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Are We Losing Our Religion?

Campus | October 29, 2012

At Tufts, there is an undeniable clash between devotion to one’s religion and the secularly charged atmosphere of an intellectual, liberal community. Most students at Tufts believe in calculated patterns of global politics and human reactions, rather than the immeasurable presence of a divine power. This disengagement from religion is not unique to Tufts, but rather a logical transition that many college-aged students experience. Attempting to forge their own identity and form of spirituality, students on campus often turn away from organized religion to discover alternative ways to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

Rabbi Jeffery Summit, executive director of Tufts Hillel, recognizes that many students compartmentalize their religion while at college. He says, “When people go to college, they are actively trying to define their own identity. For lots of people, that translates to breaking away from what they did when they were younger at home. It’s not unusual to be at college and try to broaden your experience by stepping away from the past.” Despite a majority of irreligious students on campus, the small but strong group of students who are connected to their religion should not be overlooked. Tufts’ Protestant Chaplain Rachael Pettengill-Rasure identifies this religious group and its inherent value to campus. She states, “It is incredibly important to have communities of faith on campus because there are still students who choose to continue to practice the tradition they grew up in as well as explore new ones.”

Sophomore Leif Inouye falls into the former group of students. Inouye was raised Mormon and grew up going to church every Sunday with his family. At Tufts, he continues to attend a weekly service at a congregation in Harvard Square that is designated specifically for college-aged students. While Inouye’s religion and practices are fairly unique on campus, he benefits from being a minority at Tufts. Inouye states, “People tend to view Mormons as being aggressive with religion, but I am trying to create a bridge between secularism, faith, and God. I like being an example of religion in a way that debunks myths about the religion itself.” He finds that Tufts students are generally very open to learning about his religion. While educating others is an underlying principle of Mormonism, Inouye admits that he is not entirely comfortable with the idea of participating in a mission and proselytizing. This is not a unique phenomenon; many religiously observant individuals question the applicability of fundamental principles of religion. As a result, they turn to other methods of discovering meaning in their lives.

Sophomore Leah Petrucelli, an active member of the Catholic Church, finds that religion is still prevalent on campus and that college students are simply exploring religion in new ways. She says, “I participated in a Bible study last year and the group of Tufts students that attended varied greatly in their dedication to Christianity. Some wanted to try another form of worship, some wanted to learn more about the foundation of many faiths, and some were just looking for something to believe in.” Petrucelli feels that the desire for significance and value is still present on campus, but is being sought in an alternative light. Students are searching for meaning, which is something traditionally provided by religion.

One needs only to look at the plethora of clubs on campus to understand the notion that many students are actively searching for purpose in their everyday lives. For example, Inouye turns to hiking with the Tufts Mountain Club for an element of spiritual satisfaction. He explains, “Humans inherently want those defining moments in life. Hiking and being alone on a mountain is as close to God as you can get. Completely devoid of any influence, it’s you and the world. You’re as alone as you can possibly be. Sitting on natural creation, your phone is out of range, you’re completely unaltered. It’s almost more religiously fulfilling than church. It’s more real.” Devout or not, students may gain exposure to religious experiences through different lenses, including feeling something bigger than themselves by exploring nature.

Both Rabbi Summit and Chaplain Pettengill-Rasure acknowledge that the fluid nature of religion at Tufts mirrors a nationwide trend. Pettengill-Rasure purports, “It is true that Christian churches are in decline throughout the country, but I believe this is part of a larger shift in culture and religion. We are in the process of exploring new ways to be a church in the 21st century.” While the face of religion may change with time, judging by the desires and outlook of each individual, the core of religion is enduring. As students, we might not take time out of our busy schedules to sit in church every Sunday morning, and we might not personally believe in a concrete idea of God, but we are certainly surrounded by people who are trying to sift through the mundane to find those rare moments of exception. The quest for meaning is ongoing at Tufts, and in that sense, religion is all around us.