When teaching Jewish and Christian Traditions at The University of Findlay last spring, the mix of religious and non-religious students pleasantly surprised me. Most often, the majority of my undergraduate students self-identify as Christians, but in this case, 18.5 percent of them (as best as I could figure) fit into the “nones” category, a few even identifying themselves as atheists.

Non-religious students are a growing demographic in college, including religious colleges.

Non-religious students are a growing demographic in college, including religious colleges.

While my classroom looked more like the oft-cited Pew Research 2012 survey that says 1 in 5 Americans are “nones” (unaffiliated), it is not reflective of the college demographic in general in America.

According to the newly released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) by Trinity College (Hartford, CT) and The Center for Inquiry (CFI), college students surveyed were divided three ways on religion, as “31.8% identified their worldview as Religious, 32.4% as Spiritual, and 28.2% as Secular.”

“While the Religious students in this survey were overwhelmingly Christian (70%),” reports CFI, “a near equal share of the Secular, and one-third of the Spiritual, professed no religion (‘Nones’), showing a remarkable degree of indifference to religion.”

With this new study it is clear that while most Americans are religious, one cannot assume that about students. Many students are fulfilling a religion credit or are simply interested in learning more about the beliefs of their neighbors, but not all are convinced that religion has the answers — and an academic interest in religion is not an indicator otherwise. They are the secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, irreligious, or non-religious, and the preferred nomenclature cannot be presumed.

Many, in fact, would like an opportunity to challenge religious claims.

This may have been apparent on some campuses worldwide on Sept. 30, otherwise known as International Blasphemy Rights Day (IBRD). An initiative of The Campaign for Free Expression, IBRD is held annually to commemorate the publishing of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon and to promote the preservation of the rights to freedom of expression and the freedom to question.  The annual International Blasphemy Rights Day is intended to challenge blasphemy laws and the idea that religion is above questioning.

Fear of dissent is what drives the injustice of blasphemy laws in the world, but the classroom, especially one that is becoming far more diverse, must preserve the right to dissent cordially for all parties in involved, while continuing to teach students how to study religion academically and objectively.

This new diverse student population and its rising secularity as presented in the ARIS study is one that cannot be overlooked. The field of religious studies is beginning to recognize this trend and the value of making it part of the discussion. The American Academy of Religion, for example, now includes the Secularity and Secularism Group, which provides sessions for addressing the shifting relationship between the religious and the secular. Additionally, Pitzer College graduated a student (William Holt) with a degree in secular studies earlier this year, a new program in the United States. Holt became the first student to graduate in that major, which was part of a double major — the other being religious studies.

The world is changing fast and studies like ARIS are good reminders to professors like me to pay attention in the classroom. The shifting college perspective on religion in the United States, after all, is not simply about how many non-religious students are in the classroom; it is a peek into the future leadership of America.


  1. Denis Eble

    “The shifting college perspective on religion in the United States, after all, is not simply about how many non-religious students are in the classroom; it is a peek into the future leadership of America”

    Interesting statement. It implies that ‘leadership of America’ has a religious component. Would some type of religious belief be important in the leadership of our nation? Do ‘good’ leaders have a specific religious element which determines their effectiveness as leaders? Would a non-religious leader take a different path than a religious one?

    I wonder what Mr. Withrow meant by that closing sentence?

    • Brandon Withrow

      Article author

      For clarity, I am a strong proponent of keeping politics and religion separate as much as possible, something many of our religious politicians are not good at doing. Finding a representative, but common ground, is important to me. I believe that the religious and non-religious can lead well, but what one believes can affect things and America isn’t a church or theocracy.

      These statistics make for an interesting future in politics where things may be different from what we currently have. If current national trends continue, then it may mean we could have a leadership more reflective of the diversity of the country. I felt leaving the statement you refer to open for interpretation was better than a tangent, especially since any demographic change like this signals very interesting changes in any case.

      This is something I’ve written about here before, if you’re interested.


  2. Denis Eble

    I read your excellent post back then and commented on it. I understand your stance on the necessary separation of religion and politics, yet the GOP continually throws religious red meat to its Christian base in election after election. I’m wondering, though, if that conservative Catholic base might not accept that religious pap quite as easily now that Pope Francis told his flock to beware of chewing on gays, contraception and abortion.

    Clearly, today’s youth have moved far beyond those partisan political issues as had the previous young generation. As a result of this new wave of tolerance, those old political (religious) wedge issues have become less effective in current as well as future election cycles.

    Imagine the impact of all of this. Politicians will be forced to talk about matters of governance rather than wedge issues. How American!

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