[bible2]Every Friday morning at 8:30 a.m., while most of her peers are still in their beds, Erica Donnell wakes up, goes to the gym, takes a shower and heads to Starbucks. She settles into the coffee shop\’s plush seats with about six other girls, and after some small talk, they open their Bibles and begin to pray. Donnell and the others are meeting for their weekly 11 a.m. Bible study.
While some MSU students choose to dedicate their weekends to Thirsty Thursdays, bar crawls and frat parties, Donnell devotes much of her weekend to church. She is a peer minister at the People\’s Church on Michigan Avenue, and beyond her Bible study duties, Donnell also attends the Sunday morning services, Sunday afternoon lunch and a 5 p.m. contemporary worship, followed by a group dinner.
As unusual as Donnell\’s weekend routine may seem to some college students, she is not alone. More and more students are getting involved in a form of organized religion, and for many, religion has become somewhat of a social event. \”We have a very large community,\” said Steve Wolbert, the director of student activities at St. John\’s Catholic Student Parish. \”There are 1,200 registered families from the East Lansing community, along with 5,000 or so students that walk through our doors at least once a month. It\’s just incredible. Our retreats are up nearly 50 percent from last year and that number keeps growing.\”
The growing participation at local places of worship falls in line with a national trend toward a more religious college-age population. According to a national study conducted by UCLA\’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), \”today\’s college students show a very high level of interest and involvement in spirituality and religion, and are actively engaged in a spiritual quest.\” The 2005 survey examined the varying degrees of spirituality and religiousness of 112,232 freshmen attending 236 American colleges and universities. Of those students, 81 percent attend religious services, 80 percent discuss religion or spirituality with friends, 79 percent believe in God and 69 percent pray, according to the survey\’s official report, \”The Spiritual Life of College Students.\”
[biblical3]Both Wolbert and Donnell credit this rise in participation to the fact that religious outlets have begun to cater to the schedules of college students and offer many social activities to the religious community at MSU. In order to attract new members, both organizations try to offer events that will make students feel welcome and comfortable, such as retreats, alternative spring break and group dinners.
\”We have a very open and inviting group that targets the college lifestyle,\” Donnell said. \”For example, we have Bible studies in an informal setting like Starbucks, or Theology on Tap sessions at Harper\’s. These informal settings give people who may not feel comfortable in church the opportunity to ask questions and be exposed to Christian ideas.\”
But Christianity is not the only religion on the rise. Other religious groups on campus are also noticing an increase in their membership. For example, the Muslim Students\’ Association has 30 to 40 active members that attend meetings regularly, but some of its events can bring in up to 80 participants, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
\”Everyone that I have talked to has noticed the rise in involvement this past year relative to previous years,\” said Tammam Alwan, a general management freshman and president of MSU\’s Muslim Students\’ Association. \”The majority of our new members are actually juniors and seniors who are becoming more involved in the organization.\”
Some of the association\’s hosted events include Islam Awareness Week, various discussion panels and guest speakers. \”I think [the rise in participation] is because we publicize the organization more, but we\’re also more inclusive. Not to say those previous years were not, but this year, we emphasized tolerance and acceptance more,\” Alwan said. He also credits the university, stating its administration is very tolerant and welcoming of the Muslim student population, which attracts more Muslim students to MSU.
Likewise, there are a growing number of Jewish students attending MSU, which adds to the increased involvement at the Jewish Student Union, the Hillel Jewish Student Center and other Jewish organizations on campus. \”Jewish students are becoming more attracted to MSU because of the vibrant and thriving Jewish community on campus that has been built over the past seven years,\” said Heather Kerwin, co-president of the Jewish Student Union. \”The Hillel Jewish Student Center and Jewish Studies Program have contributed greatly to the wonderful reputation MSU has for welcoming its Jewish students.\”
Hillel is located on Charles Street, and serves as an umbrella for other Jewish organizations on campus. Of the 3,000 Jewish students on campus, Hillel accommodates around 1,500 during the course of the year, according to Kerwin, a communicative sciences and disorders senior. The organization puts on various events throughout the year, such as Shabbat dinners, worship services and participating in the Relay for Life cancer walk.
