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The Changing Role of Religion on Campuses Across the Country

By University Communications

Do students lose their religion when they enter college? It’s a common question asked, and the answer is not always clear.

Dr. John Schmalzbauer, associate professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, says no.

According to Schmalzbauer, there was an increase in new religious immigrants from different parts of the world in 1965. This resulted in the growth of Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Around that time, more Americans saw themselves as spiritual or on a quest of some kind.

College campuses also saw rapid growth of evangelical ministries.

These factors and others influenced the role of religion within public and private institutions.

“There was something stirring up religion in higher education in many fields,” Schmalzbauer said. “Often people view higher education as a very secular place and fail to notice the attention to the sacred, religion and spirituality.”

For the baby boomer generation, it was commonly known that the more you are educated, the more likely you are to lose your religious identity, Schmalzbauer said.

But for millennials and Generation X, it is flipped.

“Education does not erode your commitment to organized religion or to a spiritual quest; it may heighten it,” Schmalzbauer said.

One reason is the increased accessibility for new religious initiatives in higher education. The increased role of religion in American politics, geopolitics and global affairs is also a big factor.

Not only has Schmalzbauer seen an increased focus on religion for individuals, but also in school curriculums.

“There are people in almost every field, especially in the humanities, social sciences, health care and law, who are trying to take this dimension of human experience seriously,” Schmalzbauer said. “The increased visibility of religion is a combination of people of faith and those who see it mainly as an object of study.”

Schmalzbauer and historian Dr. Kathleen Mahoney deeply examine this research and beyond in “The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education,” published in September.

Lilly Endowment, a foundation that promotes and supports religious purposes, initially funded the duo’s research.

“It is important that the book came out during a time when people are trying to weigh the importance of fields in the humanities and decide on their futures,” Schmalzbauer said. “It’s unclear right now how long-lasting serious attention to religion in higher education will be.”

For more information about the book, check out the Baylor University Press website.