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Surveys Confirm the Spiritual Struggle of College Students

  • Dean Hardy Agape Press
  • 2005 6 Sep
Surveys Confirm the Spiritual Struggle of College Students

After the examination of three recent surveys of hundreds of teenagers and over 100,000 college students, it seems as though college students' beliefs concerning the existence of God, eternal punishment, the religious beliefs of their parents, and a general security in their own faith have been swayed since their teenage years. While many teenagers seem to have a strong foundation for their faith, college students are slipping into doubt and insecurity. This conclusion brings new insight and motivation for ministers and teachers of teenagers and college students.

The Battle Defined

The transition from high school to college is one of the most pivotal times in a young person's life. After departing from under the protective wings of parental figures, young adults often have problems that manifest themselves in various ways. Whether mental/intellectual, spiritual, physical addictions or health difficulties, college seems to be the time when the most serious problems arise. Katie, a strong Christian and a college freshman writes, "I went to [the University of North Carolina at Charlotte] feeling totally ready, excited to just get away and do something new and exciting, not realizing that I was entering into the most intense battle I've experienced yet in life. Spiritually, mentally, relationally ... in every aspect ... my freshman year of college was a battle."

Three recent surveys -- one regarding American teens, one focusing on college freshman, and one pertaining to college juniors -- shed considerable light on the subject. Dr. Christian Smith's Soul Searching includes the results of 267 face-to-face interviews with teenagers age 13-17. Smith's goal was to understand the spiritual and religious identities and beliefs of teenagers across America. Alternatively, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA conducted a study entitled, "The Spiritual Life of College Students" [PDF]. The study included the results of 112,232 surveys of freshmen from 236 different colleges and universities. The intention of the study was to report on many spiritual issues and how these issues affect other areas of life such as politics and health. It should be observed that the subject of this study is college freshmen. Their professors, new friends, and advisors have not yet heavily influenced these college students. With this in mind, occasionally included are statistics from a less extensive UCLA survey of 3,680 college juniors entitled, "Spirituality In Higher Education: A National Study of College Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose."

While the survey results do not exclusively consider the theistic God of Christianity, the amount of students who were once "theistic" and now claim no belief in God can be calculated. While 84 percent of teenagers state that they believe in a god, 79 percent of college freshmen claim that there is some supernatural element to the universe. While the difference may seem to be a mere 5 percent, take into account that the United States Census Bureau reported that there were over 13 million college students in the fall of 2003. This means that each year over 150,000 new freshmen change their mind about their belief in God. Also, it can be suggested that this slippage into a naturalistic worldview will only be increased over the next three years of a liberal college education.

Doubt Creeps In

A college student recently wrote in an e-mail to me, this "brings up an issue of maybe hell doesn't exist. I am completely unsure and I was wondering what your thoughts were." This student's dilemma is not unique. While 71 percent of teenagers agree that there will be a judgment day when God punishes evildoers, only 63 percent of college students agree that God will punish those who reject Him. But if there is no hell to be saved from, the meaning of "salvation" has been devalued and the concept is deemed superfluous.

Are teenagers and college students secure and confident in their religious beliefs? This topic is where the biggest differentiation is observed. Only 19 percent of teenagers have "some" or "many" doubts, while 80 percent say they have very few to no doubts at all! Contrast this with the mere 42 percent of college freshmen who state they are secure in their religious beliefs. As far as the juniors are concerned, "Two-thirds (65%) report that they question their religious/spiritual beliefs at least occasionally (18% frequently), and a similar number (68%) say that they are 'feeling unsettled about spiritual and religious matters' at least 'to some extent.'"

There is no denying that college is a place where doubt creeps into the faith of young adults. Unfortunately, the statistics show that over time the doubts do not fade away; rather, they multiply. It may begin with a comment from a friend, a lecture by a professor, even a monologue from a movie, but when the doubts get ignored this could eventually result in skepticism. When one's worldview begins to crumble, that person's outlook on reality and identity becomes smeared -- and unless some external force steps in to help, they will be trapped in this tangled web of doubt.

Parents and Professors

An interesting feature of the surveys is the spiritual similarity of parents to their children. Most would speculate that during the rebellious teen years is when a teen disconnects himself from his parents on religious matters. But Dr. Smith concludes that nothing could be further from the truth: "About three in four teens in the United States consider their own religious beliefs somewhat or very similar to their parents." Alternatively, 52 percent of college freshmen openly admit that they disagree with their parents on matters of religion. Even more disconcerting is the outlook of third-year students: "One-third (38%) of the students report feeling 'disillusioned with my religious upbringing' at least 'to some extent.'" There seems to be no doubt that college students have realized that one's faith should not be based solely on the authority of a parental figure. But unfortunately it does not seem that they know what to base their faith on, nor do they have the tools to differentiate between truth and fiction.

While it is purported that college freshman are hoping that their college experience helps them to develop spiritually, it is ironic that third-year students are quite obviously upset that this spiritual development is not occurring in the classroom:

Despite the fact that considerable numbers of students are "searching for meaning and purpose in life" (75%) and discussing spirituality with friends (78%), more than half (56%) say that their professors never provide opportunities to discuss the meaning and purpose of life. Similarly, nearly two-thirds of the students say professors never encourage discussions of spiritual or religious matters (62%). While 39% say their religious or spiritual beliefs have been strengthened by "new ideas encountered in classes," 53% report the classroom has had no impact. ["Spirituality In Higher Education: A National Study of College Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose"]

It's unfortunate that half of college juniors have not felt that their attendance in a classroom has not had an impact on them spiritually. While the college administration might claim that it is not the goal of the university to foster spiritual development in the classroom, it would seem that discussion of spiritual topics in class might contribute to the education of the student, while also encouraging tolerance among the classmates.

Providing the Tools

In conclusion, it appears as though many teenagers are confused about Christianity and often go to college unprepared to defend the gospel. Those who teach young people -- parents, Bible teachers, and youth group leaders -- should realize that many Christians who become college students have the tools needed to distinguish between worldviews, as well as determine which worldview is true.

For instance, 75 percent of the entire group of teenagers surveyed claim that they are Christian, yet only 65 percent believe in the theistic God of Christianity. Therefore one out of ten young Christians mistakenly states that God is deistic or even pantheistic. Even more confusing is the fact that 22 percent of teens who call themselves deists claimed that they have felt "very or extremely close to God." But of course, by definition, how could a deistic god relate to his creation?

Teenagers simply need the tools to help them intellectually understand the differences between the worldview of Christianity and other religions. But where are they to get these tools? The public schools do not discuss worldviews or philosophies of life. It is up to the Christian community to do its duty and teach our youth how to think about reality, death and the afterlife, the status of man, truth, ethics, and the existence of God. It seems that without some sort of theological training as well as some form of pre-emptive apologetics, these teens will eventually become confused college students who may end up submitting to the naturalistic presuppositions purported by a majority of their professors.

Dean Hardy ( has been a high school teacher of Christian apologetics for five years and is currently ministering at Charlotte Christian School in Charlotte, NC. He earned his B.A. in Religion from Palm Beach Atlantic University and his Masters in Apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary.

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