According to recent studies, almost half of all American college students will abandon their Christian faith during their undergraduate years.
The most common reason given is that the environment of higher education is often anti-faith. A recent study by the Fuller Youth Institute found that almost a third of college students say their institute of higher learning was not helpful in keeping or growing their faith.
In fact, it was antagonistic toward it.
Most universities would defend themselves by saying that examining one’s faith in an intellectually stimulating environment such as a college or university should lead to a deeper understanding of a childhood faith.
It’s a good line.
But it’s not true.
According to the research of political scientists Robert P. Putnam and David E. Campbell, “Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historical rate.” Another study found with each year of education, there is a 15% increase that the student will believe that there’s “truth in more than one religion” and believe in a “higher power” rather than a personal God.
So the longer they are in school, the more watered down their faith often becomes.
In one of my books I wrote about my oldest daughter’s experience as a freshman at one of the leading public universities in the United States.
At the onset of her freshman year, in her first history course, her professor took it upon himself to announce that the entire historical record upon which Christianity is based is untrue:
Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah;
...none of his followers saw him as divine until centuries after his death;
...none of the gospels were first-hand accounts;
...Jesus was not a religious figure as much as he was a political one;
...there was never an intent to form any kind of “church”;
...there were dozens of “gospels,” all of which were thought to be sacred by followers of the Jesus movement;
...and the four gospels in the Bible today are riddled with discrepancies and errors.
In many ways, this was tame. But it reveals the not-so-secret mission many educators seem to be on: to destroy the faith of fragile freshman behind the façade of pseudo-scholarship. This isn’t education; it’s indoctrination.
They are, in many ways, little more than intellectual predators.
But there is another finger to point.
And it’s at ourselves.
Far too many students enter college without a firm worldview in place, much less awareness of the basics of Christian apologetics. They grew up in homes and churches that avoided the tough intellectual issues surrounding faith, which means they also neglected to provide the robust and profound answers to those questions.
So what happens?
The student hears their faith intellectually engaged for the first time at the hands of a skeptic. So when they hear someone assault them with half-baked ideas and spurious history, they don’t say, “I know about this, and it’s not true. It’s not even academically sound.” Instead, they say,
“Why haven’t I ever heard this before? I wonder what else they never told me.”
The remedy in both church and home is simple:
Teach about the objections to Christianity, the biblical Jesus, and the trustworthiness of the Bible. Don’t let the first time people hear about the ideas of Richard Dawkins or Bart Ehrman be when they go off to school.
Help people to cultivate a Christian mind and worldview, and the importance of thinking and engaging the world accordingly.
If you want to examine how this might be achieved, I’ve written about it at length in my book A Mind for God, and explored the essence of foundational apologetics in A Search for the Spiritual.
At Meck, we’ve tackled the heart of culture’s questions regarding faith in such recent series as “Mythbusting,” “Can I Believe,” “Searching for a Better God” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Christianity and World Religions” (available at www.churchandculture.org).
All to say, it’s that time of year again.
Another crop of freshman will go off to college, armed with decorations for their dorm room, apps for their iPad and meal plans for their bodies.
The real question is whether they also packed a Christian mind for their souls.
James Emery White
James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).
“Study: Education liberalizes religious views,” USA Today, August 3, 2011, read online.
“College students need help to keep their faith,” Marybeth Hicks, The Washington Times, Tuesday, August 2, 2011, read online.
Robert P. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace.
“Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty,” Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, The Forum (Manuscript 1067), 2005; read online source.
“Why are millennials leaving church? Try atheism,” Hemant Mehta, CNN, July 30, 2013, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.