Growing up in a religious environment, there was always this persistent and nasty notion that if you went to a secular university, then you would inevitably fall away from whatever your prior system of beliefs into a form of agnosticism at best, and atheism at the absolute worst. This was not something that only a few old folks with some sort of sketchy and unfortunate prior entanglement with a secular university held, but a real concern in both students and parents. College was seen as the ultimate spiritual wasteland; a single species spiritual biome where all who dared to enter would be forced to assimilate or abdicate. So when presented with the assignment to draft an ethnographic study of a group on campus that somehow contributed to diversity, I could think of no better way to go about this than to investigate the claims of spiritual homogeny, at least insofar as East Carolina University is concerned.
The first step, rather obviously, was to research the notion of the Spiritual Wasteland, and to investigate any prior research done in the field. I found a fair amount of research on the subject of spiritual diversity in a secular collegiate environment, though it appeared as though most of the research done had been based almost entirely upon speculation and philosophy, rather than any sort of hard facts or practical data. While the methods used in these prior studies may have been irrelevant, their results were significantly helpful in guiding my research. The consensus of the data was unequivocally that spiritual diversity did exist on college campuses, that it was an important part of campus life not only for students, but also for professors, and even alleging that spiritual diversity on college campuses was “at an all-time high” (Mayrl). Combined with this assertion was one that the diversity on campuses was actually beneficial to the spiritual healthy of students (Hill). Now that I had general support for my initial hypothesis that there was no great Spiritual Wasteland on campus, it was time to begin my unique research by investigating the spiritual diversity of East Carolina University
Almost immediately I began seeing results, in that there were several religious student organizations on campus available to be studied, which lead to the strategy by which this notion could, in theory, be proven wrong, without actually having to independently interview or survey every student on campus. Assuming only five religious group on campus, with a low estimate of only thirty members per group, each of which only know ten other students with any sort of non-atheist, non-agnostic religious belief, and the number of students defying the religious wasteland theory total up to approximately five percent of the total student body, and this number fails to take into account those students who are private about their religious beliefs or who may not be involved with the student religious organizations (WNCT). Therefore if evidence can be gathered that supports more than thirty active members of one of these groups, and if interviews with a few members can confirm that the members know other students who are either not involved with that particular group, or who hold any religious belief system other than one of atheism or agnosticism, if a speck of diversity can be found within the alleged homogeny, then perhaps it can be built upon to completely and exhaustively disprove the paradigm of a College Campus as a Spiritual Wasteland.
This, perhaps inevitably, lead me to conduct an ethnographic study of the Baptist Campus Ministry (shorthand BCM), a student organization dedicated to networking and ministering to Christian students on campus (BCM). As the name would suggest, the BCM is supported by local Baptist churches, though it is their goal to include any student who wishes to be involved with the organization. (About BCM).
Regarding the Building:
The building that houses the ministry is located on 10th street, in Greenville, North Carolina, on a small bubble of property adjacent to the East Carolina University campus. The building is well lived in, without conveying a sense of disrepair. It lacks the sort of rigorous organization that one might expect from a classroom, but isn’t quite disorganized enough to be chaotic. Overall, it has a very homey appearance and, by logical extension, feel about it, which is only enhanced by the friendliness of the people within.
Walking in to the meetings I could always feel my position as an outsider, though the severity lessened as time went on. Unfamiliar with the customs of the group, I found myself incapable of locating the proper entrance the first time, much less passing as someone who belongs. But in a way, that was beneficial. Without a great deal of foreknowledge I was forced to socialize a bit more than I might have otherwise, an unexpected benefit of the unique architecture of the BCM building. While it may, at first, have been a bit intimidating to attempt to navigate the building, it was a necessary step to experiencing what the BCM had to offer.
On group dynamics:
To completely understand the group, it helps to begin with a fundamental understanding of the object that serves as the nucleus of society for which the BCM is a microcosm: The Bible. One of the bestselling and most hotly debated books in publication, the Bible has almost as much speculation as to its origins as it has content. The book is broken down into two large sections called “Testaments,” which can be divided again into “Books,” and further subdivided into “Chapters” and “Verses.” These books are generally rather hefty tomes, especially considering that the raw content is often supplemented with some form of study aid, including cross references to other relevant portions of the text, as well as common interpretations of the words within. The real value in analyzing this artifact, however, does not come from its structure, but from its content.
