May 02, 2007

NYT report: College Students Curious (More than Ever) About Religion

I'm drawing attention to this article in the New York Times ( "Matters of Faith Find a New Prominence on Campus" because it is typical of the coverage religion is getting these days.

Here are some highlights in which nothing much at all is actually said and when somthing is it's vague:

“All I hear from everybody is yes, there is growing interest in religion and spirituality and an openness on college campuses,” said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. “Everybody who is talking about it says something seems to be going on.”


"David D. Burhans, who retired after 33 years as chaplain at the University of Richmond, said many students “are really exploring, they are really interested in trying things out, in attending one another’s services.”


Here's my favorite, which closes the article:

"Among the new clubs is one created last year to encourage students to hold wide-ranging dialogues about spirituality and faith. Meeting over lunch on Thursdays in the chapel’s basement, the students talk about what happens when you die or the nature of Catholic spirituality.....

"The discussion was off and running, with one student saying one needed only to believe in “something outside yourself” and another saying that “sometimes ‘Thank you’ can be a prayer...”

"...Afterward, several students talked about what attracted them to the sessions, besides the sandwiches, chips and fruit. Gabe Conant, a junior, said he wanted to contemplate personal questions about his own faith. He described them this way: “What are these things I was raised in and do I want to keep them?”

Look, I'm pleased as punch that folks are asking these difficult questions, but this article reads like something from the Onion--"Something's going on, but no one knows what it is, really." I mean the tone the article takes is, "Holy shit, what's going on here--this is weird--college students asking deep existential questions!!"

I have an idea, why don't you actually interview some of the students instead of just getting talking-head pull-quotes from chaplains, sociology and religion professors? And why no interview with an actual theologian?

But maybe the most clear sign that, as I argue in my book, the mainstream press is not at all equipped to cover matters of religion is this moment:

"The Rev. Lloyd Steffen, the chaplain at Lehigh University, is among those who think the war in Iraq has contributed to the interest in religion among students. “I suspect a lot of that has to do with uncertainty over the war,” Mr. Steffen said."

Notice the way his view is characterized "among those who think," as though it is widely known that there are all these other people expressing this opinion. Similarly, the caption of the accompanying photo [a group of Colgate students sitting in a circle, heads bowed in prayer] reads: "One of a growing number of religious student groups at Colgate." Here, the phrase "growing number" is used to gesture, imprecisely, toward an increase in an unknown number of religious groups. For all we know, this is the only one, but surely more are expected given this nation-wide epidemic of faith. And this is to say nothing of the ambiguous "uncertainty" in the Iraq War that had "a lot" to do with an interest in religion among students.

So what's the point of such an article? What is its newsworthiness on a scale of 1-10? I give it a 3, but it could have been much much higher had the writer focused on the students and why they're asking these meaningful questions.

1 comment:

Hundred Dollar Blog said...

Hey-- Mark Shiner here, the "talking head chaplain" in the article. Actually, Alan Finder spent three full days at Colgate, talking to about 300 different people including "actual theologian" Rebecca Chopp, former head of the AAR and our University president. Blame the quality of the article on the editors of the Times, not on the reprter. He did his work but a LOT of it was left on the floor of the editing room. If you want numbers from Colgate, feel free to contact me via email or phone (look me up on Colgate's web site-- don't want to post those here) and we can talk. I can confirm, though, that we've seen an explosion of interest in religious life in the last few years. Thanks, Mark