Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

How the modern Christian church creates college atheists

More than 70% of college students who regularly attended church in high school leave in college. Why?

“Universities are secular hotbeds with biased professors aiming to abolish religion.” “Their parents didn’t do a good job raising them in a Biblical way.” “Their community isn’t with them.”

It takes a quick Google search to find dozens of hypotheses and commentary among church-leaders attempting to debunk a growing trend among college students—that, is, leaving the church. Often, eighteen years of a safe, comfortable, church-centered upbringing lead to a pastor scratching his head, wondering what’s contributed to Timmy’s “wandering”—and concluding that Universities are filled with liberal professors slanted against Christianity (and then making movies about students going toe-to-toe in an intellectual cage match against a professor that might as well have red horns sticking from his head).

It doesn’t take much reason here to find flaws in such a finger pointing, “it’s their fault!” argument. Despite what some might think, introduction to microeconomics isn’t filled with any religious commentary, and neither are the vast majority of courses.

But more telling in this proposition is the expectation that a few years can completely undermine a worldview established through eighteen years of someone’s life. What does it say about how the church teaches children if many conclude that a few professors at the front of a classroom can completely redefine how someone else thinks about every facet of their life? That doesn’t sound like a lot of confidence to me.

So I’ll throw out a couple ideas here.

Fearing new ideas, thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs, churches have sought to shield their youth from ideas that can only be products of heathenistic, Godless souls. Don’t want to wrestle with the scientific support for the theory of evolution? Label it the product of Satan and avoid it. Think postmodern relativist morality is too alluring an idea to ward off? Great, we’ll just brush that off with a demonized label, too. Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor himself, articulated that “there is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions,” and that “nothing pains some people more than having to think.” And I think the church, in particular has fallen victim to this. Trying to wrestle with and marry competing thoughts used to be a staple of intelligence; now, by and large, the church has sought to avoid such a struggle, for fear that a student might fall prey to the allure of secular philosophical thought.

Jesus’s paraphrased words of “in the world but not of the world” might as well be translated today as “avoid today’s culture, it’s dangerous.” In many ways, this kind of extreme sheltering causes the beliefs of many youth to be based on circumstances of where they grew up and defined by the only opinions they’re allowed to hear, rather than by a conscious, intentional and rational decision. And this might be how the church has supremely contributed to creating these newfound college atheists, by creating minds that are trained to be products of their environments. Though professors may not be threatening students to swear off theism, college campuses tend to have a more secular lean than the general population, even in the Bible Belt.

But that idea may be overly simplistic, and it certainly isn’t all-encompassing. What may be more accurate then, is not that students are eternally stuck as victims of circumstance, but rather leaving the church provides the very liberation and empowerment the modern church has feared with their youth.

But good news for the pastors left scratching their heads. Almost 2/3 of students who leave the church during college come back in their 20’s, and this time it’s a conscious, intentional choice.

So my message to churches wondering how their golden children have all but abandoned in college the comfort of their one-track teaching is this: quit being so afraid of competing ideas. We all have the power of choice, and attempting to avoid the difficulty that power presents leads to stifled students, who find the very liberation in college that you unnecessarily feared.

Matthew Gillham is a a senior majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly on Fridays.

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