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Today's College Student Comes in 3 Brands: Religious, Secular, and Spiritual

In years past you likely were either religious or you didn't care to talk about it. On college campuses these days, there are more options, and sometimes students will explain their choices.
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Over the last couple of years in the United States, if you were brave or intimate enough with someone to ask about their religious views, the answer, “I’m not particularly religious but I am spiritual” probably came up a lot.

And it used to be that people who weren’t believers tended to be cagey about their answers, kind of an agnostic-lite; maybe everyone I talked to harbored a secret ambition to run for president some day. But now I hear many more strident declarations of atheistic disbelief, with a lot of people exhibiting the proselytizing zeal I’d normally associate with Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps they’re more open now that the White House is no longer barred to them....

My observations are less than scientific, but a new survey suggests not only do my experiences have some validity, but among college-age Americans these are actual trends. Drawn from the larger ongoing American Religious Identification Survey, the 2013 National College Student Survey finds that the college population can be almost evenly divided into three “worldviews”: religious, secular, and spiritual.

“This appears a durable triad,” write authors Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Connecticut’s Trinity College, “in contrast to the prevailing view that spirituality is just a way-station between religiosity and secularity.”

The survey is a sort of bridge between those two views. Kosmin, a sociologist, is both the founding director of ARIS and the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity, while Keysar, a demographer, has been involved with the ARIS study since 2001 and is associate director of the secularism institute. Trinity itself was founded by Episcopalians in 1823 (Trinity's motto is Pro Ecclesia Et Patria, or For Church and Country), but its charter “prohibits the imposition of religious standards on any student, faculty members or other members of the college, consistent with the forces of religious diversity and toleration in force at the time,” according to the school’s website. This survey was conducted in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry, a non-profit advocacy group that seeks “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.”

Among the survey respondents, the three worldview communities show distinct opinions on a range of issues, both religious and those culture war concerns seen as having a moral component.

Some of the differences are straightforward. Take belief in miracles, life after death, and ghosts or spirits. A big majority of the religious believe in miracles and an afterlife, 84 and 83 percent respectively, and 41 percent accept the existence of spirit beings. The secular are a mirror image: 13, seven, and nine percent. And the spirituals, while they may not be a way-station between the two views, are in the middle: 55, 45, and 44 percent. Given that a large majority of the religious identified themselves as Christians of various stripes, it’s not surprising that belief in karma (20 percent) and reincarnation (nine percent) were low in this group. The figures were higher, 38 and 21 percent respectively, among the spirituals, where you might expect to see more representation from Eastern and New Age movements (although 43 percent identified themselves as Christian).

Past surveys had noted the rise of what the authors termed “nones,” people who answered that when asked what religion they belonged to. In this iteration of the survey, two-thirds of the nones fall into the secular grouping, with the balance in the spiritual camp.

"This finding is a challenge to the notion that the Nones are just 'religiously unaffiliated' or religious searchers who have not yet found a religious home. This survey clearly revealed that today's students with a Secular worldview, who are mainly Nones, are not traditional theists."

Given the outsize attention that’s been paid to the religious right in the U.S., it’s no surprise—even among "liberal" college students—that the religious were most likely to identify themselves as conservative (34 percent), as opposed to moderate (22 percent) or liberal (17 percent). Some 44 percent of seculars dubbed themselves as liberal, 20 percent as progressive, and only four percent as conservative. Among spirituals, 11 percent identified as conservative, 17 percent as moderate, and 35 percent as liberal. And remember all the hoopla about Ron Paul’s college fan base? Self-described libertarians came in between five and eight percent in all worldviews.

In the culture war issues, responses tended to line as you might expect based on politics, not creed. On gun control, for instance, while a majority of religious (57 percent) agreed that the feds should do more to control handguns, that was the lowest positive response of the three views; 71 percent of spirituals agreed, and 81 percent of seculars.

On whether “women must defend their reproductive rights,” 67 percent of seculars and 60 percent of spirituals agreed, compared to 35 percent of religious. “What is noteworthy,” the authors wrote, “is that the Secular was the only group with a majority of men so this was very much an ideological rather than personal response.” The divide on assisted suicide was even starker: 71 percent of secular accepted it, compared to 49 percent of spirituals and 25 percent of religious.

But not every issue was as obvious: Asked to choose between creationism (or intelligent design) or evolution, large majorities of seculars and spirituals plumped for evolution—as did 57 percent of religious. Concern about global warming was well nigh universal across all three groups, although religious did come in the lowest at 83 percent.

One outlier among the results was fear of genetically modified food. Spirituals showed the greatest concern, 70 percent, followed by religious, 60 percent. Only among the seculars did fear fall below the half-way mark, 46 percent.

These aren’t necessarily the views of all Americans, or even of all young Americans. Those surveyed were college and university students from 38 institutions around the country who offered their email addresses to participate in the survey (they were offered a one in 10 chance of winning a $50 gift card if they did). After some further polishing of the participants pool, the authors reported that their sample roughly matched the general student population in gender and ethnicity. No particular college major stood out in any group, although STEM majors were the largest group for both the religious (40 percent) and the secular (38 percent), while the social and behavioral sciences were the largest grouping among spirituals (36 percent).