Saturday, November 15, 2008

Soul-losing risk-taking

Over at W4 I've put up a post on the subject of how kids lose their Christian faith in college. Actually, I'm looking for information more than giving it. One theme that comes up again and again in the responses is the theme of the entire atmosphere of a secular college and how the Christian student feels immersed in it, feels lonely as a Christian, perhaps wants to try out some of the hedonistic experimenting his peers are trying, and is therefore almost looking for excuses to throw out his Christianity.

This leads me to wonder seriously about parents who deliberately send their children to live on the campus of a secular university. Nowadays, we have all heard the horror stories about the brain-washing PC residence hall sessions. But even aside from that, as one commentator put it,
It takes a lot of personal fortitude to hold onto what you believe in when everyone around you operates entirely on the presumption that it doesn't even exist. You have to be able to go home at night and think about it, you have to be able to drag yourself out early in the morning and go to church, you have to be able to say "eh, not this time" when good clean fun goes bad.
Right. So surely living in the dorms must make this effect particularly strong. Or so it would seem to me. I mean, what if there is no "home" to go to in order to get away from the atmosphere and think about it?

So I was thinking over reasons why parents and children agree to do this. These seem to me to include things like this: 1) The assumption that going away and living in dorms at college is a necessary part of growing up, an absolute rite of passage that it would be cruel to have your kids miss out on. 2) The worry that sending your child to a Christian college will not get him a good enough education and/or will not allow him to get a job. 3) The worry that sending your child to a local college, so that he can live at home, will not get him a good enough name on his transcript to allow him to get a job. 4) (Related to 3.) The assumption that, despite post-modernism and the death of the academy, there is enough objective difference in quality across disciplines between a more "elite" secular school and a secular school that no one has ever heard of that your child really will get a good education at the former and not at the latter and that you therefore have a duty to send your child away from home to go to the former.

I certainly understand that parents agonize over such decisions, and I don't want to sound harsh. But there is that whole thing in the Gospels about gaining the whole world and losing your own soul. This is not meant as an advertisement for Christian colleges. Christian colleges often have their unique problems, some of which arise from the fact that young people and parents go in trusting them and are therefore particularly vulnerable to faith-attacking professors and trendy movements (like the Emergent Church movement, for example). But I would say this: Question all of 1-4 if you have a decision of this kind to make. And try to do something other than sending your children away to be immersed in the "college experience" of a secular college. For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?


Sarah Geis said...


This is such an important topic, and one that is very close to my heart. Thanks for raising the question.

The relationship of Christian kids and college seems to be a very complex one, and for what its worth I'll offer my thoughts here.

Through college I have seen some things happen to people I have grown up with (all from a private, K-12, very conservative Christian classical school):

Group 1: Kids who went to a secular school and ultimately weakened in or completely abandoned their faith

Group 2: Kids who went to a private Christian school (Abilene Christian University and Colorado Christian University) and still weakened in or abandoned their faith

Group 3: A small but substantial group who emerged from their (Christian and secular) college experience with a stronger faith than when they entered.

To put a very lengthy and multi-faceted conclusion in a short format: College tends to either strengthen or severely weaken the faith of a student. The kids who did very well also tended to have parents and older mentors who took the college threat very seriously and prepared the minds of these kids for impending spiritual and intellectual warfare.

It does not seem that there is much difference in secular or Christian colleges either direction, oddly enough, but what does tend to make the difference is when kids understand and are convinced of their faith and know the errors in other worldviews (as well as having a wise, encouraging Christian adult support system, either present or a phone call away).

Lydia McGrew said...

Sarah, I appreciate your comment very much. I wish we had more data gathered in a systematic way. I find very interesting what you say about the presence of support and hwo that is a greater predictor than the secular vs. Christian college distinction. What would be at least somewhat interesting to me would be the extent to which the rules of a college were correlated with loss of faith. Some ostensibly Christian colleges have as much or nearly as much of a hedonistic "party" spirit as their secular counterparts. I cannot help wondering to what extent that influences young people--frankly, the feeling that one should try joining the crowd in sleeping around. But it's difficult to get a fix on this.

Preparation is obviously hugely important, particularly in the intellectual realm. The young person _must not_ go into college vulnerable to the most puerile sort of attack coming from, say, a comparative religion course: "Gee, if I'd been raised in a Hindu country or family, I'd be a Hindu. I guess all religions are on a par." I would guess the number of young people who have fallen to this argument is uncountable.

The Social Pathologist said...

So I was thinking over reasons why parents and children agree to do this.

