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.