FactChecker: Does College Cause Young Adults to Lose Their Faith?
Dedicated Christian parents work hard and pray diligently that their children will develop a strong and growing faith in their years at home. It's one of the most rewarding parts of parenting to watch this happen, and we want to make sure that faith continues to flourish as they leave our homes and go out into the world. That is why one of our greatest fears is that the secular university and its aggressively atheistic professors will lead our kids like away from the faith. Many Christian parents avoid secular schools for this very concern.
But do the years and experiences of college actually contribute to our young people losing or walking away from their faith? The answer - and the reasons for it - might surprise you.
Leading scholars have examined this question using sophisticated and reliable research methodologies, publishing their findings in premier sociological journals.
In the last few years, social scientists have "found that the religiously undermining effect of higher education . . . has disappeared." Professor Christian Smith, a world-renowned sociologist of religion from Notre Dame University (and a faithful Christian parent himself) explains that recent investigations published in the Review of Higher Education reveal,
[T]hat among recently surveyed college students, 2.7 times more report that their religious beliefs have strengthened during their college experience than say their beliefs weakened. (1)
Research from the University of Texas-Austin delivers more good news, finding that young people who avoid college "exhibit the most extensive patterns of religious decline" compared to those who do attend college. (2) They explain the loss of faith among the non-college attending young adults has little to do with secularizing ideology, but simply results from a lack of intentionality and direction in their lives. Those who seem to drift through these formative and transitional years with no definite goals or plans likely bring this same attitude and action to their faith life.
Christian Smith explains that one careful and comprehensive review of the research literature on this question over the last few decades shows that a "clearly perceptible change appears to have begun in the 1990s" regarding the impact of college attendance on one's faith.
Professor Smith observes three primary and very interesting reasons why the university is not the faith-shredder we imagine it to be:
1) The increase in presence and effectiveness of campus-based ministries like Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, and Young Life.
2) The increase of relativism and the decline of strict scientism, which allows for discussion of faith and spiritual speculation, similar to what Paul experienced at the Aeropagus.
3) An increase in committed evangelical and Catholic faculty at secular universities in America who can serve as an encouragement and balance for Christian students.
Smith adds this interesting note of explanation,
More broadly, adolescents today are generally quite conventional, and specifically so with regard to religion - less rebellious, for instance than they were during the baby boom generation - and so are generally content to continue in the faith traditions in which they were raised, however much that faith may or may not mean to them.
He continues with a very surprising, but important observation that has great merit,
And at the very general level, American culture and perhaps Western culture seems to have shifted from a secular to a post-secular era in which secularist assumptions are no longer simply taken for granted but are rather on the table for questioning and religion is increasingly considered a legitimate topic of discussion -- a cultural shift that has likely much affected contemporary youth. (3)
An important lesson we should take from findings like this is that time and culture do not remain fixed or stagnant.
What was true just a few decades ago can change today, for both good or ill, and for very interesting and unsuspected reasons. We must pay attention to the cultural changes happening under our feet and what they bring about so we are not stuck in believing truths that have, over time, transformed into myths.
(1) Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 248-249.
(2) Jeremy E. Uecker, Mark Regnerus, Margaret Vaaler, "Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood," Social Forces, (2007) 85: 1-26; Regnerus and Uecker, "How Corrosive is College to Religious Faith and Practice?" Social Science Research Council, February 2007, p. 3.
(3) Smith, 2009, p. 249, 250.
Other articles in this series: