A search for truth
Devout students on campus are building stronger ties to faith as more Millennials turn away from religion
On Sunday, Matthew Frasik will celebrate Easter, one of the holiest holidays in the Christian faith.
He’ll wake up and stare into the mirror, looking directly into his eyes, basking in the glory of what he believes is God’s greatest creation: Us.
At the end of this week, Hadley Platek will gather with Jewish students at Central Michigan University to celebrate another major holiday — Passover — with a Seder celebration on campus. All are welcome, and that’s the point.
In Larzelere Hall, Maham Khan’s phone is ringing. It’s a notification from an app telling her that it’s time to pray. As a Pakistani Muslim, she bows for prayer at least five times a day.
This is what religion looks like for these Millennial students at CMU. Like most other students, they are anxious about the future and life outside of school. They want to feel like they have a higher purpose while remaining true to who they are.
“I’m here for me, of course, and I’m building myself as well,” said Khan, a Midland sophomore studying biomedical science. “But by doing so, I’m also pleasing God.”
The three students come from vastly different backgrounds, but a common thread connects them. They believe in forming bonds with people who have different spiritual values. They look for similarities and “geek out” about them, as Khan puts it.
While they may find strength in their communities of faith, a Pew Research Center national survey shows that these three students are quickly becoming a new minority. According to a recent Religious Landscape Study, Millennials are less willing to dedicate themselves to a particular faith or practice compared to other generations. That can put people like Khan, Frasik and Platek in difficult situations at CMU.
Conversations that challenge religion in the classroom and on campus may become tense. The stereotypes and prejudices lobbed against religious people become more evident when they discuss their faith openly with those who do not understand.
“We live in a broken world,” Frasik said. “In a generation that calls for no judgment, people have a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be (religious).”
As university officials begin to address issues of inclusiveness and diversity, religious students are working to find places and people who share their search for truth and meaning. It means engaging in activism, education and improvised community building to forge spaces for faith to flourish.
A shift in the landscape
While 50 percent of young people are certain there is a God, the Religious Landscape Study shows that only 38 percent of young Millennials view religion as important to their lives. The same study revealed that only 28 percent of the generation attends a religious service at least once a week. Another 62 percent say they do not engage in prayer, scripture study or any type of religious education.
For Frasik, a Grand Blanc senior, this shift in attitude among people his age isn’t a surprise. Frasik believes that this exodus from faith is less a product of not believing, but having more options to pick a faith or lack thereof based on social or political views.
“People are searching for something, but they don’t quite know what it is,” he said. “There’s so much in the world today that fills people up with instant gratification, but they are things that will eventually leave you feeling empty.”
After 30 years of teaching philosophy and religion courses at CMU, professor David Smith said he can see how access to the Internet and social media have drastically transformed the way people view the world.
“The Pew data indicates that some of the disaffection in religious institutions is based on differing views on certain social issues,” Smith said. “Liberal attitudes toward things like same-sex marriage aren’t represented in some of the churches. That’s enough to distance themselves from them.
“The ones that are taking such a harder stance against it are the ones that are losing followers. That’s why non-denominational churches and megachurches are growing in numbers.”
Access to information, however, hasn’t made students any more aware of religious practices or knowledge about sensitive religious issues. For example, Smith said he hears far less natural conversation about evolution in his classes than he did a decade ago. He attributes that to a general lack of information on the debates that once charged such discussions.
Despite what Smith hears — and doesn’t hear — in the classroom, students said that conversations about evolution and creationism are still just as important to young religious people as they were 10 or 15 years ago.
Frasik believes that any Christian will have to come to terms with the fact that they are “made in the image of God” first and foremost.
Khan agrees, although her stance on evolution varies. As a biomedical honors major, Khan is confronted with the schism between what she believes in her faith, and what is known as fact in the scientific community.
Both students feel a religious duty to spread God’s word, but they want to do it in a disarming way. That mentality becomes handy during tense debates about the nature of the world and where it came from.
Still, with all the research stating otherwise, Platek refuses to believe that young people are becoming inherently less religious.
“I believe the shift is happening for young people, but we’re also starting to relate culture and religion more and more," said the Trenton senior studying public relations. “That’s the case for me. I have become much more comfortable sharing my beliefs, however, it’s still a challenge at times.”
Faith grows here
As their peers move further away from religion, Frasik, Khan and Platek look for ways to insulate themselves while also doing vital outreach.
Social media has made it easier for religious groups to engage in outreach to share what they believe.
It might not change hearts and minds, but Khan believes it is making a difference, especially when different faiths work together.
“It’s powerful and it puts out a strong statement,” Khan said. “We know we have our differences, but here we are working together for a common cause. Building connections is central to Islam. We’re not supposed to fight over our differences.”
Both Platek and Khan belong to registered student organizations on campus: Hillel at CMU and the Muslim Student Association, respectively. When they host events, plan meetings or engage in community organizing for things like protests, social media plays a large role in that process.
Earlier this year, the MSA organized a rally in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban targeting a handful of Muslim majority nations. Using promotion through social platforms helped drive up attendance to more than 500 students, faculty, staff and community members marching in opposition to Trump’s ban.
The CMU Wesleyan Church partnered with MSA to boost attendance as well. It was an educational opportunity Khan said she’ll never forget.
Hillel does similar outreach as a cultural organization and often uses their platforms to reflect on religious holidays. This aspect is a vital part of building religious communities from the ground up, and finding other communities to partner with, Platek said.
On Monday, she and other members of Hillel visited Michigan State University’s Lester and Jewell Morris Hillel Center for a Passover dinner. The ceremony was conducted by Rabbi Becca Walker, Platek’s spiritual leader based out of Lansing.
As they passed around traditional Passover dishes, Walker told Central Michigan Life that social media is a driving force in bringing the faithful together.
“I’m a Millennial, as well, so I understand the importance of it in our community,” Walker said.
As demographics and attitudes change, religious students are also forced to contemplate the meaning of faith in a time when faith can be so easily challenged.
“Having faith means trusting in God to do what you can’t in your own power,” Frasik said. “Going to church and having a fellowship is important. You definitely want to be around people who are on that walk with God as well.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t hang out with non-Christians or do other things, and that’s another big misconception.”
Frasik, who attends service regularly on Sundays at His House Christian Fellowship, doesn’t feel his views are necessarily progressive. He just holds his relationship with God as more important than politics.
That’s not the way Platek sees it.
“To me, faith in the Millennial generation looks far more progressive,” she said. “I believe our generation is more willing to explore different religions and really immerse themselves in learning about them. To be faithful now means to be proud of what you believe and to do what’s best (for society).”
Whether that’s advocating for social causes or accepting LGBTQ+ and atheist students, Frasik said it’s not his place to judge — something he sees as a virtue shared by most young Millennials.
“There’s so much judgment in church, sometimes,” he said. “At this point, we have to think about what Jesus would have done. Jesus reached people who were persecuted. We can’t ostracize these people.
“These are people we need to be inviting to church. Not to indoctrinate them, but because we want them to know Christ, too.”
No matter what their peers choose to believe, Khan, Platek and Frasik are committed to maintaining open minds, open arms and open hearts when it comes spreading the word of God on campus.
“Religion teaches you all these beautiful things, and it’s interesting how these ideals are shared among people of faith,” Khan said. “I’ll have conversations with my Christian, Catholic and Jewish friends and geek out about the similarities in our religions.
“It’s about communication. These are important skills that I believe all Millennials have.”