Santorum says college saps your faith. What do you say?

Rick Santorum has made headlines recently by claiming that colleges more or less systematically rob young people of their faith. Talking Points Memo rebuts this claim with a raft of studies. The studies are not unanimous in assessing the impact of attending college on “religious participation,” so let’s give them a hand.

What happened to your “religious participation”–however you might define that term–during your college years? What do those of you in college or in campus ministry find happening either within yourselves, or in the lives of those around you?

Updated: Cathy Lee Grossman of USA Today is also on the story.

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  1. Gregory Orloff

    Rick Santorum spent a lot of time in college: he got a bachelor’s degree in political science, then a Master of Business Administration degree, and then a law degree — all three from secular, public schools at that. How did all that time in college affect his religiosity?

    And what is the point of his making such a claim publicly? A “faith-based” rationale for cutting student loans, financial aid and federal funds for higher education once in office? What is everybody supposed to do? Stop at a high school diploma to work for McJob wages for life and make a lot of babies in “the name of Jeezus” while serving “the people upstairs” like Santorum and company?

    The delusions of this man are astounding.

  2. A Facebook User

    As a college student currently in my third year at one of the Northeast’s private colleges [in]famous for its progressive politics and its secularism/irreligiousity, I feel capable of commenting.

    For me, as someone with a passion for thought, understanding something actually requires intellectualizing it. I can understand an idea or an experience best when I can put it in a context of learning and reason; this applies to everything from tying a bowtie (watching Youtube videos and maybe taking some notes) to more conventional class work.

    For me, intellect has also been an important part of my faith journey. I had always been an active member of my (UCC) church and youth group, but I can’t say I ever deeply believed. What was more moving for me was the service work we did and the community we had. When I got to college that community was missing and church had lost its shine.

    But as I’ve learned more, even in the last few months, about religion and the current state of Biblical interpretation in scholarship, it’s dawned on me that when I was a child, I had the understanding of a child; I couldn’t believe that I believed because I thought that people believed in a God I couldn’t imagine, rooted in some literal interpretation of Scripture. As I’ve been able to intellectually engage more with the deep tradition and many strands of Christianity—an experience that, for me, has only been possible through my college education—I’ve put away my childish understanding and come to realize that, after a few years wandering in the desert, it’s time for me to come home.

    Sparknotes: College and the deep intellectual engagement it enables actually brought me back to the church (this time in its Episcopal form) and I couldn’t be happier.

  3. On the other hand, “religion,” be it neo-evangelicalism or purported Roman Catholicism, saps your intelligence.

  4. Kraut1701

    As someone with a political science degree, it’s fascinating to watch the Republicans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Keep on with this silly, moronic drivel!

    Morris Post

  5. E B

    If there’s an active campus ministry, college can be a very positive, formative experience. For me, I found the opportunity to sit around with clergy, talk about politics, beer, parties, sex–all the usual stuff that college kids talk about. And while much of the conversation would probably seem lowbrow to the casual observer, that sort of informal spiritual direction, coming at that point in life, can be immensely valuable.

    As an aside, I’d add that clergy in non-campus settings often overlook the formative value of just “hanging out.” Developing a strong moral compass is something that comes over time, and is the result of weighing many smaller, transactional decisions and their implications for self and others. Yet, in this era of constrained resources and sometimes overzealous emphasis on boundaries, too often the focus is on pastoral care in times of crisis.

    Eric Bonetti

  6. E B

    I meant to say that the opportunity was helpful. Lack of caffeine = missing words.


  7. Vicki Bozzola

    I am a poster child for the thesis that “colleges rob young people of their faith.” An active church-goer in a fundamentalist denomination from the age of about five (by choice; my parents didn’t attend), I became an equally ardent and active Mormon convert at the age of 17. By the time I was a college sophomore, however, I had left church entirely and insisted on excommunication within the year. It was not the college social life (of which I had none), but the intellectual stimuli (yes, even the Arizona backwater) that inspired my apostasy. For 23 years I kept my vow never to set foot in another church, but then I found the Episcopal Church. Ever since then, the Anglican liturgy and the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason have satisfied my spiritual need to think while believing. It’s impossible to say what my college experience would have been in this more liberal and intellectual corner of Christendom.

  8. tobias haller

    I rediscovered my faith while in college. I’m also happy to say there are a number of college students in the parish I now serve.

    Some people fear challenges to their faith — others find faith in the challenge.


