Keeping the faith in college

In the comments section to the previous post, a reader St. Andy asks this question:

To anyone who wants to answer.  This site has quite literally been a Godsend to me.  I've always loved science but until about 5 years ago, I assumed you had put your brain on a shelf to be a christian.  No big bang, no creation, etc.  Since then I've come to understand the bible in a much deeper way.  Believe it or not, it was Obi Wan Kenobi who made it click when he told Luke "you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend on your point of view".  I thought, knowing what we know now, how could I explain to a civilization who thinks the earth is flat and a few hundred miles diameter, how everything came to be.  Would I talk about relativity, red shift, inflation theory, DNA, genes, etc, and spend hundreds of volumes explaining the science, or give something they can understand, like genesis.  It's obvious really.  God wanted us to progress in science at our own pace, but wanted us to know that everything had a beginning and He made it all.  No, Noah didn't have a penguin, a kangaroo, or a western diamond back rattlesnake on the ark.  But it's still true that HIS whole world flooded and he had 2 of every animal in the world that he knew.  I now look at science as learning about God, and He becomes more incredible to me every day!

Anyway, my kids are in 6th and 7th grades in a gifted school and in Florida, we have a prepaid college program and they both have 4 years tuition paid for.  How do I avoid sending them to the Dawkins and Krauses in academia.  I'm not saying it needs to be a christian school, but I'd like to avoid the atheist agendas if possible.  I'm accused online of believing in an old man in the sky, flying spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, etc, and I don't know what I could expect a college student to withstand.  Any suggestions on how to identify these institutions, or suggestions on how to prepare my kids for the "smart people don't believe in silly things like God" mentality?

St. Scott Church already provided an encouraging reply.  My response follows:

First of all, you're already doing a good job being a parent who is interested in science and open to truth in every area!  That will serve your kids well.

Not to panic you, but it's true that a LOT of kids who were raised in the Church fall away when they go off to secular colleges.  (Though many of these people come back to the Church later in life, when they settle down and have kids of their own.)  But I don't think this is usually because they get argued (or more likely mocked) out of it by people like Krauss or Dawkins.  In person, most atheists aren't all that evangelical about it, actually.  Atheists who argue about it on the internet aren't a typical sample!

Anyway, I think freshman college students are more likely to stop going to Church, and slowly drift away.  Or they'll get drunk and have sex with somebody at a party, and then feel like they can't really call themselves a Christian anymore.  Which is sad, because it indicates that they never really understood that salvation is by God's mercy, and not based on them being a good person who never makes serious mistakes!

A lot of Christian parents think they are raising their children with Christian values, but they're only really teaching them to be a "good kid", and then when they become an adult, it isn't real to them anymore.  It's biblical and proper for children to be obedient and responsible, but this is not the same thing as having a personal relationship with Christ.  Obviously you can't do this for them.  You can only show by example what it looks like.

So a lot of parents get into a panic and think they have to send their kids to a Christian college or else they'll stop being Christian.  But that might just be postponing the time when the person has to choose to follow God themselves, without people telling them what to do!  (For all I know, your kids are already like that, and you don't need to worry about it.)

There's nothing wrong with going to a Christian school, if that's what your kids end up wanting to do, but what's even better is if your children could be the kind of people who are secure in their faith and who have lots of nonreligious friends that they lead towards Christ.  Actually that goes for right now as well.

Anyway, I agree with St. Scott that the exposure method is best.  They'll eventually hear it anyway, so talk to them about it now (in limited quantities and in an age appropriate way, of course).  Talk to them about why you believe what you believe, and why other people believe differently.  Show them one of these online comments, and see if you can get them to explain to you why it's a misunderstanding of what we believe.  Teach them the skill of separating out the good from the bad (for example, it often happens that a writer says some nifty things about science but throws in a jibe at religion, so you can ask whether the one thing really follows from the other).

