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National Study Examines Religious Experiences and Attitudes

Rob Spach
College Chaplain Rob Spach: “Interfaith understanding and cooperation are key components of a liberal arts education.”

Davidson is one of approximately 130 colleges and universities nationwide participating in the Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), conducted by researchers at New York University and North Carolina State University.

The inaugural IDEALS survey launched to first-year students on the Davidson campus early in the fall semester. The class of 2019 will be surveyed again at the end of their first year and at the end of their fourth year.

IDEALS aims to "gather data on college students' understanding of and encounters with religious, spiritual and worldview diversity across the spectrum of American higher education."

Davidson's own place on that spectrum has become increasingly diverse in recent decades, in direct reflection of the world around it, said College Chaplain Rob Spach '84.

He cites No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, a seminal 2012 text on the subject by Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen: "Paying attention to religion in higher education today is not at all a matter of imposing faith or morality on anyone; it is a matter of responding intelligently to the questions of life that students find themselves necessarily asking as they try to make sense of themselves and the world in an era of ever-increasing social, intellectual and religious complexity."

Pluralism at Davidson

Such a broad and deep range of questions, Spach noted, are fundamental to Davidson's DNA. The college, founded by Presbyterians in 1837, stated in its charter the intention "to educate youth of all classes, without regard to the distinctions of religious denominations, and thereby promote more general diffusion of knowledge and virtue."

That intention has taken many forms over the years, but has remained central to the college's Statement of Purpose.

"There's always been a sense that Davidson's mission is not religiously sectarian," Spach said.

Although students who identify as Protestant Christians have historically been in the majority at Davidson, between 1995 and 2015 that number dropped from roughly 1,070 to 870 (46 percent of the student body).

During that same period, the number of Roman Catholic students rose from 228 to 324, and the numbers of Jewish and Muslim students increased from 19 to 97 and 12 to 25 respectively. Another 50 current students identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh or Unitarian.

Also following national demographic trends, the proportion of students who identify as "none/non-religious" now comprise a quarter of the student body.

"In our current context," said Spach, "interfaith understanding and cooperation are key components of a liberal arts education that prepares strong leaders to engage the diversity of worldviews in our communities."

Religious Literacy

IDEALS will illuminate not only the current state of religious experiences and attitudes among students, but non-religious implications for institutions of higher education.

"The needs and concerns of religiously diverse students have an impact across campuses, from admissions to class attendance to dining services to resources for religious celebrations," Spach said.

Finally, those implications will have direct application in alumni careers, of the religious and non-religious alike.

"Religious literacy is an essential aspect of many professions in our pluralistic world, from football referees to emergency room physicians," Spach said. "What's happening on the broader educational scene today is that more and more people are realizing that part of what you need to be well-educated is a greater competency both with particular religious traditions and with religious pluralism."

Learn more about religious and spiritual life at Davidson.