It’s Friday night. Undergrads are turning up in the fraternity quad, the engineers in Slivka are getting ahead on their problem sets and Burger King is gearing up for its version of the Super Bowl.
But for SESP senior Dahlia Gruen, Friday marks the beginning of Shabbat – the time for her to rest. She can’t use her laptop or even write. But that’s okay. Shabbat is part of her culture and her identity.
Gruen, president of Northwestern Hillel, is an orthodox Jew, and she’s proud of it.
But this unabashed religiosity is increasingly uncommon. A 2012 Pew Research Center study reveals that 34 percent of Americans aged 18-22 describe themselves as religiously “unaffiliated” – a group that includes atheists and agnostics but also the spiritual – which is the highest level ever recorded by Pew. In other words, religion is playing less and less of a role in the lives of college students.
Gruen recognizes these changes among fellow Jews, even if she doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the same lifestyle.
Hillel is a place where students go to be reminded of where they came from and where they should be going. Conversations of morals, ethics and character arise – these conversations shape their participants for the better, regardless of belief in any higher power. It is a religious organization that forgoes mandatory religious involvement.
“We might be getting more accepting for people who want to come in as a cultural side or social side who might not be necessarily observant,” Gruen said. Hillel encourages students to participate in Jewish activities, even if they are not practicing Jews.
While many Hillel students never set foot in a temple for a variety of reasons (Gruen offered lack of time and lack of interest as two reasons), they still choose to engage in the Jewish community and benefit from its spiritual teachings. In other words, this contingent may not be religiously “unaffiliated,” as the Pew statistics suggest. According to the study, 68 percent of unaffiliated Americans believe in God and 37 percent classify themselves as "spiritual," but not "religious."
Spiritual but not religious
Affiliation with religion is in itself undesirable for some. Weinberg freshman Yuliya Yukhvidin is one of the 37 percent of Americans who identifies as “spiritual but not religious,” according to the same Pew Research Center study.
Jewish by heritage, Yukhvidin describes herself as deist, a label indicating belief in a non-intervening higher power. For her, this made more sense than organized religion. Yukhvidin occasionally attends Christian church and Shabbat dinners, but said that she is uninterested in religious hierarchies and practice. She’s content with her own observational belief that there is a God.
“I’m a very questioning person. That’s why it was hard for me to find any one spiritual power,” Yukhvidin said. “The more I studied science in high school, the more I believed in a higher power. Because everything is just too perfect.”
Yukhvidin was fed up with the praying and the regimented practices of a church, although not necessarily the basic tenets. For her, spirituality is a way to organize the world in a meaningful way – the basic goal of any religion.
Most Americans – a 73 percent majority – still call themselves Christians and claim some sort of regular practice, though this percentage has been declining.
McCormick senior Nick Klohonatz, a student representative for the Christian student organization Cru, articulated his experience as divergent from the passiveness of his childhood. Church is no longer a weekend chore, but rather the beginning of an engaging journey.
“For me, that is the start of it. There is so much more I pursue during the week because it is personal, not based on the building I'm in,” Klohonatz said about his church attendance.
Klohonatz continued that part of his faith is questioning its merit and how this careful questioning affects his relationship with God in a positive way. For Klohonatz, church is not the be-all and end-all of Christianity, but rather a jumping-off point for a personal exploration of faith.
As for Klohonatz, college has allowed Weinberg sophomore Abdullah Memon to grow religiously. Memon was raised in Pakistan, where Islam was a simple fact of life. He and his parents prayed five times a day. But Memon said that Muslims are more serious about their faith in America, particularly at Northwestern.
“[College is] where you actually realize your real identity, or you realize the meaning of being Muslim, because you can compare yourself to non-Muslims,” Memon said.
For Memon, college is busy and stressful, and he usually only manages to make three of the five daily prayers. Some students are nominal Muslims who don’t practice, while others manage all five. Memon said that he and his peers did what worked for them.
This kind of custom-fit approach to faith is what Father John Kartje, assistant professor of biblical studies at Mundelein Seminary and former staff member at Northwestern’s Sheil Catholic Center, advocates.
“[College] forced me to say, if there is a real meaning to this – my faith, my religion – I haven’t figured it out. I was looking at my faith through the eye of childhood. Every other part of me had grown up and matured,” Kartje said about coming to college.
But for all the hubbub surrounding the growing contingent of the “unaffiliated,” Kartje saw no signs of a crisis at Northwestern. He didn’t observe any precipitous drop in church attendance. Students valued Catholicism enough to fill the church on most occasions, and he was often impressed with the students’ spiritual engagement.
“One of the things I loved at Northwestern was that students walked through my doors all the time and every one of them had something different on their mind,” he said. “Some of them were just really fired up and wanting to take on the Catholic Church or questions about ‘Does God exist?’”
Different, not wrong
Kartje laments the “cottage industry” of books and speakers and studies that declare religion is on the way out. They are misguided, he said. Young people’s faith is not waning, but rather adjusting.
“Yeah, there’s different technology, yeah there are things that will characterize each generation - but what I found again and again in one-on-one conversation, in homilies or whatever, is exactly what you find in Jesus' encounters with people in the Gospels,” Kartje said. “We care about the meaning of life. We care about having loving, lasting relationships.”
That is, Kartje said, the foundations of religion have remained the same for thousands of years. It is merely the methods of practice that perpetually remain in flux.