'No Longer Invisible'

A new book argues that colleges can find revitalization by paying more attention to religion on campus.

October 25, 2012

In 2008, Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen edited a book that suggested American higher education had entered a "postsecular age," as students increasingly come to campus wanting to explore their own religion and spirituality (The American University in a Postsecular Age, Oxford University Press). The next step for the couple, who are both professors at Messiah College, an evangelical Christian college in Pennsylvania, was a national tour of campuses from "MIT to Ava Maria, Penn State to Pepperdine." 

The result is a new book, No Longer Invisible (​Oxford University Press), in which the Jacobsens argue that colleges -- whether or not they are religiously affiliated themselves -- need to do a better job of understanding and engaging with religions on campus. "More careful and nuanced attention to religion," the authors write, "can be a source of revitalization for higher education as a whole."

The Jacobsens (Douglas is a professor of religion, and Rhonda of psychology, at Messiah; together they direct the college's Religion in the Academy project) spoke with Inside Higher Ed about the issues raised in their book, the new nature of religion on campus and how colleges can better deal with religion and religious students.

Q: Your title, No Longer Invisible, refers to a resurgence of religion on college campuses. Was religion ever truly "invisible" in higher education? How does religious expression in college differ now from in the past?

A: Religion has never been truly “absent” from higher education. There have always been religious individuals among the faculty, staff, and student bodies of American colleges and universities, and religious or spiritual questions — the big questions of human meaning and purpose — have always been part of higher learning. The historic religions — like Christianity, Judaism, Islam — have also always been subjects of study, though certainly not at every school. So, in one sense, religion has always remained part of the college experience. 

That said, there was a time during the mid- to the late-20th century when many institutions of higher learning tried to bracket religion from campus life. Religion was deemed a private affair, something to keep to oneself, and religious questions were not supposed to intrude into the curriculum. The hope was for religion to be invisible.

There were a variety of reasons for taking this approach, including longstanding tensions between science and theology and between a generally enlightened view of the world (as in “the Enlightenment”) and the more parochial orientations of traditional faith. But the immediate motivation in the second half of the 20th century derived from the theory of secularization: the belief that society as a whole was becoming less religious and that religion itself might be headed toward oblivion. Some leading educators assumed that they should be preparing students to live in a world where religion was no longer a significant factor in personal or social life. At this current point in history, the theory of secularization has lost its credibility. It is evident that religion in a multiplicity of forms continues to have significant influence in the contemporary world, and religion has returned to visibility in higher education.

One point needs to be underscored. Religion as it has “returned” to colleges and universities is not equivalent to what was there a half-century ago. Religion in America today is pluriform, by which we mean it is both pluralistic — there are many different religions represented in American society — and it is religio-secularly “brackish,” meaning that there are very fuzzy borders separating religious beliefs and behaviors from deeply held secular beliefs and behaviors. Religion has returned to visibility in higher education partly because it is no longer possible to segregate religious or spiritual orientations from other ways of life and thought.

Q: How do colleges generally deal with religion now? Why are those methods insufficient, from your perspective?

A: In No Longer Invisible we identify four “trail markers” that are already in common use to guide policymaking about religion at colleges and universities: (1) making a distinction between religion and spirituality, (2) distinguishing teaching about religion from teaching religion itself, (3) labeling discussions of religion as “difficult dialogues,” and (4) repackaging religious concerns as “big questions” that apply to everyone. These trail markers all provide helpful guidance for dealing with religion in the university context, because they translate matters of faith into categories that are more amenable for academic discussion and debate. Nonetheless, these four trail markers are insufficient because they fail to comprehend religion in all of its contemporary pluriform complexity. The second half of No Longer Invisible describes a broader and more constructive framework for understanding religion and its various connections with higher learning.

Q: In the book, you talk about the need for colleges to be "good hosts" when dealing with a student body in which many religions are represented. What does a "good host" college look like?

