Recent studies indicate a notable decline in religious identification among Black Americans, a trend that is causing a ripple effect in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) divinity programs. 

Experts suggest many factors contribute to this shift, including Black nationalism, the politicization of COVID-19, challenges to diversity within religious institutions, and the evolving landscape of religious identification in America.

According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, Americans are less likely to identify with an organized religion. Black Americans, who primarily identify as Christians, are turning away from organized religion.

Black Millennials and members of Generation Z are less likely to rely on prayer, less likely to have grown up in Black churches, and less likely to say religion is an integral part of their lives, according to Pew.

With this in mind, some students in religious programs or groups worry their schools aren’t making space for them.

Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD) is one of the oldest fully accredited theological schools affiliated in the United States. According to the Association of Theological Scholars, the program had just 102 students enrolled from 2021 to 2022 and 94 students enrolled as of 2023. 

Data from the ATS says the university’s School of Divinity had as many as 323 students nearly two decades ago. 

Credit: Hazel Cherry

Hazel Cherry, director of student affairs at Howard University School of Divinity, is a 2015 graduate of the institution. She said students found it much easier to latch on to Christian faith traditions during her time at Howard.

“At the time, we were in the confines of Christianity; we went to the chapel together as students quite often, and it wasn’t a question about what we all believed in,” Cherry said. 

She said that the landscape of religious identification has shifted as current and younger generations are “hungry for a more authentic and holistic spiritual experience” than decades past.

Cherry says she doesn’t believe she should steer them towards her beliefs. Instead, she believes it’s her job to curate a safe space for them to question, wrestle, and “ultimately embrace the God of their understanding.”

“It is no secret that many people, my students included, have experienced harmful theologies and practices rooted in sexism, homophobia, and internalized racism,” Cherry said.

Because of this, Cherry says that although “religious apathy has risen, the desire for spiritual renewal, connection and practice has not.” 

“Nurturing spiritual leaders in this current landscape means encouraging my students to approach their ministry with a deep acceptance that their unique gifts are for a time when apathy is increasing,” Cherry concluded. 

Eric McDaniel, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is known for his research on the intersection of politics, religion, and social movements. He suggests that Black nationalism, a movement that seeks liberation, equality, and representation for black people, plays a significant role in the shifting religious landscape. 

Credit: Eric McDaniel

He suggests that because students have many options regarding religious awakening, such as student-led organizations and small groups, it is becoming “less popular” to go to a brick-and-mortar church every Sunday. 

“With access to various institutions, Black Americans are becoming less affiliated with traditional religious structures, contributing to the struggle for relevance within the Black church,” McDaniel said.

Jayla Richardson, a junior criminal justice student at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, went through several roadblocks to get her Christian-based organization, “Abstinent Adolescents,” approved by the university. 

Richardson believes her HBCU may not prioritize “making space for religious people” and for those who want to keep their beliefs alive throughout their college experience.

“I noticed several organizations on campus had a smoother process, but because mine is faith-based, it took me a long time to find someone to be an advisor to support my cause,” Richardson said. 

Ryon Cobb, a social work professor at Rutgers, whose research highlights the health implications of socially oppressive systems among adults and the racialization of religion in the United States, says that the pandemic has “catalyzed increased political awareness” among Black Americans.

Credit: Ryon Cobb

“This heightened political consciousness has contributed to a decline in religious identification as individuals seek alternative avenues for civic engagement,” Cobb said.

Cobb says that in today’s society, where the Black Lives Matter Movement is widespread and growing rampantly, Black people now see religion as an “impediment.”

“In today’s landscape, Black Americans see religion as a way of holding them back, but I say that the narrative is false,” Cobb said. 

The intersectionality of race, religion, and health becomes more complex as Americans grow apathetic towards organized religion.

The reluctance to engage with health care, as seen in the context of COVID-19 vaccinations, poses unique challenges for HBCU divinity programs in addressing health disparities within Black communities.

“We are living in a public health crisis, and people have politicized the idea of getting a shot,” Cobb concluded.

As the religious landscape in America undergoes a significant shift, HBCU divinity programs face the challenge of adapting to engage students who may be more apathetic toward traditional religious structures. 

The decline in religious identification among Black Americans necessitates innovative approaches and changes in curriculum to ensure the continued relevance of these programs. 

David Kirkpatrick, a religion professor at James Madison University, emphasized the challenges of religious institutions in fostering diversity.

Credit: David Kirkpatrick

“As Americans become more polarized, the lack of a unifying religious identity hampers inclusive conversations,” Kirkpatrick said. “HBCU divinity programs must adapt to contribute meaningfully to this evolving dialogue.”

Cherry believes students should not approach the changing landscape with judgment but with curiosity. She encourages her students to be curious about their faith/spirituality.

“While some traditions have value, we’re experiencing the collective secular desire to release traditions that do not serve us,” she said. “In doing so, we allow space for new traditions, a merger of new and old traditions, or the capacity to create something different altogether.”

Dasia Williams is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.

Dasia a senior at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University studying multimedia journalism.