Each fall thousands of young people leave the warm Christian life of their home to enter a collegiate world in which Christianity is either ignored or ridiculed. For a few, the consequence of a four-year assault upon their beliefs is permanent alienation from the Church; others turn away but recover their faith later; still others stand firm and emerge with even stronger religious beliefs than they had before.

The degree to which the college environment is hostile to the student’s Christian faith varies greatly. In general, denominational schools are more likely to provide an experience that supports Christian beliefs than non-sectarian ones. But denominational affiliation may mean anything from a program permeated by religious concern to one in which the involvement of the supporting church is almost indiscernible. Indeed, in some church colleges the dedication to academic freedom is so strong that toleration is granted to anti-religious teachings that would be banned at some state-supported institutions.

The student in an institution in which secularism prevails will discover that in many courses, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, religion in any form is held in low regard. The general anti-religious tenor is set by the instructor, and few students dare challenge it. Since Christianity looms largest among the religions of Western civilization, it is likely to receive the most anti-religious barbs.

Some instructors show their disdain for religion by attacking it, others by pointedly ignoring it. When, in ostensibly cataloguing the significant forces of our era, a professor fails to mention religion, he clearly communicates his idea that religion is an ancient and inconsequential concern. The student who raises a question about the role of religion can expect a disbelieving shake of the head from an instructor who just can’t figure out how to cope with such naïveté.

Moreover, the social science and humanities courses often have a strong “debunking” flavor. Much material is presented as though the first twelve years of formal schooling were designed to protect the student from the ugly realities of life, and now at college the truth can be told. Thus a history professor may devote much time to downgrading heroes of the past, attempting to show that they had more than their share of weaknesses and that their noble deeds had base motivations.

The shock many students experience upon encountering this treatment of much they previously held sacred is magnified by the fact that any objective consideration of religion in their public school studies was impossible. The cautious public school teacher, in fact, is likely to avoid religion altogether. The devastating treatment given the idols of history by many college instructors is, likewise, an over-response to the glorification of such figures that too frequently is found in high school history courses.

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Some young and callow instructors are still suffering from the trauma of their own collegiate debunking experience. They may derive emotional satisfaction from communicating to their students, in an exaggerated and often distorted way, the revelations they have recently experienced. The student should be warned that such instructors, who often suffer from feelings of insecurity, are unlikely to treat tolerantly those who dare challenge their iconoclastic message.

In sociology and anthropology, religion is likely to be viewed instrumentally. One set of beliefs is regarded as no better than another; the “correctness” of the beliefs is usually considered to be outside the purview of social science. What matters is how usefully a set of religious beliefs functions within a particular social context. Such a cold, detached view of a sacred realm can be very disturbing to a Christian student.

Missionaries are given rather savage treatment whenever notice is taken of them in anthropology courses. The image of the missionary presented seems to be a caricature of a mid-nineteenth-century type who may or may not have existed. He is portrayed as a possibly well-meaning bumbler who is ignorant of cultural differences, hopelessly naïve, and determined to wreck an idyllic native way of life by rudely imposing upon the people his own set of values. To anyone who really knows about the work of modern missionaries, this picture is nothing less than absurdly fraudulent.

The courage to challenge the sweeping allegations of the anti-religionists is greatly needed. Often a query about evidence would reveal the lack of convincing support for a charge directed at a religion or at religion in general. But too frequently the instructor’s dogmatic manner, combined with a general air of uncritical acceptance in the classroom, causes anti-religious calumnies to go unchallenged.

Partly as a consequence of the professorial assault on religion, the student subculture at many institutions offers the Christian young person little support for the retention of his faith. On many American campuses a student expressing a forthright commitment to his religion can expect to be looked upon as distinctly “square.” To speculate in a myopic way about man’s origins and destiny is “in”; but to indicate that one has found satisfying answers is definitely “out.” The Christian freshman who is concerned about social acceptance may well consider it expedient to put his religion aside for four years.

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Many factors determine the response that the Christian student makes to this world he has not known before. Probably much of the rejection of religion that occurs in college stems not from logical thought but from personality needs. The undermining elements of the college situation may support the rebellious inclinations of one who has been seething under an autocratic parental regime, a regime in which religion, like everything else, is firmly imposed from above. To embrace agnosticism may thus signify a rejection of parents more than a rejection of religion.

The ostentatious collegiate anti-religionist is often simply a disturbed personality. Persons who feel a deep emotional discomfort may, like the experimental rat in the maze, keep striking out in different directions in an effort to gain relief. Some try successive conversions to different religions; others try to eliminate religion from their lives. The fervor with which anti-religionism is often adopted indicates a great void to be filled.

Another home situation conducive to the collegiate flight from faith is that of hot-house nurture of religion. The young person who has been shielded from all challenges and doubts of skeptics is unprepared for the critical world of the college. This shielding may be responsible for the exaggerated disillusionment some young people feel when first exposed to agnosticism. The student who has earlier encountered some of the critics of his religion and has been helped to weigh their arguments is much less likely to find the skepticism of professors a traumatic experience.

In an era and in a society in which free inquiry and freedom of conviction are highly regarded, it is inevitable that for some the experience of going to college will result in a major alteration of religious outlook. Christianity will undoubtedly lose from the defection of some of the disenchanted. Many young people, however, will respond to the challenges to their faith by developing a far greater depth and maturity of Christian commitment.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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