But of course, also give them a lot of good Christian books, for example by Sts. C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, N.T. Wright, Dorothy Sayers, A.W. Tozer, E. Stanley Jones, Augustine, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, or, if they like historical fiction, Elizabeth Goudge.  Of course there are many more authors to choose from; it depends on their particular interests.  (Encouraging them to study the Bible goes without saying, of course.  But you could see if your church denomination has a Bible quizzing program or something like that for teenagers.)

Just having encouragement from a parent who is interested in science and open to truth is already a lot!  Teach them to ask questions and don't be afraid of saying "I don't know" instead of giving pat answers.  It's better to teach your kids that you can trust in Christ even when you have a lot of questions, then to give them a long list of answers and make it seem like faith depends on getting every one of them right.

The way a lot of Christians are raised, if they start doubting whether e.g. the Noah story was 100% literal in all of its details, they feel like they may as well be disbelieving in the Resurrection of Jesus!  But one of these two events is at the core of our faith, and the other is at the periphery.

Which college your kids go to should obviously depend on their own choices and interests, and it's a long time before this decision has to be made.  If they are truly seeking God's will, the Holy Spirit may guide them in a direction which neither they nor you expect.

In general, Ivy Leagues and other elite universities tend to have the academic environment which is most hostile to Christian faith.  I would not recommend places like Harvard, Yale, or U. Chicago as places to study theology, for instance.  But they might be fine for the sciences.  In my experience, secular science departments are more accepting of religious people than the humanities departments, actually.  Maybe not in Biology, because of all the conflicts involving Evolution.

A lot of secular schools have strong Christian social groups such as InterVarsity or Cru which can provide support for Christian students.  Really, it depends a lot on the school.  And there will always be some churches in the area where people are willing to pick students up from the college dorms, if one inquires sufficiently.

There are many fine Christian colleges out there, though some are Christian-in-name only, or so fundamentalist as to be embarrassing.  As good examples, I have family members who attended Seattle Pacific and Westmont, which are excellent liberal arts colleges, seriously Christian but not fundamentalist.  But they're over on the West Coast.  I'm not familiar with the situation near Florida, but a good high school counselor would know.  Very few Christian schools are also highly ranked research universities (although there are a few, like Notre Dame or Baylor).  Although this matters more for graduate education than college.

I went to St. John's College, which I would say is a rare example of a school where most students aren't religious, yet theological books (including the Bible) are on the curriculum and taken seriously.  This is a really weird college, not for most people (and rather expensive without financial aid) but for a few people, it's one of the best things that ever happened to them.

There are no wrong choices here.  What matters is where God is leading them as individuals.

It's a little tricky to give advice here, because some parents are over-protective, and some are under-protective, and the advice that is right for one, is wrong for the other.  If you're worrying about college when they're in 7th grade, you probably belong more to the first category. :-)  I'd advise you to relax and trust God, who knows better than any of us do what each of us need.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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13 Responses to Keeping the faith in college

  1. Declan says:

    You would make a pretty darn cool father.

  2. Bob Kurland says:

    My son also went to St. John's. He described it (and this may not have been original) "as a place where Jews taught Protestants to become Catholics". I myself am Catholic, a convert from being a secular Jew, and were I to have a choice for my grandchildren, I'd send them to avowedly Christian institutions--not Georgetown or Boston College; for example, St. Thomas Aquinas (also a Great Books institution, but cheaper than St. John's and more avowedly Christian), Christendom College (ditto), Providence University ? College? (a Dominican institution) or one of the many Benedictine Universities (St. Vincent's, for example).

  3. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks, Declan. I'd like to be one.

    It's fine for some Christians to send their kids to Christian schools, but what will happen to the secular schools if everyone does that?

    Over in Santa Fe, people were more likely to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, mostly because of the unflagging love of a particular parish priest, St. John Bethancourt of Holy Trinity. I discussed that and some encounters with Catholicism in my post on seeking church unity. There is much beauty in these traditions, but I remain convinced that Protestantism is, in fact, more correct in its claims...

