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Student survey reveals distinctive Unitarian Universalist traits

Study: Unitarian Universalist college students stand out for spiritual curiosity, volunteerism, social justice work, compassion, and respect for religious diversity.
By Sonja L. Cohen
Fall 2005 8.15.05

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Of 19 religious groups in a recent survey, students identifying as Unitarian had the highest scores on measures of spiritual searching, volunteer service, social justice work, caring for others, and interest in and respect for different religious viewpoints.

The study, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, surveyed 112,232 freshmen entering 236 colleges and universities about their spiritual and religious beliefs. The results show that today’s college students have a high interest and involvement in spirituality and religion. Four in five students reported “having an interest in spirituality,” two-thirds said spirituality is a source of joy in their lives, and nearly half believe it is essential or very important to seek opportunities to grow spiritually.

About 0.4 percent of the students surveyed identified as Unitarian (Unitarian Universalist was not given as an option). Of those, 36 percent said that integrating spirituality into their lives was “essential,” and 42 percent reported having had a “spiritual experience while witnessing the beauty and harmony of nature.”

Analysis of the responses revealed two distinct clusters. Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Episcopalians, and Eastern Orthodox all scored low on what the survey called “religiousness” and high on religious skepticism, ecumenical worldview, ethic of caring, and charitable involvement. The other cluster, consisting of Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, and “other Christians,” displayed strong spirituality and religiousness, and strong religious and social conservatism.

In addition, Unitarians earned high scores in the survey’s categories of spirituality, compassionate self-concept, spiritual quest, and religious struggle. And like those students who indicated no religious affiliation, Unitarians scored low on religious commitment, religious engagement, and religious and social conservatism—lowest of all religious groups.

The study has interesting implications for UU campus ministry, said Michael Tino, young adult and campus ministry director for the UUA. “The high percentage of students interested in religious pluralism, other people’s faith, and exploring other people’s truths holds great promise for UU campus ministry,” he said. “I think a lot of students would find what we have to say an appealing message.” Tino’s staff is currently working on outreach materials, including a video, which will appeal to young adults who want a faith that is inclusive and centered on justice.

Researchers did not expect to see such a high level of spirituality and compassion from those participating in the survey. It goes against the stereotype of materialistic, self-absorbed college students, Helen Astin, a principal investigator for the project, said. “I think it calls for us to be much more cognizant and responsive to this,” she said. “The students really welcomed the chance to delve into these questions.”

Researchers are planning to do a follow-up survey when the students finish their junior year in 2007 to observe changes, new concerns and interests, and the impact of college on their personal and spiritual growth.

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