As someone who spent his formative years in evangelical churches, to say that I have an interest in assessing evangelicalism is an understatement. Although I am no longer involved in evangelical churches, some good can come out of the evangelical movement.
That being said, I have to proverbially (and sometimes literally) roll my eyes at some of the things I hear from prominent members of the evangelical community. One such instance occurred while reading a column by talk-show host Dennis Prager called “Why God Isn’t Doing Well.” The subtitle to the piece said it all: “The universities are fighting an undeclared war on faith.”
Prager’s piece claims that “[t]he more university education a person receives, the more likely he is to hold secular and left-wing views.” Prager blames higher education for teaching that “America and Israel are villains, that men and women have essentially the same natures, that human nature is good, that ever-larger governments create wealth, etc.”
Yes, it’s a stock “Christians vs. the liberals” argument. My inclination was to initially just ignore the piece. A follow-up piece by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, though, made me think more about the subject.
In his piece, “Why College Students Are Losing Their Religion,” Friedersdorf begins his response to Prager’s theory with a simple question: “How on earth would they succeed?”
Think about it. Most college students spend maybe one or two classes at most with a majority of their professors. Regardless of a student’s major, think about the courses we as college students are required to take. They run the gamut from English to economics, natural sciences to social sciences, fine arts to business. How much of the knowledge we take in that’s not related to our particular career paths over the course of four, five, six or more years from all of this coursework sticks into our collective thoughts past graduation, if not finals?
That’s not to say there isn’t any truth to the idea that university education and acceptance of secular views go hand-in-hand. The issue, though, is more complex than Prager argues, and many arguments can be made for the loss of religious identity.
One idea to keep in mind about college students is that, by and large, college is the time where students first leave home. This not only includes a literal home, but the communities in which they grew up, which in our country often includes a religious community and the social components of said religion. For many students, college is the first time that they’re introduced to people from different walks of life, including different faiths.
As students are introduced to new ideas, they might be inclined to examine different things. It’s possible that their religious views from their pre-college years weren’t even theirs at all. Rather, as Friedersdorf suggests, “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 anything, maybe Prager should turn his argument inward. Particularly for college students who grew up involved in the church, the fact that 18 years of teachings can be undone within the span of four years or less speaks not to the effects of higher education, but to the superficiality of religion in the lives of these students.
Then again, it’s easier for conservative Christians like Prager to claim that American universities are brainwashing college students, even when they like to also argue that colleges are ineffective institutions.