Religion’s Afterlife: The Noninstitutional Residuals of Religion in Black College Students’ Lived Experiences

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Abstract

Discourse concerning religion in the American public sphere exists within what Miller (2012) describes as church decline narratives. Highlighting the declining significance of organized religion, these narratives conform neatly with notions of young adults’ relationships to formal authority broadly speaking and religious institutions in particular. However, the declining significance of institutionalized religion manifests itself differently in the lives of Black young adults living in the United States compared with White young adults. For example, according to the 2014 Religious Landscape Survey, younger Black millennials (20–26 years old) were less likely than younger White millennials to identify as religiously unaffiliated (29% vs. 38%; Pew Research Center, 2014). In light of this, how do we understand religion in the lives of college students? What are the implications of the fact that despite increasing religious disaffiliation, 90% of younger Black millennials are either absolutely or fairly certain about their belief in God? In this paper, I propose a theorization of religion’s afterlife—or how religion continues to matter in Black students’ lives despite their lack of affiliation and engagement with institutionalized faith organizations. I offer a critical account of religion as a socially constructed category that exerts influence in the lives of Black undergraduates beyond institutional boundaries and religious-specific spaces. These findings emphasize the necessity for educators to provide greater attention to spirituality and religion as critical components of institutions’ diversity agendas in general and how religion and spirituality play out in the lives of Black undergraduates at PWIs in particular.

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