For many New York University students, Easter Sunday is a day to eat jelly beans and marshmallow Peeps, dye hard-boiled eggs and maybe watch Charlton Heston part the Red Sea. But far fewer treat Easter as a churchgoing holiday, a time of religious reflection and prayer.

“I feel like it should be special,” NYU student Ryan Kalb, 20, said, “but really it’s like any other Sunday. I’m not very religious but my mom is, and she treats it like it’s such an important day. I’m like, who cares.”

Kalb’s sentiments are typical of his generation, it seems. There are about 2.6 million Catholics in New York City, and 53 percent of Americans worship weekly – down from about 80 percent three decades ago, according to Father John P. McGuire of the Catholic Center at NYU.

“There’s a category of people who consider themselves good Christians, but to whom weekly worship isn’t very important,” McGuire said. “They’re cultural Catholics, not religious Catholics.”

While nearly all of the students in an informal survey agreed that Easter – and Christianity in general – has apparently lost its meaning on NYU’s liberal college campus, McGuire is quick to contend that religion is not dead yet. Since he joined the Catholic Center in 1995, McGuire said that it has grown to about four times its size and reaches more than 1,100 of NYU’s 18,000 Catholic students weekly.

At the same time, McGuire said that only about 10 percent of his weekly congregation is comprised of students; the rest, he said, are older member of the community.

“I like Easter because it’s a cultural tradition for my family,” said NYU student Alexis Buryk, 20. “But the religious bit doesn’t mean a lot to me. I look at it more as a metaphorical resurrection, not really in celebration of Jesus, more as a celebration of Spring rebirth.”

Buryk and Kalb reveal a common sentiment among their peers – that Easter has taken on a meaning based more on familial conventions than religious convictions.

“Easter is an Americanized holiday more than a religious one,” NYU student Chris Kalicki, 20, explained. “The religious aspect was kind of taken out of the equation, and I feel like it’s sort of a fall-back holiday that you can celebrate without necessarily being or feeling religious, since the Easter bunny has little to do with J.C. himself.”

Even though many Americans worship only once a year, weekly church attendance is higher in the United States than in any other nation at a comparable level of development, according to a worldwide study based at the University of Michigan.

Overall, the importance of religion has been declining in the developed world, while in countries experiencing economic stagnation and political uncertainty, religion has remained strong, according to Ronald F. Inglehart, a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and director of the World Values Survey.

This may also be a result of higher education, which grows alongside economic development – especially at a school like NYU, with a typically liberal student body.

“I think [the church] is much stronger than people think,” McGuire said. “The diversity of the students we reach is phenomenal.”

But for every churchgoing student at NYU, there is another like Jeff Polley, 21, who seems a bit confused. “Is Easter the day God died, or the day God was resurrected?” he asked.

This story was written April 2006 for the NYU Journalism class “Reporting I.”

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