Most universities are vocational schools, and since most parents want to optimise their kid's employment chances, schools with the highest prestige are likely to be chosen. It's a brand thing. Faith comes second.

I also wouldn't underestimate the desire of some parents for their children to experience "life". I feel that in many Christians, there is a nagging thought that they may have missed out on the "life's fun" and are living vicariously through their children.

I think what really kills the faith is not the exposure to vice but the ostracism and social ridicule of the kids who keep the faith. No kid wants to become a social leper every kid wants to fit in with the crowd. I knocked back several sexual advances (out of duty, not natural instinct)while at Uni, and the girls in question thought I was weird or gay. The men getting all the action and the girls getting all the hot boys have always been thought of as "cool". Everyone strives to be like them.

Sarah Geis said...


That is certainly a question that I wish I understood- what feeds the desire for some otherwise responsible college students to eschew their previous values and jump in with the "party crowd?" That is one question that spans the areas of philosophy, psychology, and sociology.

Also, I thought that you might want to take a look at this research report having to do with this topic done by the Nehemiah Institute:

Lydia McGrew said...

SP, I think you are especially correct for young women. I think it's probably true that many young women do not find it particularly attractive to become sexually active with young men they do not love. It's just not something women are hard-wired to want to do. But they don't want to feel "out of it" or be socially ostracized, and they also come to believe, bizarrely, that this is the only way to get a husband! (Dawn Eden talks about this quite frankly.) So they change their lifestyles in response to social pressure, and faith loss may well follow lifestyle change.

If I'm right about that, it may be relevant to the question you raise, Sarah. Fear may (this is just a conjecture) be at the back of it. Having accepted the idea that the social milieu of the secular party world represents "the real world," lonely young people are terrified that they will not make it in life if they don't learn to fit into this supposedly "real world," so they start trying to catch up with the experience of their more secularized peers. Of course, that may be over-psychologizing for some. I imagine there are guys and even girls out there who just think the hedonistic life sounds fun and have been secretly wanting to try it once they are out of the house.

But you would probably have a better sense of this than I from your own experience.

By the way, a slightly longer version of this post has gone up at W4.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks very much for the study link. Sarah. I think it would be fascinating to see them do a longitudinal study of the _same_ group of people, which I'm gathering is not what their data represent.

My _guess_ is that the scoring of home schooled students between the two kinds of Christian schooled students reflects the fact that not all home schooled students are even from Christian homes. They don't say that the home schooled students were definitely screened for being Christian, whereas the schools were designated as Christian or public (secular). It's hard to believe sometimes, but the hippies were the ones who more or less started home schooling, back in the 60's. My own state still has a secular home schooling help group, Clonlara, that provided help to Michigan homeschoolers when oversight by a state accredited teacher was required. And HSLDA does not (perhaps for good reason) require that a family be Christian to join and have access to their services.

Amy said...

I'm not so sure it's dorm life that causes the loss of faith. Think of Lot, who was confronted with horrific temptations but stayed faithful to God and kept his family faithful as well. It was when they left for the wilderness that they lost their faith.

When I went to a secular, state-run college, I certainly considered myself a Christian, but I didn't think my faith was all that important and of course I eventually abandoned it. I would hate to blame the school or the people around my for my weak faith, so I take full blame for my actions.

I came back to Christianity in my late 20s, I pursued further education at a Christian school that is well known for its piety (I'm not going to name it though), and I worked for several years for a Christian non-profit. It was harder to keep my faith in God in those Christian settings than it was in the secular world.

I think the difference is that I was prepared to be attacked for my faith in God in secular settings, but had much higher expectations in a Christian setting. Everyone I know who has worked in a Christian setting has had a spiritual attack as a direct result of working in that setting.

I think the deciding factor is the type of prepration people receive before even considering which college to attend. If their faith is built on the sands of sentimentality and they've never been in a situation where they've had their faith tested, they'll be far more likely to fail and lose their faith. But if that faith is built on rock instead of sand they'll stand a much better chance of remaining Christian, and even making a change in the world around them.

Unknown said...

Unknown said...


Excuse my very late comment, but I am lucky to have found your blog! I couldn't agree more with your post, and thought I was the only one who thinks along this logic regarding higher education. Your analysis resonated well with my own personal experience for my current studies at a local Christian Bible college. I have other Christian friends from high school who have now gone to attend public colleges where the advocacy for Left-wing ideology and discrimination of Christian thought is rampant. Ironically, some of these friends of mine have Christian parents-- yet I remain without Christian parents (yet) and made the decision to attend a Christian college.