Study connects gender, ethnicity to spirituality

Gender and ethnicity go hand in hand with religious beliefs, according to a new study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

The report, titled “Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose,” found large disparities regarding spiritual involvement between races. The study’s data came from a survey that was initially developed as a four-page questionnaire and administered to just a sample of college juniors in spring 2003, according to the study’s co-principal investigator, Alexander Astin. However, the survey was launched full-scale last fall, and was administered to 112,232 freshman students at 236 institutions.

Of the students surveyed, the majority — 76 percent — were white, while 8 percent were black, 7 percent were Asian, 5 percent were Latino, 2 percent were American Indian and 1 percent were Pacific Islander. The survey found blacks to be far more engaged with religion and spirituality than other nonwhite students, according to Astin, who also is founding director of HERI. Almost all blacks surveyed professed a belief in God, at 95 percent. However, the report found that Asians rated among the lowest in that category, with 65 percent saying they believed in God. As a whole, Asians were found to be the most likely to be religious skeptics, a HERI press release stated.

The study found that race is also connected to which type of religion students practiced, with 47 percent of black students surveyed identifying themselves as baptists.

The practice of certain religions might have contributed to certain levels of religiosity.

“We’ve found that Baptists are normally more involved in [spiritual] and religious practices,” study researcher Jennifer Lindholm said. “So, with that being said, that could be a major reason why African Americans are very religious.”

The survey was organized into 12 factors, which included levels of spirituality and participants’ involvement in religious activities.

HERI researchers plan to administer a follow-up survey to the same students in spring 2007 to record changes in religious trends.

While they have no solid expectations, researchers do anticipate a drop in religious activities, Lindholm said.

“We’ve seen it in past longitudinal studies that religion has fallen off the map, for whatever reason, as students get older,” she said. “Religious activities such as prayer are less frequent, and students become less inclined to answer larger questions such as, ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What is my purpose?’”

The survey also showed that men were much more likely to be skeptical of religion than women. The largest gaps between men and women were in categories of charitable involvement and religious commitment.

“The project is based in part on the realization that the relative amount of attention that colleges and universities devote to the ‘exterior’ and ‘interior’ aspects of students’ development has gotten out of balance,” Astin stated in the report. “We have increasingly come to neglect the student’s inner development — the sphere of values and beliefs, emotional maturity, spirituality and self-understanding.”

Astin and HERI researchers were actually expecting greater gender differences in religion than they found, Astin said. Initial surveys of college juniors revealed a much larger gender difference in religious beliefs than the current survey of freshmen, Lindholm said.

The report also suggested that students who are more spiritual have better psychological well being. Of the students surveyed, 58 percent of students who rated high in spirituality said they “frequently felt at peace/centered,” while only 18 percent of students who rated low in spirituality said the same.

Religiously engaged students also have better physical health, according to the report. Forty-one percent of highly engaged religious students said they maintained a healthy diet. In comparison, 33 percent of students who were not religiously engaged said they had a healthy diet.