How College Students Can Keep the Faith

Across the nation the school year is starting, and on university campuses 18-year-olds are moving into their dormitories and starting their freshmen orientation. Many are apprehensive. Their parents are probably more so. Among the questions on the minds of their parents especially: are the intellects of the Ivory Tower going to undermine their children’s faith?

A recent article in The Atlantic says no. College graduates are more likely to be religious than their less-credentialed peers. According to Emma Green, a recent study shows that college graduates are more likely than non-grads to identify with a religious group.

Importantly, the study doesn’t measure levels of religiosity, so we should take it with a grain (or more) of salt. As previously discussed here at Crisis, nominal religious identification is still a mark of respectability in America, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for serious religious faith. And it’s hard to doubt that universities have been a major force for moving the American elite to the left. Unless you’ve specifically sought out one of those few colleges in America that have rigorously protected their Catholic identity, chances are that many of your professors would be quite happy to undermine your faith.

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As a college instructor myself, I occasionally field questions from anxious parents who have these sorts of concerns. I thought it might be worth recording my advice for the benefit of any undergraduate students who might be anxious about preserving their faith in a possibly hostile environment.

First of all I should admit that I can’t speak to every discipline, college and class. However, as a professor of philosophy, I do have some insight into one of the disciplines that people (understandably) find especially worrisome. Questions about religious belief likely won’t arise in an accounting class. But in philosophy, religious belief is quite relevant, and outside of a few distinctive enclaves it should be admitted that professional philosophers are predominantly atheists. Some are respectful of religious faith, but many are not. I suspect the same can be said of most academic disciplines.

Despite that, I don’t think it’s either healthy or necessary for undergraduates to go through college feeling that their faith is something they need to hide. On a college level, you’re unlikely to be penalized for it, and it’s bad to set a precedent of feeling ashamed of your religion. The thing to keep in mind about your professors is that they’ve had hundreds or even thousands of students over the years. They’re probably not losing any sleep over your personal beliefs. In general, college professors don’t take undergraduate students seriously enough to be threatened by their beliefs.

In a broad sense, most professors probably are trying to persuade their students to share their general worldview. It would be difficult to do otherwise, because even though a college course will typically cover a variety of arguments and views, everyone tends to be most eloquent when making a point they believe to be true. My philosophy courses certainly are not exercises in catechesis, and I think everyone should be able to get something out of them; still, I think they are in broad sense faith-supportive, and it would be difficult to change that without feeling guilty of some duplicity. I suspect many of my colleagues are similar in that their courses are not overtly hostile to faith, but are broadly based in a worldview that is materialist or at any rate not Catholic.

I’ve met professors who take evident pleasure in the idea that they are helping kids from religious families overcome their backwards teachings of their benighted youth. In that sense the “God Is Not Dead” stereotype may be somewhat accurate. It’s less accurate in portraying philosophy professors as insecure, quick to take offense, and easily blind-sided by students who make unexpected points or have the temerity to stand up for themselves. I don’t want to suggest that this sort of person doesn’t exist anywhere, but I think they’re fairly rare, and especially so in philosophy. Philosophers tend to enjoy argumentative sparring, but even professors who don’t are probably used to the idea that some students hold views that they regard as backwards. It’s unusual for them to take this personally.

For most college teachers, the truly frustrating thing about students is their lack of engagement with the material. People occasionally ask me whether I believe myself capable of grading or evaluating my students “objectively” given my strong religious convictions. I actually don’t think it’s very hard, but that’s not because I flatter myself to be a model of perfect objectivity. I just find it so refreshing to see a student engaging the material in any serious way, and doubly so to see him making clear and articulate arguments about it. After all that, would I punish him for the piddling offense of not agreeing with me? Honestly, I’m never even tempted. If students are willing to speak up in class and generate some discussion, I’ll like them even more. I actually have a special affection for the prickly ones who eye me suspiciously as though they suspect that, veneer of academic respectability notwithstanding, I may be interested in saving their souls.

Not every professor is quite like this of course, but I did very well in college just by being my contrarian self, and in general I think students devote way too much energy to divining what their professors believe. Stop worrying about it, and think about what you believe.

The greatest attacks on your faith, in the context of a university campus, will not come in the form of full frontal attacks from nefarious atheist professors. They will come from immersion in a generally debased culture, which makes it difficult to hold to your moral standards. They may also take the form of subtle pressures to “drift” in the general direction of liberal professors and students, who probably do present themselves as the “right-thinking” people, and who may implicitly offer attractive long-term prizes to those who join the club. Undergraduates generally aren’t under much direct pressure to abandon their faith, but the story is very different for graduate students and junior faculty members, and ambitious youngsters of all stripes quickly realize that America’s privileged upper crust is predominantly liberal. The desire to join that elite set represents a far greater temptation than anything you’ll encounter in philosophy class.

Thus, I advise Catholic students to take the initiative in seeking out sources of sustenance for their faith. Read the sorts of books and websites that will help you to nourish your faith. Seek out professors (there probably are at least a few, even on a secular campus) whose courses will help to bolster your understanding of the Catholic tradition. Go to Mass.

Losing your faith is generally more a consequence of neglect than of active persuasion. Like so many things in life, college is what you make of it, both spiritually and academically. If you find yourself in place where faith is countercultural, think of this as an opportunity to be the salt of the Earth.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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