Why universities challenge faith

Higher education should undermine religious belief.


Conor Friedersdorf, over at The Atlantic, takes on Dennis Prager and the question of why students tend to become less religious as a result of university education. Friedersdorf rejects Prager’s suggestion that universities have some kind of coordinated secularist agenda. Instead, he suggests that it is mainly a matter of young people being away from home for the first time. Students, he writes,

leave their church, the community incentives to attend it, and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don’t go to services or stray in their faith. Suddenly they’re surrounded by dorm mates of different faiths or no faith at all. For many of these students, it turns out that their religious behavior was driven more by desire for community, or social and parental pressure, than by deeply held beliefs. […] If high school graduates moved away from home to work in a restaurant or open a muffler repair shop or serve coffee in a Starbucks rather than to attend college, young people would still be falling away from religion – and many others would never take it up in the first place.

There may be something to this, but, to my mind, Fridersdorf misses the main point. Unless they cocoon themselves in a university where everyone is religious, students at a university are bound to have their religious faith challenged because of the nature of the university experience.

That meeting people of other faiths or no faith at all may lead students to question their own faith seems right, but not, I would say, for the reason that Friedersdorf thinks. To my mind, the issue is not that one no longer attends the Sunday social but that the presence of other religions has the effect of showing that one’s own faith is by no means obvious. Further, the presence of so many faiths and so many ardent adherents poses an embarrassing problem for religion in general, a problem pointed out by Bertrand Russell: people tend to adopt the religion most common in the culture or subculture in which they were raised. Only zealots can observe that people from various countries tend to subscribe to the religion of that country and observe that they themselves have the religion of their own country and still be absolutely confident that theirs is the one true faith.

But the most important factor, missed entirely by Friedersdorf, is that university education, when done well, emphasizes critical and skeptical thinking. Of course there cannot be some massive conspiracy of professors to secularize their students, but when one is repeatedly reminded that claims require evidence, that the most interesting arguments are often the most surprising, and that most of the important things we take as simply true are often a matter of energetic debate, it becomes harder and harder to accept religion, at least in its more simplistic forms. Religious claims, one comes to see, are typically way out of proportion to the evidence given to support them. Similarly, where one has always been taught that there must be a God, and that there is no way to make sense of the world without that idea, it’s eye-opening to see that there are plenty of good reasons to think there cannot possibly be a God and that life and happiness can still be understood in His absence.

In this sense, universities do have a secularist agenda. By this I don’t mean that religion is deliberately attacked by a concerted effort — after all even public secular universities teach religious studies. But religion has always done best in places and times when ignorance was encouraged if not enforced, because religious leaders have known from the beginning that too much knowledge and debate lead to dissent. And dissent is anathema to dogma.


Why universities challenge faith

  1. I 100% agree.

    The point of many university programs (not all, though) is to teach you to question and then, hopefully, how to find an answer, even if that answer is ‘I don’t know’.

    Speaking from my own experience, as a child I went to a religious school for 12 years. I never quite felt comfortable with religion though. For my first degree, I enrolled in a great books program. Somewhere between learning about the Old Testament and Machiavelli, ‘uncomfortable with religion’ changed to ‘uncomfortable with God’ then to full blown atheism after reading Nietzsche. Interestingly enough, the epiphany of ‘there is no God’ was probably the most religious and life-affirming experience of my life. So, I guess you can say that universities, in encouraging self-reflection and questioning are encouraging people to lose faith.

    I do wonder if students in programs that teach more ‘black and white’ (for example, math, civil engineering, etc.) tend to maintain their faith more than those that teach ‘shades of grey’ (philosophy, history, etc.)

  2. I disagree with the idea that university’s promote critical thought, I would contend that they state this as their premise and then tell you to write a paper and do an exam. I have done political theory and Environmental Theory and my critical thought comes from my time outside of the class. There is no neutral class and buying in to this is what often makes one feel they can’t be a religious intellectual.

    The way religion is portrayed in the class room setting in both textbooks and lectures is overwhelming negative. This is not entirely a surprise since the current paradigm has only reinforced itself with teachers who are not religious either. In general the system portrays religion in the same way that some of the far right religious people portray the university.
    For instance many of the thinkers to which our society has its foundation relies on cite their faith, Rousseau the writer of the social contract (major political idea) and emile (book on education) actually uses his faith a great deal. On a personal level I feel the university is not conformable with religion for as has been said you can’t proof it, which only attest to overwhelming reliance’s on scientific fact or right quadrant in our educational system today. Why should it matter if it cannot be proved with one lens when the other understands it perfectly well?

    Lastly don’t get me wrong I love science I study it in my class/spare time (ted talks), but coming to the university has made my Christian faith stronger as I have taken the studying tools and learned of some of the great Christian thinkers and their approach to my walk.

  3. An earlier poster asks about those who study more “black and white” disciplines. Well, I’m an engineer. I learned to critically think and evaluate things at university.

    However, university did not cause my faith to diminish. In fact, if anything, it strengthened my faith. Why? Because I did, in fact, begin to question religion. I examined my beliefs and ultimately decided what I believed in.

    I’m a scientist and an engineer, and I do believe in God. I don’t find the two incompatible at all. I’m not a fundamentalist who takes the bible literally. I take it for what it is: a series of documents written for specific groups of people at specific times. As such, it explains things in ways that made sense for their audience. Most Christians, in fact, don’t believe that the bible should be taken literally, but rather believe that it needs to be interpreted. They believe it is divinely inspired, but not a literal explanation of the world.

    I also believe in the theory of evolution, and (although I don’t understand it much) I am fascinated by string theory and modern physics.

    Science and religion are not incompatible. It is possible to be both a logical, rational scientist, and a person of faith.

  4. Ironically, I went to a Catholic school all my life and I eventually became an atheist. It was only until I went to University and saw all of the different practicing religions that I became inspired to look into each one. After a while, I joined a little church close to my University, as well as a discussion group that presents multi-faith (including agnostic and atheist perspectives) in an open and respectful setting. Once I didn’t feel pressured into joining a certain faith, I found one that I liked.

  5. “ God is the answer to everything. And where does God come from? That’s easy…oh, God…that can’t be answered with God. I mean, how could he make himself if he wasn’t there to make him. Therefore there is no God and everything is just a chaotic collection of random energy with no meaning.”

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