One of the fundamental questions that may be answered, or at the least speculated about, is the origin of the Spiritual Wasteland notion. What about the teachings in this book make them, allegedly, so incompatible with the life of a college student, and how, then, have the members of the Baptist Campus Ministry reconciled their spirituality with this alleged incongruity? Judging by the opinions gathered by interviewing the Campus Minister, John Ridley, and the Student President, Casey Harris, one of the biggest problems with maintaining a Christian lifestyle on a college campus is that of self-control. Both interviewees mentioned the reputation of ECU as a party school as contributory to the difficulty of maintaining this particular type of spirituality on campus. The sort of wild debauchery that many individuals have come to associate with the undergraduate experience stands at a stark contrast with the principles of moderation and abstinence espoused in Christianity, though interestingly enough, both interviewees posit that maintaining a Christian lifestyle instead of falling into the “party scene,” helps students maintain a proper focus on academics. In essence, maintaining one’s spirituality can help garner a net increase in performance in the academic world.
Another point that both interviewees raised regarding the difficulty of maintaining a Christian belief system was that of academic content, especially in regards to sciences such as biology. It is common knowledge that understanding the Theory of Evolution is a critical part of the course curriculum. It is also fairly common knowledge that the schism between the Christian faith and the principles of Evolution date back to the inception of the theory. Casey admitted that the idea of evolution was rather heavily forced in her experience with science classes, and that she could definitely see where it could have been problematic. She personally had no difficulty in learning the material as “Something to know for a test,” without taking it to heart (interview 1*). John relayed to me the story of his niece (who attended another university), who actually had been struggling with the intellectual implications raised by a persistently anti-faith professor, though he held to the notion that the primary distraction facing college students was not an intellectual one, but an extracurricular one.
Beyond its use as a spiritual center for the individual members, this book serves as a mortar for the group. It is unlikely that this particular configuration of individuals would have assembled in a completely random environment. This book, this single thread of commonality helped to gather a diverse pool of individuals and create a bond of friendship among them. Within this group are men and women of all years, majors, and extracurricular interests, though they all have one thing in common, and are all able to come to this place twice a week to share with and support each other. This support system setup seems to be consistent with the idea John presented that having a strong faith is beneficial to a student socially and, by extension, academically.
The group dynamic of the BCM is an energetic one; while there are a few overtly noticeable cliques, none of them seem to be inherently opposite the others, and therefore not obstructions to a “healthy” functionality, or to future growth. Returning to the point which this essay endeavored to prove, if any significant percentage of the religious organizations on campus have the same mass and energy as the Baptist Campus ministry, mathematically there must be a sizeable portion of the ECU student body involved in some sort of religious activity, and this estimating completely fails to take into account the potential for students not directly involved with a group or member of a group.
The presence of a few distinct subgroupings within the overall BCM creates an interesting parallel to the religion for which the BCM is a microcosm. Christianity is not a completely united religion, far from it, there exist a multitude of Denominations within the religion as a whole, and this is reflected not only by the presence of multiple Christian ministries on campus, but also within the population of the BCM itself via the presence of these non-obstructive, benign cliques.
As I stated before, I definitely began this experience as an outsider to this culture. It took me no fewer than three tries to locate the entrance to the building, I completely missed that I was supposed to get a nametag, and generally found myself ready to sit in the back and wait until the entire meeting was over. But lo, the members of the BCM were entirely too friendly to allow something as ridiculous and wasteful as that to happen. I found myself welcomed by several people, all of whom were more than willing to talk about anything that might come up. It was this warm, open environment that ultimately let me feel as though I was not simply an observer to the events occurring, but a participant. In fact, every time I returned to the BCM I felt more and more like the gap between my position as an outsider and the rest of the group beginning to close.
So here I sit on the tail end of the study sifting through the information that has been collected, the opinions that I’ve gathered form the members of the BCM, and what have I found? There exists this notion that secular universities are Spiritual Wastelands: Places devoid of religious diversity, and populated only by disillusioned atheists and agnostics. However there also exists on the East Carolina university campus at least one vibrant, vivid religious organization filled with students who are committed to a system of belief that is difficult, though not impossible, to maintain. This group, these students,are the fundamental basis for an assertion that perhaps the Spiritual Wasteland doesn’t actually exist. And while this is only one group, and it is entirely possible that it is not indicative of a larger trend, that the ECU BCM is an outlier, a deviation, and not something that can be relied upon to occur on a regular basis, the opposite could just as easily be true, and after all, even if other groups do not have the same qualities as the BCM, the existence of just this one helps in and of itself to prove that the wasteland is perhaps not as barren as most believe.