    Paul Griffiths has a really excellent essay in a review of Mark Noll’s new Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind in the February 26 number of The Living Church.

    Griffiths reminds us that what we might call “Christian Anti-Intellectualism” can be traced all the way to Tertullian, Jerome, and that “even . . . Augustine . . . writes in De doctrina christiana at the end of the fourth century that what Christians can learn from pagan books is either damaging or useful, and that if it’s the former it’s condemned in Scripture, while if it’s the latter it’s already found there.”

    In the 19th Century the Episcopal Church–with many other denominational groups–was energetic in the foundation of Christian colleges and in engaging constructively in a broad and systematic way with the sciences, humanities, and fine arts.

    Our vision now seems to be pizza and rap sessions with students on Wednesday evenings, I guess because we no longer think we have anything to add to the formation of the curriculum.

    A great loss, I think, in the context of a part of the life of the Church in the West that goes back nearly a thousand years to places like Paris and Rome and Oxford.

    I personally think Rick Santorum is playing here with a much deeper strand of American class anxiety, and it’s more-or-less the same tune that the Occupiers were singing not long ago. He’s not really aiming at the local community college or even at those who would scrimp, save, and borrow to send their kids to the state university. He’s using code language to talk about cultural and social divides marked out by, let’s say, the Harvard, Princeton, Yale “1%.”

    It’s a populist tune, again, Paris Commune to William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long, and can be sung as well from the right as the left side of the aisle . . . .

    Bruce Robison

    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  10. Vicki Bozzola

    As I re-read my initial post, I realize that something was definitely missing: I actually believe its a GOOD thing that college tests–or even destroys–faith. What results is inevitably stronger and more authentic than the unquestioning belief of childhood.

  11. Peter Pearson

    Mr. Santorum saps my faith.

  12. Rob Huttmeyer

    Mr. Santorum saps my brain

  13. Sarah Flynn

    Since the Founding Fathers and Mothers of the Republic were all Enlightenment gentlemen and ladies, they would find this kind of irrational religious rant repugnant to their belief in rationality. Santorum is attempting to resurrect William Jennings Bryan to defend Fundamentalist Christianity against Modernists who don’t share his irrational faith. He and his supporters are why Thomas Jefferson saw religion and the clergy as the greatest threat to civil liberties.

    Sarah Flynn

  14. Don’t you get it? Non college folk earn half of what college grads do. The GOP’s most desired future is one in which “job creators” have a free hand to exploit low wage, desperate, poorly educated, and unprotected workers who will not fuss about being poisoned on the job, having their spouses and children poisoned by environmental rapaciousness and then being abandoned to die in their old age after financial predators have plundered their personal retirement savings accounts.

    Oh and we won’t mind having Curial fundamentalism jammed down our throats by the newly emergent moral federalism of these folks.

  15. John D. Andrews

    My faith was awakened when I was in the Military. After getting out of the Navy I went back to college. In college I became a part of a campus ministry where my faith continued to grow. So, college, thanks to a campus ministry, did not have a negative affect on my faith.

  16. Josh Magda

    College is indeed a dangerous place for the survival of fundamentalist faith, which is why most of the campus ministries are fundamentalist. The life of the mind is a great gift, and can be very liberating in many human contexts.

    That being said, I think the modern university is the Church of Humanism. Students will accumulate a bunch of knowledge and ways to deconstruct the world, along with a healthy dose of irreligion from professors and fellow students. Faith goes beyond the mind, and that is insulting to the modern academy, which believes reason to be the pinnacle of human ability and foundation for a flourishing human society.

    In addition, science has colonized most of the value spheres in college, so the traditional quest of the liberal arts, to understand the meaning of life, is severely hampered. Because theology is no longer a part of the university, and there is no current replacement, college deals with just about everything except what is most important. If students are to find meaning or Spirit, and integrate that with reason, they will have to do it on their own, as college lacks systematic instruction in how to integrate knowledge across value spheres and is completely closed to the Reality that we call God.

    As a result, we again have the Spirit/World and Nature/God divide, and the university becomes particularly vulnerable to fundamentalist encampment and corporate pressure to make the experience more “practical” and economy oriented.

  17. tgflux

    It was THE formative religious experience of my life, my 4 years lived among the “Campus Episcopalians” at UC Davis, 1980-84.

