(RNS) — Over the last decade, college campuses across the U.S. have seen a rise in the number of students who identify as “nones,” a category invented by pollsters and demographers to describe that combination of students who identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” According to the Pew Research Center in 2023, about 28% of U.S. adults are religiously unaffiliated.

More than 50% of the 1,000 or so students on the campus I serve as chaplain identify as nones — at least on the box they checked when asked about their religion or spirituality when they applied for admission. We’re not an unusual campus in this regard, as many others in the U.S. share a similar statistic.

In the days before the rise of the nones, it used to be easier for a chaplain to pinpoint what a student would come talk about. Early in my career, a student who identified as a Christian was referred to me because what she had been taught in Sunday school about the creation story wasn’t meshing with what she was learning in anthropology class. 

Students who identify as nones come to me today out of curiosity more than anything else. Their questions start with, “What is a chaplain? I’ve never heard of that before.” After that first question, the conversation can veer off in many directions. Often, they want to know what other religious, spiritual or philosophical groups on campus I recommend they try out. I find that they are open to this kind of exploration. 

Because so many of today’s college students aren’t tied to a tradition, they have greater permission and flexibility to explore the ways they make meaning and purpose out of life. This means testing the waters with a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

One student I met with recently came to me because she was referred by our college counselor. She went to him about a different issue, but in the course of their conversation, she mentioned that she had been to a retreat with a shaman recently. When she came to talk with me, I learned that she had traveled to North Carolina to attend a weekend retreat where she experimented with the psychedelic plant ayahuasca. Once a symbol of campus counterculture rebellion, many schools are now seeing the merit of the tie between psychedelics and spirituality.

They have more ways to test new belief systems on campus as well. 

On the campus I serve, our religious diversity is something we pride ourselves on and have for more than 35 years. Students practice their faith in community weekly and hold their episodic holy days on a large scale to introduce students from other faiths and none to their beliefs, traditions, food and community. Those who do practice are very open to any student coming to their gatherings to observe and even participate. This is who the students are today, and it’s also how our office shapes the narrative and experience on our campus. 

Last semester, more than 200 students packed our student center for our Hindu Student Association’s Diwali event. A small fraction were students who identify as Hindu. Students came for reasons they’ve always come — the food, to support their friends, to be entertained by the skits and dances. But I find in our students a desire to explore all the options as they seek out meaning and purpose. 

That makes my job as a college chaplain more interesting. I see my role to serve the entire campus community, despite belief or affiliation. Though I would never force my own faith or anyone else’s on students, I believe we’re all learning how to make meaning out of our lived experiences. A liberal arts school like ours should be dedicated to cultivating that meaning making; it’s part of the liberal arts DNA.

This ethos means collaborations across campus with faculty and staff are key, for community building, and so that my identity isn’t confined to the religious and spiritual sphere. That’s why I still participate in our signature leadership program, Leadership Oxford, even though it moved out of the chaplain’s office two decades ago. Showing up in spaces that aren’t just the religious and spiritual spaces on campus means I get to connect with all students. They get to see me differently, and I get to work on building trust so that they will feel comfortable coming to me when life is good and even more so when it’s falling apart. 

In 2014 I went back to school for my doctor of ministry degree, thinking a higher degree would allow me to do more teaching, and it has. Teaching means being on the front lines with our students. Faculty see them every day or every other day, and that is important when it comes to not only educating our students but also caring for their well-being. 

Cultivating my presence in a variety of places on campus, including the classroom, has enabled all students to come talk to me about class and life in general. Sometimes they’ll even tell their friends about our conversation, which leads them to my office too. It doesn’t make the work of college chaplaincy easy these days, but it certainly makes it worthwhile.

(The Rev. Lyn Pace has been a college chaplain for two decades, 15 of those years at Oxford College of Emory University. He’s also the author of “The Sacred Year: A Contemplative Journey Through the Liturgical Year.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)



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