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Religious upsurge brings culture clash to college campuses

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It's a rainy Thursday night, a few days before finals, and Northwestern University's campus is deserted. But students can hear the raucous music emanating from one old stone building long before they step inside.

"Blessed be Your glorious name!" sings a throng of 100-plus students, led by amped-up guitarists, a drummer, and backup singers on stage.

It would take more than rain or exams to keep them away from these Thursday nights of singing, praising God, and sharing their relationships with Jesus.

Religion on campus - particularly evangelical groups like this one - is thriving these days, but it doesn't always find an easy home in the intellectual, secular world of higher education. For instance, Campus Crusade for Christ, which sponsors the Thursday gatherings, has butted heads with the administration here over a questionnaire on religious interest that the group gives to freshmen. Other schools are dropping the college chaplaincy, seeing it as an outdated tradition.

The notion of the university as developer of the whole person - the life of the spirit as well as the life of the mind - has faded since the days of mandatory chapel attendance. Even colleges with religious ties are often reluctant to step into the highly sensitive terrain of spirituality. But as students express more interest in questions of values and faith - and a frustration with how little those ideas are explored in the classroom - it's clear that college culture, at least for students, isn't quite as secular as some assume.

"Higher education is kind of founded on that maxim of 'Know thyself,' " says Jennifer Lindholm, director for a recent survey on spirituality at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). "It's nice to see that students are so ... interested in these intangible aspects of themselves."

The survey she directed is the first step in a multi-year study of spirituality in higher education. And its findings are surprising. Of 3,700 college juniors surveyed, 77 percent say they pray, 71 percent consider religion personally helpful, and 73 percent say religious or spiritual beliefs have helped develop their identity.


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