Finding Your Religion at College: 3 Questions to Guide You

There is a pernicious myth that college is a time and place where you newly liberated young people shake loose the religious bonds that brought you up and fly the value-free, decadent and aimless skies of academia.

I'm here to tell you that portrait does not in the least represent the reality of the current American college campus. While you certainly will be freer than you have been before, at college the opportunity for religious thought, experience and investigation is everywhere. If you avail yourself, investigating religion and religious beliefs will make your college experience even richer, and you will emerge as a better educated adult.

The campus of Princeton University, where I serve as associate dean of religious life, is one case in point. While mandatory chapel services ended in the 60s, each day there are multiple religious and spiritual opportunities for study, prayer, reflection and meditation in traditions from around the globe. Almost daily there are academic panels on religious thought and the role of religion in society, and there are groups formed around community service and religion, nature and spirituality, as well as an increased emphasis on inter-religious dialogue and engagement. Religion is not in any way mandatory in most institutions of higher education, yet the American college experience presents an extraordinary opportunity for deep investigation of religious beliefs and practices, both within your own faith tradition as well as across religious and ideological divides.

Why? Because for four years you will live in close quarters with students from different geographical, cultural, national and, yes, religious backgrounds. This exposure to diversity will provide you with the opportunity to learn from one another about both how you are similar and how you are different. College is the time of coming into your own and figuring out who you want to be in the world, and that includes assessing the degree to which you will take on a religious practice, as well as taking the time to understand and appreciate the widely divergent traditions of your roommate, classmates and teammates. And it is crucial that you do! To be a local, national, or global leader in the twenty-first century requires sensitivity and literacy when it comes to religious beliefs and practices; having a working knowledge of religion in all its diversity and complexity is part of what it means to be an educated person.

I like to present three seemingly simple questions to new Princeton students when they arrive on the university campus. My hope is that these questions will serve as a continuing basis for reflection as they evolve during their four years. What is certain is that their ability to answer these questions, and the answers themselves, will change during their time on campus.

The three questions are:

  1. What do you believe?

  • What does your neighbor believe?
  • How do those beliefs affect the choices you and your neighbor are making about how to live in the world?
  • 1) What do I believe?

    Everyone comes to college with a religious background of some kind. You may have been involved in your family's religious tradition and gone through rituals of confirmation, and arrived at college actively seeking religious community to continue your practice. For you, answering the question "What do I believe?" can seem easy -- you can point to the teachings of your family's religion. But college is a time when beliefs can and should be put to tests. Beginning to understand religion for yourself and coming up with your own religious practice and ideology is a process that many religious students go through. Most schools have a wide range of religious groups, some of which are peer-led, and some of which have recognized clergy persons to help you during this exciting but sometimes-difficult time.

    Other students come from a more secular or areligious households, but of course they also have answers to what they believe. Sometimes the challenge for these students is to fully flesh out what the influences are that have shaped their belief, and to identify and articulate them. College is a good time to research and claim the deep tradition of thought that undergirds a humanist approach and to be able to call upon them in times of great need or decision.

    An interesting exercise for all students entering college, no matter what your background, is to take a moment as you are preparing to arrive on campus and respond to the questions: What do I believe? What is of ultimate importance to me? Why? Where did this belief come from? These are all difficult but stimulating questions. Keep your answers and look at them in four years to compare.

    2) What does my neighbor believe?

    As I mentioned above, college is an amazing time to learn about people whose life experience is completely different from your own. Most American colleges attract students from around the world, so this means that you may be able to learn not only what life is like for a student from Ethiopia, but also how an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian celebrates Christmas! All around you are people who are resources for your increased religious knowledge -- open them up just like a textbook!

    Last year we had Religious Open Houses at Princeton, events at which the religious groups on campus welcomed other students to see what their religious observance consisted of and to offer explanations and answer questions. Until it moved into the summer, Ramadan provided the Muslim students with a great opportunity to invite the entire community to Iftar dinner, to break the fast and learn about Islam; Passover always means that anyone who wants can go to a Seder and learn about this important Jewish holiday; and there are similar opportunities across the religious spectrum. Ask a friend if you can go with him or her to mass or to meditation -- you will learn something (and there is often really good food!).

    I should emphasize that good inter-religious dialogue includes atheists and agnostics. Some of our most committed members of our interfaith council have been atheists or secular humanists who are interested in the deeper questions of meaning and truth. Many colleges have interfaith councils, and that is a great place to get involved in the question of "What does my neighbor believe?" as well as honing your answers to "What do I believe?"

    While inter-faith conversations can be difficult as we learn from our classmates new ways of thinking about the questions deepest to us, intra-faith dialogue can be even more challenging at first. At college you will meet co-religionists who identify with the same religion but have a completely different interpretation of the best way how to practice your religion. Understanding the richness and diversity within your own religious tradition is an opportunity not to be missed at college.

    3) How do these beliefs affect the choices my neighbor and I are making about how to live in the world?

    While college is about preparing for a career, it is much more than that. College is a time when you begin forming the kind of person you will be in the world for the rest of your life. Beliefs are a central part of that formation because beliefs always have corresponding ethical implications. Beliefs matter. If your beliefs are cynical, apathetic, or hostile, then your actions and dealings in the world will be, too.

    Our world needs you to be equipped with the skill, the endurance and the hope that comes from knowing what you believe and being sustained by that belief. The world needs a new generation of leaders who have learned from one another and who understand that differing beliefs do not have to lead to animosity and hostility but rather to respect and appreciation. We need young people like you who have compassion for people who are like you as well as for people who are very unlike you. We need young people like you who understand that the religious and philosophical traditions of the world are calling you to lives of service, social righteousness, and reconciliation among all peoples, and peace among religions.

    We are looking forward to welcoming you to college this fall.