Jamie Z. Goodson '97 came to Harvard full of verve and ambition.

She had always viewed college primarily as a stepping stone to a successful career and had planned to use her time here to set herself up for life.

But by the end of her first year at Harvard, doubts about her goals began to set in. And shortly into her sophomore year, she hit rock bottom.

"All through high school you work to come here; you have your whole life ahead of you," Goodson says. "When I got here, I didn't think it was worth it. I didn't think that this was what life was about."

She had always been Christian, but Goodson found herself turning more and more to God. She joined the choral group Kuumba to sing "God's words." She began participating in Bible study. And gradually, she came to her own understanding of salvation.


Goodson's experience is illustrative of larger campus trends.

Many religious groups report that an increasing number of students, dissatisfied with the pursuit of secular ideals of success, are seeking other ways of fulfillment.

And although some attribute the perceived increase to a greater interest by the media, they acknowledge that the intensity of religious activity on campus has clearly grown in the past decade.

Increased Membership

Most large religious student organizations have seen an increase in membership since the beginning of the decade.

The Asian-American Christian Fellowship has grown exponentially over the past four years.

Scott D. Sugimo '96, a four-year veteran of the group, reports that the club's membership has doubled every year he's been on campus, to a current size of 80.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship has also seen a significant increase in membership over the past several years. The club now counts between 80 and 100 students as members, an increase from last year, according to co-Executive Coordinator Jennifer Rodriguez '96.

Bernard Steinberg, director of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, says the Jewish organization has also witnessed extensive growth.

The organization does not keep membership lists, but Steinberg says the difference from previous years in the intensity and diversity of activity is obvious.

"It's hard to quantify, but this place is buzzing," Steinberg says.

Smaller religious groups have also gained members.

The Baha'i Association and Interfaith Forum drew three entering first-years this year, a significant jump in its membership, according to Susana R. Castillo '97.


Not everyone believes that all this increased religious activity can be attributed to an increased number of students participating.

Rev. Stuart S. Barnes of the Episcopal Chaplaincy attributes the growth in religious activity to a redistribution of the religious population.

Barnes says that although the percentage of Christians in the undergraduate population has remained constant, subtle shifts within generic groupings have led to an increased number of religious organizations on campus.

He also attributes the perceived growth to the interest of the media.

"It's as if you've been around a long time in a room with the same furniture but rearranged," he says. "My observation would be that there hasn't been much change on a University level."

J. Bryan Hehir of the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Center also downplays the perceived expansion of religious life. Hehir believes it is too soon to tell whether the 1990s can be viewed as a decade of religion.

Hehir says increases in religious intensity are not reflected in student attendance at his weekly mass. The number of worshippers has remained fairly constant, fluctuating between 500 and 650 students for most of the last few years, he says.

Religion's Visibility

But Hehir, also the senior chaplain of St. Paul's Catholic Church, says there is palpably more interest in religion and in religious questions than there was when he was a graduate student at Harvard about 25 years ago.

Specifically, he points to religion's visibility in the modern age.

"I think that the role of religion is visible on a lot of fronts: war and peace, family life. [There is] more openness to religious response, more openness to religious questions, and more involvement in religious practice," Hehir says.

Barnes, the reverend of the Episcopal Chaplaincy, believes "people who are not religious themselves are more interested in learning about other people's religions than [they were] 10 or 15 years ago."

This, he believes, is reflected in part by national news magazines and television networks, which are including more stories on religion and religious communities.

Barnes also regards the increased number of recognized student organizations and communities of faith as a reflection of the greater diversity in the student and the University community.

Why Now?

Several explanations have been raised for the increased interest in religious questions and spiritual matters.

Memorial Church's Humanist Chaplain, Thomas M. Ferrick, offers a secular perspective on this increased religious awareness.

He believes that the disillusionment of the Watergate era, followed by the "extremes" of the 1980s, have produced several decades with an emphasis on the self.

Ferrick says that the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald W. Reagan have caused many students to become disenchanted with the political process.

"I think that this is all connected by a need for personal meaning," Ferrick says. "Students seem to be less political than they used to be...and I think they are seeking community through religious groups."

Ferrick says he regrets the shift from the broader social action of the 1960s to the "private and the personal" because "the foremost characteristic of an educated person is a social conscience."

Indeed, Ferrick says that students aren't as interested as they used to be in international crises or in domestic ideological struggles.

"Their private needs are more important than their social ideals," Ferrick says.

Whereas Ferrick focuses on political disenchantment, Steinberg, the director of Hillel takes a broader view. He points to the "collapse of ideologies" as the primary reason for students' returns to religion.

Steinberg says that the "hollowness" of secular ideologies has engendered a profound sense of uncertainty among students--the same uncertainty that has led to the rise of fundamentalism in the Near East.

"We, as a group of people are now looking for frameworks...of meaning which have informed our cultures and [are now] trying to reestablish a relationship," Steinberg says.

Steinberg says that achievement-oriented individuals--such as Harvard students--are particularly susceptible to this sense of uncertainty.

"Success, per se, is an important value at Harvard," he says. "But people [at Harvard] accept success critically and skeptically."

Once, Steinberg says, success was a "whole world view," and success meant being comfortable.

But Steinberg says that today's students are looking for something more.

"Knowing the limits of comfort, [students] know that success will not confer intrinsic worth," Steinberg says.

This was certainly true for David H. Sohn '93, a second-year law student and proctor in Canaday Hall B.

Like Goodson, Sohn says he had been working very hard and striving all his life, but had become disillusioned with the ideals of material success.

"I just wasn't satisfied with 'whoever dies with the most toys wins,'" Sohn says.

The spark came when Sohn's roommate passed away while he was a first-year at the College.

"We don't know why he passed away, but it was a difficult time--it forced me to think about, for the first time, what happens when we die," Sohn says.

Sohn, who was an agnostic, turned to religion and ultimately became baptized after graduation as a means of renewal.

For others, like Sarah M. Rose '96, religion offered a sense of community--"not in the traditional Harvard sense, but it just reminded me of a past that I thought I had moved beyond and I found out it was integral to whom I belong."

"Judaism had always been associated with my family. I thought I'd left that behind but I can't," says Rose, a former arts editor of The Crimson.

In this sense, Steinberg says, religious tradition is a means of coping with questions of intrinsic worth and value.

An Increase

So in the broadest sense, there has been an increase of religious life at Harvard. While there may not be agreement on actual growth in terms of worshipers, there is little doubt that Harvard students today have a deeper sense of religion.

As Sohn put it, "Unless there's something that makes you think that there might be something more, you just keep going" through life "searching for the next goal."