\”Hillel is a home away from home for Jewish students – it has something for everyone and we try to reach all aspects of Jewish life,\” said Kerwin. \”We try to get our feet wet in all areas so we can attract many types of students. There is a range in how involved and religious a student wants to be.\”
While fun activities and social events may help to attract students to a place of worship, they are not the only reasons more students are drifting toward an organized religion. \”I think that students are just looking for more,\” Wolbert said. \”Personally, when I came to college, I wasn\’t very involved in church for the first three years. Then [during] my senior year, something just happened. I felt like something was missing, so I found a home at church. Many students need something greater in their lives.\”
Alwan would agree. \”I actually consider myself to be more religious now that I am in college,\” he said. \”In the Muslim community, many people worry that coming to a place like MSU will breed drinking and sex – which are sins in our religion – but I have improved and increased my religious beliefs.
\”The question of the rise of religion is, in my mind, a historical question. There is a natural cycle of movement, progression, or reaction when it comes to religion. For the past decade, there seems to be a movement toward atheism and agnostic ways of thinking, so I think the recent rise in religion is just the natural reaction to that movement.\”
[hands]But not all students become more religious when they come to college. Some MSU students become less involved in religion, or denounce it all together. \”It\’s really easy to fall out of the going to church ritual at college,\” religious studies senior Kristy Slominski said. \”It\’s harder to balance priorities. At college, there is more room for personal expression. They are away from their parents and their hometowns and are freer to experiment with other religious, or non-religious, traditions.\”
One group on campus, the Freethinker Alliance, caters to these students who do not identify with a certain religion. The organization was founded in 2002 for students who are not religious or secular-minded. The group now has an e-mail list-serv of about 250 people. The active membership ranges from 10 to 40 students, depending on each week\’s topic of discussion, according to Matt Childers, a member of the group\’s board. While the group is primarily for students who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, humanist or skeptical of religion in general, they do host people of all degrees of religious beliefs.
Students who do come to MSU and no longer identify as religious often do so because college forces them to question what they have previously been taught, including religion. \”At college, people are forced to think,\” said Childers, a philosophy junior. \”Rationality is the rule, so some students naturally shed small-minded beliefs.\”
Childers does recognize the increase in religious students on campus and considers the increase to be the result of more vocal religious groups. \”We sometimes call it love-bombing,\” he said. \”Students want to be accepted into a warm environment and different religious groups claim to offer that. I don\’t deny their sincerity, but they seem to use social events, retreats and so forth to get new members.\”
[churchy2]For many non-religious students, it is difficult to express their views on a campus with such a viable religious life. \”It is very lonely for many people who denounce their religion, even among families,\” Childers said. \”When you say \’I don\’t believe in your God anymore,\’ you are not just giving up a space in your brain; you\’re also giving up a community, a church, the trust of your family and a lifetime of behaviors. There was a recent study that atheists are the most distrusted people in America, so it can be very hostile.\”
Childers explained the common assumption that atheists or non-religious people are immoral or unethical. \”We get defined by negative terms and stereotypes,\” he said. \”People often use the term \’God-less\’ atheists, but I don\’t see any evidence of that type of immorality.\”
When it comes to religion however, one thing is certain – variety. There are different degrees of religious involvement on campus; from Friday morning Bible studies to atheist discussion panels, and everything in between. \”The first stereotype when it comes to religion is that people have to fall into one of two categories: that they either are extremely religious or extremely non-religious,\” said Slominski. \”But in reality, people have different degrees of religious involvement.\”
In fact, the majority of MSU students probably fall somewhere in the middle. Mechanical engineering junior Scott Slingerland considers himself religious and identifies as Catholic, but does not see himself as a church-goer. \”Personally, I find it too boring,\” he said. \”But I can completely understand why people would go weekly.\”
Slingerland takes more of a \”to each his own\” approach when it comes to the varying degrees of religious involvement at MSU. \”I don\’t really feel [religious groups\’] presence at all,\” he said. \”Every once in a while, you hear people near Wells [Hall] saying don\’t smoke or don\’t have sex, which can be really annoying. But other than that, I am not bothered by them at all. I know not all religious groups are like that.\”
As the level of religious activity on campus increases, so will the flow of ideas; different religions foster different ideas, and hopefully a higher degree of understanding. Most students agree the varying degrees of religion on campus allow them to be more exposed to different ideas and beliefs. By allowing for such a vibrant religious life, MSU is able to foster more awareness – whether a student wakes up for early morning Bible studies, explores the ideas of a religion different from their childhood, or decides to avoid organized religion completely.

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