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Four Truths About Spirituality and Faith on Campus

This fall, a study was released informing us of how U.S. college students view faith, religion, morality, and spirituality. Trinity College, in Hartford, CT, best known for their “American Religious Identification Survey,” partnered with the secular non-profit Center for Inquiry and asked students about their spiritual, moral, and political views. To bottom line the results, they found:

  • About a third are “true believers.” (Committed to their faith)
  • Nearly one third are “spiritual” but not religious.
  • The remaining 28% say they couldn’t care less.


Approximately 70% of the religious students were Christian, as were about 43% of the spiritual students. Most of the secular students and about a third of the spiritual ones were “nones,” meaning those with no religious affiliation. While very few Americans identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, a growing number fall into the “none” category. A recent poll from Pew Research Center found that the number of “nones” (among all Americans) grew from about 15% in 2007 to just under 20% in 2012. Still, most Americans and students believe in God, but this shift does tell us something about the spiritual climate of students today.

What are the results saying to us?

1. Students want to believe in God, but dislike the “control” of religious affiliation.

More and more, students are disassociating themselves with traditional groups or denominations because they feel the organization is too controlling. They enjoy the community such groups afford, but feel they’re confining and governed by many rules or policies. They dislike being controlled. Whether it’s true or not, some students believe those groups have become lifeless.

2. Students want a spiritual dimension in their life, but not the boundaries.

A second cousin to the above, students don’t seem to want to discard spirituality altogether; they want a higher dimension in their lives—but want God without boundaries. They are finding a way to keep God in their life without all the “legalism” or legislation. It’s morality with flexibility. It’s reflective of a world that conditions us to keep our options open.

3. Students understand that culture often views religious people as narrow.

Many of today’s students grew up with some religious identity—a youth group, a campus club, or a church. However, they quickly realize that outsiders see such groups as judgmental or narrow-minded of issues like gay marriage or global warming. So they want to maintain their own faith but remain inclusive. They’re determined to keep their faith, but remain progressive.

4. Students still long for faith in a transcendent God who cares for them.

No matter what their belief, students will find a community that allows them to be themselves and maintain a relationship with God. In fact, spirituality to them is more about a relationship than about a religious code or custom. It is real and organic, not programmed. More than two thirds of students continue to say this is who they are.

At Growing Leaders, most of our partnerships are with public schools and state universities. However, we’ve always enjoyed partnerships with faith-based schools and groups who genuinely practice their faith through caring service. We love the fact that for them, leader-development is about servant-leadership, motivated by making the world better than it was when they entered it. This is what we try to cultivate in every school we partner with and resource.

Where do your students stand on spirituality? How does it impact their leadership?


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photo credit: Josh Kenzer via photopin cc


  1. jmerc on December 12, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Sorry to point out pet peeve, but should that stat read “28% couldn’t care less”

  2. PlaidRadish on December 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Interesting article. So, how do we balance the biblical truth that the “way is narrow” if this demographic already has a bad taste in their mouth about religious people being “narrow?” Certainly, there are gray areas, but there are also black and whites in the scripture, too.

    • Tim Elmore on December 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      This is the challenge of embracing faith today. Regardless of a student’s faith, from Christianity to Islam…and even B’jai, has some points that make them different and even narrow. Unless a student has made up their own faith that has no parameters, it is impossible to appear open. Example—if I believe 4 + 4 = 8, I come across narrow to anyone who thinks the answer is 7 or 9. Anyone with convictions automatically appears narrow. This is the saddest part of the issue—that if someone embraces a faith, they ultimately appear judgmental to those outside their faith. The key is to insure it’s a central truth that offends an outsider not the person’s style or approach who does so.

  3. Jason Crowe on September 22, 2022 at 8:07 am

    I’ve been trying to do some research. And I haven’t been able to find any place anythings I read about you if you’re a Christian or not. I want to know if you believe in the Bible is God’s word and the only way to get to heaven by believing in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior.

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Four Truths About Spirituality and Faith on Campus