    To say Rick Santorum is full of “it”, is an insult to whatever “it” you’re speaking of (though the Google’d one comes to mind)

    JC Fisher

  18. Oh yes, here we go again with the idea that faith and reason are antithetical. But hey, all of those years of education didn’t make Mr. Santorum any WISER. Given that Mr. Santorum comes from a Church that all too often expects its members to shut up and not question anything as long as they give unyielding support (financial, especially) to the Curia, this certainly fits.

  19. MEM

    I went to a relatively liberal Catholic University, and the critical thinking and grappling with religion and philosophy had a definite strengthening my faith. I had been estranged from my rigid fundamentalist upbringing, and during my time in school, I converted to the Episcopal Church, where I’ve been at home for over 20 years.

    Thanks for you comments MEM but cannot continue to approve them if you don’t sign your name, please? ~ed

  20. Paul Martin

    As an undergraduate at MIT, I enjoyed an excellent campus ministry, as well as a congregation off campus. In my senior year, I participated in an EDS course offered to area lay people.

    In graduate school, I found another excellent campus ministry, where I went through the EFM program. It was a time of much debate, challenge and growth.

    I have been listening to complaints about liberal professors for decades. In my experience, this is an urban myth. My experience may have to do with my engineering major, which left professors with very little time to address topics not in the formal curriculum.

    College years involve a transition between a childhood faith and an adult faith. Not everyone makes that transition. For those who do, we arrive at a faith which is ultimately more sustainable. I am grateful for the opportunity to make that journey.

  21. IT

    Re. Rick Santorum, the conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan (a Roman Catholic)sums it up, He is a man of the kind of fear that leads to fundamentalist faith, a faith without doubt and in complete subservience to external authority. There is a reason he doesn’t want many kids to go to college. I mean: when we already know the truth, why bother to keep seeking it? And if we already know the truth, why are we not enforcing it as a matter of law in a country founded on Christian principles? It is not religious oppression if it is “the way things are supposed to be”, by natural law. In fact, a neutral public square, in his mind, is itself religious oppression.

    Re. the supposed absence of faith from the academic quad: a recent study argues that higher levels of education leads to MORE religious practice — albeit a more tolerant , less Biblically literalist form.

    with each additional year of education:

    – The likelihood of attending religious services increased 15%.

    – The likelihood of reading the Bible at least occasionally increased by 9%.

    – The likelihood of switching to a mainline Protestant denomination – Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian USA or United Methodist – increased by 13%.

    As with Paul, I think the “war” against religion that is supposedly waged on campus is much overstated, particularly on the technical side. In my experience engineers tend to be quite conservative politically and socially. Those in the sciences run the gamut. Another recent study showed that contrary to popular opinion, many scientists DO actually identify as religious.

    Now, as to what goes on over in the humanities and social sciences, I cannot comment. But as an academic, I believe a real university needs robust intellectual inquiry in religion and philosophy as much as it needs it in literature and chemistry.

    Susan Forsburg

  22. Josh Magda

    My criticism is coming from a liberal arts perspective- particularly the humanities and social sciences, both domains which have tried to mimic the methods and worldview of the natural sciences, with varying levels of success.

    What Santorum wants and what I want are two different things. The Senator wants theocracy, I want a broader epistemological palette than is currently available in modern college.

    In the humanities and social sciences, political conservatives and religious people are openly mocked- I have seen it happen time and again, and in general, because they have both given up the quest for truth, the dominant methodology can be said to be deconstructionism and what Huston Smith calls “the hermeneutic of suspicion” (one’s actions “really” caused by race, class, gender, etc.)

    It is vitally important to recognize the way that our culture is oppressive, the influences of that culture on behavior so we can begin to construct an alternative to it. But the liberal arts no longer attempt such an undertaking, that of searching for truth (which they often regard as being inherently oppressive), or of opening to the cosmos as a living source of knowledge.

    Furthermore, college is rooted in the Western intellectual tradition, which itself is rooted in theology and the attempt to understand the Whole (the word university itself coming from universe). Now that we are moving away from Eurocentrism, why aren’t more of our students going on vision quests, spending time in monasteries, and other non-Western undertakings as part of their higher education?

    Since Spirit has been run out of college, disconnected from its own spiritual roots and closed to the spiritual insights of others, we have a profoundly abstract undertaking wherein students go to a bunch of discontinuous classes, listen to a lecture, take tests, write papers, and come out “educated,” all the while learning how to micro analyze the world but not ever being asked or expected to make since of the Whole (because there is no Whole).

    I think we can do better.

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