Religious Education in the Age of Reason

Graphic by Madi Reyes/ Graphics Center

I wanted to attend a Jesuit college because I thought it would help me feel complete. I’d grown up going to public schools — excellent ones, certainly — but, being secular, not exactly places to explore religious thought. What drew me specifically to USF was encountering students representing the St. Ignatius Institute (SII) at a Discover USF event. I was thrilled by the idea of being part of a university focused on theology, philosophy, and the humanities. Coming from a mixed Catholic and Buddhist household, I felt welcomed by the message that SII would be rooted in tradition but open to those from less orthodox faiths like myself. Arriving at USF, I expected to be one of a few non-traditionally Catholic students. I was surprised to find that indicating any sort of religion made me an outlier.

The Foghorn conducted a poll through Fizz, an anonymous college campus social media app, where users must have a “@dons.usfca.edu” email address to become a member. The Foghorn asked, “Are you religious?” Out of 1,265 responses, 50% of students identified as nonreligious while another 25% self-described as “spiritual but not religious,” leaving only 25% identifying as religious, without specification for which religion. 1,265 is well beyond the number of responses necessary to have a statistically representative response, but according to industry standard, the poll’s margin of error is +/-3%. Further complicating the results, undergraduate students are overrepresented on Fizz, with first-years and sophomores being the majority of active users.

However, these statistics are consistent with larger-scale trends. According to Axios, 43% of people from 18 to 29 identify with no religion. This made me wonder: The heart of USF’s appeal is its promise of Jesuit values. But what does upholding these religious educational traditions look like, and how do they appeal to a generation of students turning away from faith?

I understand what the more universal allure of Jesuit education in the twenty-first century might be. The emphasis on collaboration and social justice espoused by Jesuit universities feels comforting and human. It’s nontraditional, but there is something refreshing about the softer approach to religion that is reminiscent of modern relationships: more casual about expectations, yet respectful and fun. I’ll always fondly remember one of my first mentors here nervously admitting over pizza after Mass that she had spent the earlier half of the day at a leather show, and another’s solemnity about the significance of pronouns in her spiritual practice.

Is USF devout? A bit, yes; broadly, no. The boldness with which religious schools claim monopoly of the capital-T Truth may be diminished, but the quiet confidence of Jesuit educational traditions such as self-reflection and service to others continues, though stated in more secular, ambiguous language. USF is not losing its religious roots. Rather, the University is following a sort of Vatican II route to relevance in the higher education market, a strategy whose financial and spiritual efficacy only time will tell.

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, Opinion Editor: Chisom Okorafor

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