University News

Poll: Few change religious practices during college

Only 1 percent of students practice a different religion after coming to Brown

Staff Writer
Monday, April 15, 2013
This article is part of the series Spring 2013 Student Poll

Forty-two percent of students did not practice a religion before coming to the University and still do not practice a religion, according to a Herald poll conducted in March.

Twenty-nine percent of students said they practice the same religion with the same commitment level as they did before coming to Brown. A minority of students said their religious practices have changed since matriculating, with 9.5 percent practicing the same religion with more commitment, 12 percent practicing the same religion with less commitment and 1.4 percent practicing a different religion since starting at the University.

One percent of students have begun practicing a religion since matriculating, while 5 percent do not practice a religion but did so before coming to Brown. The Herald received 1,183 student responses to the question of religious commitment on its poll last month.

Though nearly half of poll respondents indicated they do not practice a religion, some students and faculty members said religion has a large presence on campus.

Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University, said students’ religious preferences have not drastically changed in her 23 years on campus. The percentage of students who say they do not practice religion does not accurately reflect religious practices at Brown, she said.

Students can define the act of practicing a religion differently, Nelson said, adding that for some, religious commitment may be public service or yoga, while others may attend services. Muslim Chaplain Robert Coolidge said the percentage of students who do not practice a religion may not include those who are spiritual and do not explore their religions through specific faith communities.

Students and religious leaders on campus said religion has a cultural dimension — many undergraduates may not have had any religious background before attending the University and do not view college as a time to begin to explore faith. “Religion is a place of tradition,” Nelson said.


Shopping period for religion

The diversity of student definitions of religion makes the Brown community as a whole more “religiously literate,” Nelson said.

Most students who have changed their religion since starting the University are seniors.

“Brown hasn’t affected me to the extent of making me convert to another religion or turn me into an atheist, but it did give me the ability to question and challenge Catholicism’s current approach to the modern world,” Giancarlo Hidalgo ’16, who identifies as Catholic, wrote in an email to The Herald.

Students said their peers use their college years to construct their own identities and may not initially see religion as a way to define themselves.

“College is a time for the exploration and examination of the self. Students for the first time are out on their own, and religion is one of their personal decisions,” said Executive Director of Hillel Marshall Einhorn.

Berit Goetz ’13, a contributing writer for The Herald, said that given the University’s reputation as a liberal school, the vibrance of religious communities on campus is striking. Brown’s openness allows those of the Muslim faith to be welcomed, Coolidge said, adding that though Muslims are a small community, they are “a respected minority.”


Committed to ‘a part of something’

Coolidge said he was surprised that over a quarter of students continue to practice the same religion with the same commitment level as they did before coming to the University, as there is little pressure in college to maintain religion.

The majority of students who practice the same religion with the same commitment identify as Jewish or Catholic. Einhorn said the start of the University calendar around important Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might affect Jewish students’ maintaining the same commitment to their faith. Many Jewish students who are away from home may come to celebrate the holidays, find a community with which they identify and consequently continue to practice Judaism at Brown, he said.

Chelsea Feuchs ’14, student president of Hillel, said she had such an experience. A fellow Jewish student came by her room to invite her to a Hillel barbecue on one of the first days of her first year, Feuchs said. Attending the barbecue “helped me get my bearings and helped me fit in,” she said, adding that she is more involved in a Jewish community on campus than she was at home. Most students who indicated a higher level of commitment to a religion since coming to Brown are first-years.

“Being welcome and feeling a part of something makes you feel at home again,” said Peter Fernandez ’13, who attends Catholic Mass on campus.


A break from the past

But while some students said religious communities on campus are inviting, 11.9 percent of students practice the same religion with less commitment since matriculating.

“Brown’s liberal curriculum has the effect of making one see the world in a much broader scope of thought than the much narrower scope a single religious belief could offer,” Hidalgo wrote.

But the general college environment might cause undergraduates to stop practicing faith, Fernandez said. “It’s not strictly Brown,” he added.

Students in a new environment in college seek balance between their academic and social lives. “It can be hard to mesh a lot of religious practices with University life,” Feuchs said.

Coolidge said it is hard to keep consistency in an environment that provokes questioning. Catholics may be more likely to practice their religion with less commitment because those who attended Catholic schools may have felt a lack of “ownership of their faith” before college, Goetz said.


The hang-up of religion 

Some students said a lack of awareness of the religious opportunities on campus explains the 5 percent of students who stop practicing a faith. Fernandez said that many first-years may not know where the church is — and after the first few weeks of not attending Mass, the activity fades from Catholic students’ routines, he said. Religious beliefs on campus could be hard to pursue if students do not know who to turn to if they have questions about faith, Goetz said.

Outside of religious spaces, students generally feel comfortable practicing their religions, but there are exceptions, Coolidge said. By engaging in a religion, “they may feel they open themselves up to criticism that would get in the way of building relationships,” he said.

Nelson said in her years as University chaplain, she has sometimes heard religious stereotyping. “While religion can offer a lot in terms of community and support, it has a stigma,” Feuchs said. “People assume things when you mark yourself as religious.”

But Fernandez said he has been able to have religious conversations with non-practicing students. He said when he tells peers that he goes to mass, they may just ask him why he attends.



Written questionnaires were administered to 1,202 undergraduates March 13-14 in the lobby of J. Walter Wilson and the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center during the day and the Sciences Library at night. The poll has a 2.55 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. The margin of error is 3.9 percent for the subset of males, 3.4 percent for females, 5.1 percent for first-years, 4.7 percent for sophomores, 5.4 percent for juniors, 5.2 percent for seniors, 3.8 percent for students receiving financial aid, 3.4 percent for students not receiving financial aid, 6.5 percent for varsity athletes and 2.8 percent for non-athletes.


Find results of previous polls at

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  1. 2011 Alumna says:

    Janet Cooper Nelson says that the “percentage of students who say they do not practice religion does not accurately reflect religious practices at Brown.”

    I think we can trust students to accurately characterize how they do or not practice. Why this need to explain away evidence of non-belief and/or apathy about religion?

  2. We obviously need a Scientology group at Brown. These numbers would be radically different. The pervasive perspective of, “if you can’t speak in tongues, why speak at all?” is so 20th Century.

  3. TheRationale says:

    “Coolidge said it is hard to keep consistency in an environment that provokes questioning.”

    This seems like an admission of the observation that people who question their religion tend to lose it. 42% were nonreligious to start, which is wildly out of proportion with the rest of the US population. Really, I’m impressed that there are 53% who still practice to some degree. Not to incite a flame war, but these old myths don’t have any grounding in reality, and you’d think that if you assembled 6,000 top students in the nation and world that it would be an atheist factory. And really as a byproduct of the education and inquisitive environment, not because of any movement or conscious effort.

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