Wheaton College students graduate into a nation that is less religiously affiliated — and less Protestant — than ever before, according to data released this month by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The report found an unprecedented level of Americans who self-identify as “nones” — that is, self-described atheists, agnostics and others without a particular religious affiliation. According to the survey, about 20 percent of American adults are religiously unaffiliated. That’s a five-point jump in the past five years.
Of this unaffiliated group, about two-thirds say they believe in God, but only 10 percent identify as “seekers” looking for a religion that would be right for their lives.
While the “nones” are rising in prominence in the United States, Protestantism has dropped to 48 percent of the overall population, the report found.
“That’s the first time in our surveys where the Protestant share of the population has been significantly below 50 percent,” said Greg Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The shift away from religious affiliation is even more pronounced when broken down into generational groups: In the group of respondents aged 18 to 29, about 32 percent said they did not have a religious affiliation. This is by far the highest percentage of any age group.
The evidence suggests a permanent change among young Americans, according to Smith.
“We do know that there’s a lot of religious switching that goes on in the United States,” Smith said. “However, we know from long-term analyses that if you look at generational cohorts, they do not tend to get more religiously affiliated as they get older.”
In an explicitly Christian community like Wheaton College, to be part of this unaffiliated group is, by definition, to feel like something of an outsider.
One senior student, who identifies as an agnostic, said that although he doesn’t feel rejected by the Wheaton community, he sometimes struggles to relate to campus culture.
“There’s just one thing that’s a little frustrating, and that is I feel like there isn’t really room for the possibility of non-Christian students. So the way (professors) will ask questions, it’s with the assumption that we’re all Christians here,” he said. “And that can make some things a little awkward.”
This student is part of the 53 percent of “nones” under 30 years old who were raised in a Christian home. He moved toward agnosticism in high school and came to Wheaton College because his parents wanted him to go to a Christian college.
Another example of the “nones” among the Wheaton community is Alice Mehalek ’07, who said she came to Wheaton as the only Christian in her family and graduated as an atheist.
“The impetus for my questioning came when I became frustrated with the lack of diversity on campus — diversity of cultures, viewpoints, and life experiences,” Mehalek said in an email. “I came from a background atypical of most Wheaton students, and there was little in the spiritual messages I heard at Wheaton that spoke to my experiences in the real world.”
Mehalek said she questioned the gospel and the authority of the Bible, then began to approach religion from an anthropological perspective, and finally started to call herself an atheist.
Mehalek said she had only shared her beliefs with a handful of people by the time she graduated.
“Every aspect of being at Wheaton was designed to center around a common faith, and because I no longer shared that faith, I felt like I had no place there,” she said.
Mehalek interprets the Pew Research data as evidence that it’s becoming more acceptable overall to live without formal ties to religion.
“Calling yourself atheist or agnostic doesn’t have as much of a stigma as it used to, because it’s becoming more mainstream, and it’s not automatically assumed that non-religious means amoral,” Mehalek said.
Mehalek’s initial experience of doubt is not uncommon on campus. The Office of Institutional Research conducted a quantitative survey in 2010 that questioned 116 Wheaton seniors about their beliefs. A combined 31.6 percent said they experienced spiritual doubts “very often” or “frequently” at Wheaton, while 40.3 percent of seniors agreed strongly with the statement, “My Christian faith is stronger now than before I entered Wheaton.”
“Meeting students who have doubt is not unusual,” New Testament professor Gary Burge said in an email. “When I meet students who announce that they are no longer ‘Christian,’ it is rare — and often an overreaction to things they are struggling with.”
Burge said that students’ reasons for rejecting faith are not usually confined to intellectual struggles.
“In many cases there are other intervening issues — a harmful church, a forced religious legalism at home, a loss, inexplicable suffering, etc. — but these are not generally acknowledged,” Burge said. “It is only when the student really trusts me then we can open up all of the issues in life that have transferred to religious identity.”
Senior student chaplain Kathryn Bradford, a former resident assistant, meets with students through the Chaplain’s Office and said she tries to keep in mind the spectrum of religious belief on campus as she interacts with other students.
“That definitely makes me a lot more aware of what I’m going to say, because I recognize that I’m not just talking to the ‘super-spiritual holy kids,’” she said. “If anything, I need to be directing my conversation more to the students that don’t care or do have questions or do have doubts.”
Chaplain Stephen Kellough said he often meets with students who are experiencing doubt and encourages them to take advantage of campus resources.
“I encourage students not to foreclose too quickly,” Kellough said in an email. “I encourage students to give as much scrutiny to the direction they are moving as the place they have been. The grass on the other side of the fence may not be as green as you have imagined. Examine that grass. Take a close look at the place you intend to land.”
Photo Credits: Pew Research Center
Printed in the October 26, 2012, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.