. This is the very opposite of traditional religious belief which demands that the individual wrestle with his desires for the sake of a greater good. Religious faith among students is often subordinate to the larger culture of individualism, hedonism, materialism and even relativism. Thus, secularization still appears to be a more accurate characterization of higher education than religious diversity.
The authors are correct in detecting that in these formative years, students are alive to the basic questions which shape their existence: They seek knowledge, truth and spiritual nourishment. But students do not necessarily crave more "diversity" and choice; they often want guidance, order, structure and authority.
In order to add depth to their minds and characters, they should be taught the great religious traditions of the world. These ought to become mandatory staples of every humanities curriculum. And students must learn to respect religious traditions in their integrity, not as mere instruments of their whimsical personal tastes and choices. Still, as the book clearly demonstrates, while there are many sheep wandering across campus lost and hungry, very few are bold and brave enough to be their shepherds.

Grace Vuoto is assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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