October 11, 2014

Faithfulness and Education

Back in August, Emma Green wrote an article for The Atlantic about higher education and religious affiliation. The article highlights a study that suggests that "in fact, college might make people more likely to be religious."  This would be shocking to any number of Americans who believe higher education to be intrinsically hostile to faith and religion. For Christian leaders working on–or near–colleges and universities find this kind of news encouraging.

Yeah, for us!

Smart and faithful!

When I read this I wondered whether "religious affiliation" was equal to attendance, cognitive assent or personal, spiritual practice? Maybe some combination of all of these? I also wondered whether the college experience reflected of a "transitional" shift rather than "conversional."

In his book, Souls in Transition, Christian Smith offers evidence that mainline protestant denominations in particular recover some attendance at the college level. Mostly, it seems due to conservative Christian students becoming more progressive in their social and political convictions and seeking a Christian community that affirms this. Looking at Smith's data, pews in mainline churches would be even more empty if it weren't for this. The drop off of mainline high school students is so dramatic that it is only those that come from other traditions in college that staves greater decline. Anecdotally, I can affirm this from my own experience with campus ministries these last two years.

Generally speaking, the bad news is that we've failed at raising up progressive Christians. The good news? We're at least been hospitable to the progressive young adults seeking out a more generous orthodoxy in our culture.

Yet, a post on the Wonkblog last week looked at research stating the opposite of what Green reported: "The study finds that more education, in the form of more years of formal schooling, has 'consistently large negative effects' on an individual's likelihood of attending religious services, as well as their likelihood of praying frequently."


What I find interesting about the LSU research that Christopher Ingraham sites in this Wonkblog post is the relationship it ties between religious practice/affiliation and superstitious practices. At the mere mention of equating religion to superstition I can hear the voices of my atheist friends sarcastically quipping, "No, really!? Duh!" At the same time, I can imagine both conservative and progressive Christians wagging fingers at each other, whole-heartedly crying, "It's your fault!!"

There are large swaths of American Christian culture that treat this tradition as a good luck amulet. As Anthony Pinn fairly critiques in this recent Guernica interview, many Christians are convinced that believing the right things or conducting particular practices in a prescribed way will find their wishes granted. Pinn also draws a connection between the consumer and the religious. Which seems to be part of the problem: it's all "me-centered."

Do we pray to get what we want?

Or do we pray in order to participate with what God is doing?

Does such a distinction matter?

I think it does.

People move towards faith traditions out of a sense that there is something greater. If our spirituality and practices do not reinforce this we do no one any favors. Boiling Christian spirituality down to religious goods and services–or magical trinkets and charms–ends up being antithetical to Christianity altogether.

Two thoughts I have after reading the Wonkblog post:

  • We need to offer a robust sense of the spiritual.
  • We need to offer a robust, non-consumeristic formation into worship, liturgy and all Christian practices.

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