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Does higher education experience undermine faith — or enhance it?

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 11:56 p.m. MDT

Students pray in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame.

Matt Cashore, Associated Press

Like many parents, Sara Meldrum's mother worried about sending her daughter to college. She would be living in a co-ed dorm at UC Davis and exposed to things that weren't necessarily in keeping with their family's faith or value system: premarital sex and alcohol. Although college wouldn't be the first time Sara would be exposed to these things, it would be her first time on her own. Would she stay true to her convictions away from the family unit that encouraged and fostered belief?

Despite the social pressures of college, Meldrum's faith flourished. She managed to engage socially with friends from the dorm. She became involved with her local church youth organization, where she took religious classes, hung out with friends and played competitive games of ping pong. She was given an opportunity to plan a lunch speaker series. These experiences and the community she found stregthened her convictions. Today Meldrum is married and lives in Germany. She remains active in her faith by attending religious services as well as maintaining a private spiritual life through devotional activities like prayer and scripture study.

Meldrum's experience goes against conventional wisdom about the link between higher education and religious disaffection: the more education you get, the more likely you are to lose your faith. This idea, sometimes called secularization theory, informed presidential hopeful Rick Santorum's recent comments on faith and education.

Santorum called colleges "indoctrination mills" in a Feb. 26 interview with ABC. Colleges are "liberal," and "most kids who go to college who are conservatives … are singled out" and "ridiculed," he argued. He added: "You know the statistic that at least I was familiar with from a few years ago — I don't know if it still holds true but I suspect it may even be worse — that 62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it."

Santorum's comments have spurred considerable debate. Many reject them as a political tool to energize blue-collar Republicans and question the truth of his statistics. Others suggest they are right on the mark. Conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager argued, "Just as the agenda of traditional Christian and Jewish seminaries is to produce religious Christians and religious Jews, the agenda of Western universities is to produce left-wing secularists."

For parents who want their children obtain higher education and keep the family faith, these are worrisome assertions. But a growing number of studies suggest Santorum's presumed phenomenon does not, in fact, bear out.

"The relationship is far more complex than what most secularization theories indicate," said Philip Schwadel, professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His research suggests that education impacts religious practices and religious beliefs in largely positive ways, particularly in the areas of church attendance and devotional participation. He also found that although educated people are more likely to reject exclusivist viewpoints and Biblical literalism, they are more likely to say they believe in God and an afterlife.

The rational tradition

Tommie Shelby's hardworking single mother raised her six children to believe in God and be respectful of divine authority. "God's existence was treated as an obvious fact," he said. We "never questioned it."

During his freshman year at Texas A&M University, he joined a Bible study group, was baptized into a local church and began earnestly sharing the gospel with his friends.

But during the course of his undergraduate degree, Shelby's beliefs waned. In classes on philosophy and theology, he was exposed to arguments for and against the existence of God. As he immersed himself in the rational tradition, he wondered whether his belief in God was rooted in his fear of death and a desire for community.

"Was my attraction to Christian doctrines driven by the fact that I was a lonely, alienated, scared kid looking for something firm to hold on to?" he asked in an essay penned for The Root, an online newsmagazine. "I looked deep in myself to scrutinize my motives," he said.

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