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). 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. () 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.
Walking in to the meetings I can always feel my position as an outsider, though the severity lessens as time goes on. Unfamiliar with the customs of the group, I find myself incapable of locating the proper entrance the first time, much less passing as someone who belongs. Of course, the members of the group were friendly and accommodating, helping me through the awkwardness of the initial meetings and trying their best to bring me into the fold and by the end I really did feel as though I had become a part of the group: perhaps I had not reached a point where I might have been considered an insider, but I certainly was not looking from the outside in anymore.
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.
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.