College Really IS Bad for Jesus

A century ago, conservative evangelicals rallied around William Jennings Bryan and his warnings that college was bad for students’ evangelical faith. One of the results was the network of evangelical universities I studied in Fundamentalist U. A new poll suggests that Bryan was right all along.

pew college graduates belief in god

Was Bryan right?

In his anti-evolution stump speeches in the early 1920s, Bryan liked to cite the work of Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. According to Leuba, 85% of college freshman believed in god, but only 70% of juniors did, and only 60-65% of graduates did. The evidence seemed clear, Bryan reported: College kills religion.

Bryan also liked to tell personal anecdotes about the deleterious spiritual effects of college attendance. As he put it in 1921,

There is a professor in Yale of whom it is said that no one leaves his class a believer in God. . . . A father (a Congressman) tells me that a daughter on her return from Wellesley told him that nobody believed in the Bible stories now.  Another father (a Congressman) tells me of a son whose faith was undermined by this doctrine in a Divinity School.

Was it true? Who knows. Bryan was famous for rhetorical excellence and factual carelessness. A new Pew survey, though, finds that college graduates, as a group, tend to be less literal about their religious beliefs than the rest of America.

As the Pewsters report, about two-thirds of respondents with a high-school diploma or less believe in the God of the Bible. Among college graduates, that number drops to 45%. College graduates are still plenty religious, with 84% of them saying they believe in God or some sort of higher spiritual power, compared to 94% of high-school grads.

Still, the difference is notable. And we have to ask: Were Bryan and the 1920s fundamentalists right all along? Is college—at least, in its mainstream and elite forms—bad for faith in Jesus?

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  1. Agellius

     /  March 7, 2019

    Obviously this doesn’t show whether college caused loss of faith. It could be that fewer believers send their kids to college in the first place. It could be that those who lost faith in college didn’t have a strong faith to begin with, but one that was sort of absorbed by osmosis from friends and family. Maybe those who have graduated from college have been placed in a position where they needed to decide how real their faith really was, and noticed for the first time that it didn’t rise to the level of a conviction but was just taken for granted and never really questioned before.

    In other words I’m skeptical of the extent to which learning secular ideas can destroy real faith, for the simple reason that there’s no conflict between truth and truth. To the extent secularism is true, it won’t conflict with religious belief; to the extent it’s false, it will be rejected by those who can perceive it’s fallacies. Those who absorb secularism without noticing its fallacies probably never thought very deeply about their faith either. It’s for this reason that I endorse colleges that help students think carefully and accurately about these things.

    Secularism and materialism don’t refute faith in any way, they simply start from different philosophical assumptions. Those who can see this won’t have their faith harmed by exposure to such ideas.

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