A growing number of students spend their Sunday mornings somewhere other than church. Illustration by Richard Farrell

Jack Dowell ‘21

Staff writer

Over a century after Davidson’s Presbyterian founding, the office of the President is still restricted to Presbyterians, and the Board of Trustees only waived a requirement that all members be Christian thirteen years ago (two donors, John Belk ‘43 and Stephen Smith ‘66, stepped down in response). In the 181 years since Davidson’s founding, as the number of Americans identifying as religious has declined, how has religious life changed?

College Chaplain Rob Spach ‘84 sees the school’s Presbyterian background as a defining part of its ethos. “The reformed tradition has always valued learning at a high level,” he said. “This tradition doesn’t believe it possesses the truth but rather so deeply wants to engage with people of other traditions.”

A report requested by the Board of Trustees about the college’s Presbyterian heritage was written in September 2017. The report, which Spach contributed to, supports his understanding of that link, saying that “the Reformed Tradition calls the College to be a community of rigorous study while encouraging persons to explore and practice their varied faith traditions and while valuing inclusivity and diversity.” 

Spach also talked about other methods taken to welcome non-Presbyterian students in recent years, citing that “we have put in here in the Chaplain’s Office and in the Spencer-Weinstein Center ablution stations for Muslims … The nearest mosque is in Charlotte, so we’ve tried to provide an on-campus opportunity for Muslim students.” 

He also acknowledged a wish for more diversity in the Chaplain’s Office. “In an ideal world, I’d really love to have a Muslim chaplain, and there are a few institutions that have humanitarian chaplains as well, and I’d love to do that… Practicalities are what are keeping us from having those chaplains. Philosophically we’d want them, but hiring new staff involves a great deal of funding.”

One definite step that the Chaplain’s Office has taken was the hiring of Dr. Grace Burford, an ordained Buddhist minister, as an associate Chaplain. Her long tenure at Prescott University as a religion professor and, according to Spach, “profound caring for each person,” made her an ideal candidate.

Discussing faith at Davidson, Burford explained, “I think that students are personally curious. They’re at least partially motivated by things that have to do with religion spiritually.”

Burford is also the Coordinator of Interfaith Programs, a position created in conjunction with her hiring. She explained that “the whole position was new. There had been a trial balloon of year of this [interfaith] work done by a student who was a Fellow, Elizabeth Welliver, who was cast with figuring out if there was a need.” Through this position, she has led a mindfulness program, which is “a secular practice… it’s a tool, a technique.” Reflecting on student attendance, she shared her belief that “people who come to that are clearly looking for a reason to be present in the world, to be more than just a list of things they have to do that day.”

Davidson’s body of student organizations has also become more diverse in the past twenty years, although the first non-Christian student organization, Hillel (formerly the Jewish Student Union) was not founded until 2001. Since then, a Muslim Student Association has also been established, and Davidson’s only non-Abrahamic religious group, Davidson Dharma, was formed in 2016.

According to statistics provided by the Chaplain’s Office, a slight majority of Davidson students, 58%, identify as Christians of some denomination — Catholicism being the highest.  Presbyterians, as of the current school year, make up 8.8% of the student body. Non-religious students, those who identify as agnostic, atheist, or simply ‘none’, now make up 32.4% of the campus.

Recent national trends have identified increasing numbers of spiritual but not religious students. A recent Vox article describes spiritual people as those who feel connected to something greater than themselves, but do not take part in more traditional, organized religion. At Davidson, 2.4% of current students describe themselves as just ‘spiritual,’ although there is often overlap between this group and those who report their religion as none or agnostic.

Burford partially attributes this recent growth of students who are spiritual but not religious to “students not aligning to any particular tradition, but [having] questions, big questions.”

Spach agreed that the trend is visible at Davidson, saying that “in the West, more and more students are being raised without any exposure to religion, and so naturally they come to college not affiliated with any religion.”

Dr. Anne Wills, a professor in the Religious Studies Department, has observed that in her current classes. “There’s not a lot of knowledge [she] can assume students have about the most basic Bible story that’ll show up in a piece of literature,” she said.

Analyzing reasons for this change, she cited the current perception of Christianity in America: “A lot of what we hear nowadays is that religion is the fundamentalist style. Unless you know where to look, the popular picture of religion is not an attractive one, you’ve got all these Evangelicals who voted for Trump.”

In response to the Chaplain’s Office only providing statistics on atheist and agnostic demographics for the most recent year, Wills said, “[that] tells you something…50 years ago, atheists would not have wanted to talk about [their identity], and 150 years ago they wouldn’t have been at a place like this.”