Phi Beta Cons

Losing Their Religion

Last week, I asked readers to tell me why college students are losing their faith at an alarming rate. Your thoughtful answers came pouring in, via Facebook comment, e-mail, Facebook message, and even cell phone (I was just one tweet and one text away from covering the modern communications spectrum). A few answers stood out in my mind, but a common theme emerged: Students receive a poor religious education as children that leaves them ill-equipped to handle a university mindset that dramatically over-values empiricism.

One reader put it this way:

I think a fundamental reason college students tend to lose their religion is a pernicious form of cultural conditioning. I don’t mean the kind of conditioning that tells them religion is bad. I mean that we have been conditioned to accept, without questioning, a few ideas which are very unfriendly to a robust religious faith.
The first idea is the old fact/value dichotomy: Facts are verifiable, and whatever is verifiable is a fact; values are not verifiable. Facts are objective; values are subjective, relative, or both.
The second idea is a certain understanding of the difference between science and religion: Science is privileged among the other pursuits of truth because it is only concerned with facts; as such, it has an objectivity which other pursuits of truth, particularly religion, can never have.
The third idea is the division of faith and knowledge: Knowledge and faith are never the same thing; you can only have faith in something you do not know; knowing a truth precludes having faith in that truth.

. . .

A religious creed by definition is a statement of belief in an objective fact of the matter, the matter in question being the nature of the universe and man’s proper place in it. These three ideas deny the possibility of justified true belief about the nature of the universe and man’s proper place in it, so they are incompatible with dogma of any variety (Christian, Islamic, Judaistic, Buddhistic, etc.). In giving up the orthodoxy of her childhood a student who accepts these three ideas is only being logical.

As the reader notes, often “values” are facts, and facts turn out not to be facts at all. It is a fact that rape is wrong. It is not a fact that the globe is warming as much as we once thought (thus implicating all the value judgments flowing from alleged fact). With human knowledge contingent and shifting, empiricism often lacks, well, the empirical. In the arena of religion, we are conditioned to hear something along these lines: “That’s fine for you to believe, but I believe . . .” Yet this relativism ignores the inconvenient reality that there is, ultimately, a truth of the matter. The Bible cannot be true for one person and not true for another. After all, Jesus did not rise from the dead in my world and not yours.

But our religious education isn’t equipping students to handle even simple challenges. Another reader chimes in:

Most parents are capable of passing along essential morality and the basic precepts of religion onto their kids, but many times it stops there. Too often our religious formation focuses on making kids feel good about themselves and their faith. That’s all fine and well, but kids also need (and hunger for) complex, mind-melting theology.
At a youth ministry event on Monday I received the following questions:

“Is the book of Timothy sexist?”

“If God knows everything, doesn’t He already know if I’m going to Hell?”

“How do I respond to the claim that religion is the opiate of the masses?”

“Is God just an invention of a mind seeking a purpose in life?”
A kid may be able to quote the Bible in Greek, however a simple question such as, “Why do you believe the Bible?” can topple a young person’s faith if he is not versed in the history of the book. (That is to say, how were the books were selected and assembled into one). Parents and faith communities are many times unwilling or unable to provide these answers – and in some cases discourage that kind of curiosity!
This leaves kids thinking of religion as something childish their family does and nothing more.

This is exactly right. With a decent amount of good religious education, campus arguments can often seem rather trite and simplistic — even when coming from the mouths of academics. In my own experience, I was constantly amazed at the sheer Biblical ignorance of the best and brightest of my law school professors.  It’s hard to take a religious critic seriously when the critic doesn’t even know your beliefs or the basis of those beliefs. Condescension can be intimidating until you realize that the condescending critic is ignorant.

But then there’s a bit more prosaic reason for the loss of faith:

Morbid Guilt. Many students cave into the ubiquitous temptations of college. Rather than admit guilt, many students find it convenient to adapt their morality to their actions. This can turn a strong religious conviction into a hatred of religion. A student will leave his faith saying, “They just want to judge me.”

From years of working on college campuses, this explanation rings sadly true. After all, the one scripture that everyone seems to know is “Judge not.” We all seem to have innate tendency towards rationalization (“I’m not a bad person; the things I do cannot be bad,” and anyone who makes me feel bad about myself is wrong). College is a decadent place, every secular school is a “party school,” and strong temptations can overcome even strong faith.

What’s the cure? There is no single, simple answer. Christian parents and pastors have to undertake the immense task of providing a good religious education. At the same time, however, the university community must remain a “marketplace of ideas,” where religious students have a place at the table and the ability to engage their professors and fellow students. And there has to be strong, intellectually serious Christian presence on campus — with enduring institutions like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Reformed University Fellowship, and Chi Alpha (that’s not an exhaustive list, obviously) providing religious students with a strong community and a source of continuing Biblical teaching.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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