Church groups, from attention-grabbing preachers to those quietly distributing the New Testament from the sidewalk, have drawn criticism from students for their actions. Especially since this generation observes a departure from the dominant religion.
Students said religious organizations on campus tend to be authoritarian and their presence is a nuisance. Freshman Andrew Russell said they often neglect to debate students in favor of simply trying to recruit new members.
“I so wish that the presence of the different religious groups would lead to intellectually stimulating exchanges of ideas, cultures and beliefs,” Russell said.
“[However]it seems that some people or groups are so determined to convert others that they skip the whole intellectual exchange part [in favor of] conversion by brute force, as if the person were a commodity to be acquired by his church.
Many students also said that while they may not like the presence of religious groups on campus, they ultimately determined it was necessary to respect First Amendment rights.
“You don’t have to respect what they say, but you have to respect their right to say it,” sophomore Roberto Montero said.
Dean of Students Danielle McDonald confirmed that under the First Amendment, religious groups and preachers have the right to get their message across on campus, regardless of community feelings on the matter.
“As a public university, we must allow freedom of expression, no matter what we think of it. [what they are trying to say] or how it directly conflicts with our values of diversity and inclusion,” McDonald said. “These uninvited speakers are exercising their freedom of speech.”
However, this does not mean that there are no university policies surrounding such events. These groups must abide by rules about whether or not to use amplified sound in certain areas of campus, according to McDonald.
Services such as the Events Support Team will also be available to oversee preachers and similar groups. The team is a group of qualified personnel dedicated to providing First Amendment information and ensuring that students enjoy a safe academic environment.
McDonald said religion can play a vital formative role in a student’s life.
“Spirituality and faith are important developmental factors for college students,” she said. “For students to experience the most satisfaction and success in college, they need to find a sense of belonging. For many students, this is found in faith-based organizations.
However, younger generations, especially Gen Z, tend to avoid religious affiliations more than older generations. This is due to changing values that oppose the teachings of many mainstream religious denominations.
In author Nancy T. Ammerman’s book, Empty Churches: Non-Affiliation in America, she proposes that this deviation from religious affiliations is largely due to issues of personal choice, rather than disagreement with religion itself. This has led to an increase in the number of people who have no distinct religious affiliations, or “no religion”.
“Many of the existing studies of none emphasize that having no preference for an existing organized religion is not so much a matter of theological belief as it is of embracing individual autonomy and personal choice, particularly in matter of sexuality,” Ammerman said.
“It was the moral traditionalism of religious institutions and leaders, more than their conservative theology, that pushed those who were already uncommitted to break out of the religious orbit altogether.”
James Cavendish, an associate professor in the College of Psychology, echoed those sentiments, saying religion is being left behind as cultural norms shift.
“Younger generations are less accepting of religious authority, less likely to adhere to particular religious doctrines,” Cavendish said. “In many ways, younger generations are most likely to think that religious institutions are out of step with contemporary cultural beliefs and practices.”
Students and others outside the academic setting may be deterred by the involvement of religious rhetoric in politics.
“Some social scientists suspect that the rise of non-religious people in the United States is partly due to the so-called ‘religious right’ and the fact that the far right has relied on religion, especially Protestant evangelism, to spread its message,” said Cavendish.
By association, those who disagree with certain political ideologies may be more likely to reject the religions they use, he said.
Religious Studies Department Chairman Michael DeJonge said the direct nature of these groups is used to attract and engage students. With their incendiary nature, groups can easily attract the attention of passing students.
DeJonge quoted Dr. Tori Lockler, an instructor in the Department of Religious Studies, who spoke to some of the groups. According to Lockler, members who generally exhibit more aggressive behavior when advertising their religion tend to be very polite in other contexts.
This is attributed to the belief that this type of behavior will attract more attention and spread their message globally. But it may not have the end result that religious groups expect, DeJonge said.
“It seems to me that whatever reaction they get is also very short-term,” he said. “People will react strongly the first time they meet them, but then the novelty wears off and it just becomes background noise.”
Cavendish said the most likely outcome of such interactions is to deter students from learning more about these religions.
Alida Coggins, who represented the Catholic faith at Bulls Market on Wednesday, said she spoke to students out of what she saw as a necessity and with good intentions. For her, communicating with students and getting their attention is a high-stakes undertaking.
“I would say when we approach people on campus, we do it out of love and we really try to communicate that. And because we believe what we say is a matter of urgency and a matter of eternity and of someone’s life,” Coggins said.
McDonald cautioned students about how they interact with these groups, saying that while students often interact with these groups out of potential amusement, they can inadvertently harm their mental health.
“Students often tell me that they engage with speakers because they find it funny, but these same students are often emotionally invested in refuting the speech,” she said.
“As a student you have to decide what your reaction will be and is it worth the cost it might have on your well-being.”