October 28, 2010
There is a widely held belief that there is a conflict between college education and faith. In fact, some would say that the more students pursue higher education, the more likely they are prone to abandon their faith. Yet, University of Texas professor of sociology Mark D. Regnerus, who has studied the issue, concludes that, compared to their peers who do not go to college, college graduates are more likely to hold on to their faith. He says, “not
all Americans check their religion at the dorm door (Mark D. Regnerus and Jeremy E. Uecker, “How Corrosive Is College to Religious Faith and Practice?” Feb 5, 2007).
On secular campuses around the country, professors are seeing students drawn to religion more than in the past. Baptist theologian Peter Gomes, who has been at Harvard University for almost forty years, recalls the days when religious people on campus were dismissed as not very intellectual. Now he says that this is no longer true. There is more religion on campus than in the last hundred years.
In 2001, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, began a seven-year study on college students and their spirituality. The study claims that college students have a high level of spiritual commitment. Seventy seven percent of the students said that “we are all spiritual beings,” and 71 percent reported that they “gain strength by trusting in a higher power.”
Faced with many new ideas in all areas of life, college students look for values that will guide them in their decisions and their behavior not only with each other, but also with God. College years are that time in life when the young most readily examine religious values and are most open to religious change and growth. Yet, there is a verifiable decline in church attendance. Why?
One simple explanation for the drop off in church attendance is the late night orientation of college life. Sunday morning Mass becomes a virtual impossibility for the college student who rarely sees the light of morning on Sundays. For those who do go to Mass, it is almost always the Sunday evening Mass in campus ministry.
For some, the inconvenience of finding a church provides a first excuse for not going to Mass. But, college students are enterprising. College students quickly find restaurants, health clubs and places of entertainment. It is not that college students cannot find a church that causes the problem. Rather, it is going there. Church means a whole set of social relationships. A new church, for some, may just be too much with all the new relationships that they are already forming in their classes and dorms.
Some students simply fall out of the habit of Mass. They miss one Sunday (unfortunately, at times, with the implicit approval of parents!) Then they miss again. Like water, they take the path of least resistance and no longer make the effort. Soon they no longer feel the obligation for Sunday worship. Their lack of church attendance is simply laziness hardened into a bad habit and eventually into apathy.
Some students reject church attendance as a part of their self-assertion vis-à-vis their parents. When they lived at home, their parents insisted that they attend church. Now they are independent. They wish to affirm their own freedom. They do so by casting off a norm set by their parents. Hopefully, they will mature enough to appropriate the value that their parents tried to give them in setting down the rule of church attendance.
Some students may get caught up in society’s marginalization of religion to the private sphere. The ongoing debates and the court decisions to ban the expression of religion from the public square make them very hesitant to be seen publicly as individuals of faith and devotion. They simply do not want to stand out.
Peer pressure also plays a significant role. Attending Sunday Mass may not be the “cool” thing to do. Some students may fear that being religious will mean being left out. They see church attendance as the kiss of death on the social scene.
One of the surest factors that influence a young person’s attendance at church is behavior. In fact, behavior is the single most important factor influencing the choice of church attendance on Sunday. Statistics show that those students who engage in premarital sex, drugs and alcohol are likely to drop their connection with church more readily than those who do not engage in these activities. This holds true both for students who attend college and those who do not. It becomes increasingly more burdensome to live a double life.
For some students, the choice not to go to church comes as they question their own faith. When we are children, we are taught that God is all powerful and cares for each of us. We learn to pray to God, especially in times of difficulty. We pray to pass a test, to excel in sports and to get what we want for our birthday. We grow up with the idea that God is there to answer our prayers because He can. But, as we get older, we discover that not all our prayers are answered as we expect or, as we think, God should.
As we face life, we encounter the death of a young friend, the illness of someone we love or a natural disaster that wipes out thousands. We begin to question. Why did not God prevent the death of my friend? Why should my mother suffer such a terrible disease? Why did not God intervene to avert the earthquake? It takes humility to accept that we will never fully understand the ways of God. It takes time for our faith to mature. Some college students simply need the time to come to a deeper faith that trusts even in darkness.
The choice to go to church is precisely that: it is a choice. Since college years are the years when students have more freedom, some do choose to go to church. They develop the spiritual support that will carry them through the challenges of work and family in the years ahead.
However, other students choose not to go to church. Parents still love them and care for them. They look after their health, make sure that they achieve their academic potential and insure that they have enough money for their expenses. They do not leave them
on their own. Yet, some parents do leave their college sons or daughters
completely on their own in terms of church. Parents should not be afraid of helping their children grow in their relationship with God, mature in their faith and understand the irreplaceable value of Sunday Mass. Love cares for the whole person and for the whole of life.