A: What we mean by this is really quite simple. Being a good host means first of all understanding who one is hosting. In the case of religion, this means recognizing the very real diversity of religion that exists on any given campus. Hosting also involves being respectful of one’s guests — i.e., students. In relation to religion, this means looking for positive points of connection between personal religious perspectives and the learning experience. Obviously higher education has a responsibility to be critical of religion as well as respectful of it, but respect is a necessary counterpoint to criticism.  Finally, a good host also encourages conversations and nourishes interpersonal relationships, which in the area of religion means encouraging constructive interfaith conversation and friendship, not only among different religions, but also across the lines of difference represented by religious views of the world and other secular faiths or moral life stances.

Q: Interfaith involvement is an emerging trend on campuses. Why do you think this approach is becoming popular?

A: Healthy interfaith relationships are a prerequisite for constructive engagement in civic life. Inter-religious tensions contribute to violence and social unease around the world, so many colleges and universities see it as a moral imperative to help individuals and groups representing different religious traditions to learn how to talk with each other and work together for the good of society. This includes helping students become reasonably literate about the ideas and ideals of the world’s differing religions. It also includes learning how to engage in public service projects with those of differing faiths, something that is happening at hundreds of colleges and universities. 

Efforts to build healthy interfaith relationships have also led many colleges and universities to think more carefully about their treatment of different historic religious traditions. Each campus develops its own unique approach, but most schools strive to be respectful of the personal practices of individual students and to celebrate the cultural distinctiveness of each group. At Wellesley College, for example, each religion on campus has two representatives on the chaplain’s advisory board, so Christianity gets two representatives and so does Baha’i.  At the Air Force Academy, by contrast, meeting space on campus is allocated proportionally, so Protestants have a large chapel, and Jews, Buddhists, and Wiccans have much smaller gathering places. At Penn State, a public university, all student-initiated religious groups and moral/ethical associations have equal access to the recently-constructed spiritual center on campus.

Q: Is there a risk that a growing recognition of religion by colleges could alienate students who are atheists or agnostic? One in four Americans aged 18 to 29 has no religious preference, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

A: When today’s emerging adults say they have no religious preference, it does not mean that they are anti-religious or that they have no interest in religious or spiritual matters. Many “non-religious” young people are devout in their own ways, including those who consider themselves to be “spiritual” rather than religious. Some are like the novelist Anne Rice who “quit” Christianity because she wanted to remain committed to Jesus, and for her that necessitated a separation from “his quarrelsome and disputatious followers.”  Many students find meaning in a variety of different religious and secular experiences and philosophies, and they prefer not to be assigned to one particular religious category.  This is perhaps the main reason young adults are hesitant to formally join traditional religious groups. But it is also true that there are more atheistic and agnostic students on American campuses than ever before.  Many of the schools we visited have accordingly encouraged the development of active atheist/agnostic student groups on campus to ensure that all students, secular or religious, are treated fairly and equally.

Q: You write in the preface that you thought you could "bracket any Protestant intellectual biases we might have," but discovered instead that it took work to become "more religiously, spiritually and secularly multilingual." What kind of advice do you give to faculty or administrators undergoing a similar learning process?

A: All educators and researchers face a similar challenge. Each one of us is the product of our experiences, intellectual and cultural and spiritual. Despite years of training in religious studies (Douglas) and psychology (Rhonda), we recognize that we still have a host of internalized Protestant impulses that sometimes bubbled to the surface.  By this, we mean especially Protestantism’s emphasis on ideas more than practices and on the individual rather than the group. Of course, we are not alone in this Protestant bias, since Protestantism’s broad cultural influence has shaped almost all of American higher education. This is even true at some self-defined “secular” liberal arts colleges where a Protestant ethos often prevails even though these schools have never been formally church-related.

What became increasingly evident to us during the course of our research is the richness of genuinely multi-religious conversations, because each tradition views the world at a different slant which can generate a creative mixture of insights and debates. Talking across lines of religious difference can be difficult work, requiring new skills of dialogue and self-awareness, but we think this is a necessary undertaking in today’s multi-faith global society. Feminists and multiculturalists have been saying something similar — that difference is a powerful fulcrum for learning — for decades, and higher education’s new engagement with religion is driving that point home with new vigor.


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