  4. Bob Kurland says:

    Aron, with respect to the fate of secular schools if everyone sends their children to religious schools, I think this might be an example of the marketplace at work. If enrollment falls at secular schools that are not only secular, but promote strong anti-religious propaganda, then perhaps the lesson will be learned that this is not the way to go.

  5. Scott Church says:

    [Fixed the last link--AW]

    As always, wonderful stuff Aron! I attended the University of Washington in the late 70's, and as one who chose to dive neck-deep into the exposure method (including joining a fraternity!) I cannot say enough about Intervarsity. My college years were a crisis of faith and I honestly don't know if I would've survived without that community... they were a Godsend! In particular, I made it though largely because of the loving care of Steve Hayner, who at the time was the pastor of University Ministries at University Presbyterian Church (in the U. District near your sister) and eventually went on to become the president of Intervarsity. That man had the patience of Job... I probably spent more time on his couch in tears than I did studying, largely due to questions you have so wonderfully dealt with here. But needless to say, that was before the Internet. Robust answers were a lot harder to come by and one had to spend countless hours pounding the pavement. (Wow... it sure would've been NICE to have had you around back then!!!)

    Sadly, you are right about the legions of college-bound kids who abandon their faith at college. Blogger Mark Solas spent some time looking into why that is, and his take on things is here: 10 Surprising Reasons Our Kids LEAVE Church. IMHO, every parent struggling to raise godly college-bound kids in our secular age needs to read this. It can be depressing in places... but also encouraging because it shows how we can do better! Interestingly, Solas notes that over half of those who leave faith in college return to it in later years. That alone should tell us that we're sending our kids off to college ill-equipped for the faith challenges they will inevitably face in life.

    BTW, I also think you would make a wonderful father! :-)

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Sure, if literally everyone sent their children to religious schools, then the secular ones would go out of buisness. But if it's just the serious Christians who send their kids to religious schools, then there will still be plenty of nonreligious and lukewarm people to populate the secular universities, and to get the elite qualifications from the Ivys and Tech schools. So I don't see that a boycott would work particularly well.

    Christians need to be salt and light out in the world. A lot of people also convert to Christianity in their college years, because they had friends who believed in Jesus. If we don't have representatives out in the secular schools, who will share the faith with them? "The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost."

    Anyway, not all secular schools are full of strong anti-religious propaganda. Although it is becoming increasingly common for the moral standards of the Bible to be labelled as intolerance and bigotry. But I think it's a better witness to be out in the world, and then take whatever social consequences arise from having a counter-cultural position.

  7. TY says:

    To Andy especially and to all,

    Let me share my experience both as an individual and as a parent. We chose to send our kids to Catholic high school because we thought it was the best for discipline and morality. School uniform is mandatory, and so is religion at St Thomas Aquinas Secondary School. Guess what, when the kids are in recess and out of school, they are no different from the kids in the secular high schools. My son and daughter went to church (we are Anglicans) and participated in church, but all that stopped when they went off to university. My son no longer believes in God (or maybe he wants to show me he can “rebel”), but my daughter does, and I could see her coming back to her faith and raising her kids in Christianity. My son? Not sure but as Aron said, it’s a development-maturity phase. Now in their twenties, religion and philosophy play no pragmatic role in their daily lives. People in that age and stage of life are not reflective but just live from one day to the next.

    As for my own individual experience with God, I too didn’t attend church during my university days. But I started to after I got married.

    So what are the insights? First, a lot depends on personality because some retain their Christian beliefs in the face of stiff secular headwinds in the Ivy League campuses and similar learning environments. Second, let your children be exposed to atheism, whatever the source, but you make sure you let them know why theism trumps atheism both scientifically and morally (hence, the great value of St Aron’s website). Third, religion and belief are different. I see religion more as a formality, an intellectual structure, something external, whereas, belief or faith is something within the person. Your kids may not be regular church goers but they could be true believers and followers of the risen Christ. And fourth, I believe when our kids start to raise a family, they will again see the pragmatic need for God in their daily lives. So I have confidence my son will recover his faith. Meantime, I’ll let him discover himself, his faith, and, teach him through our own example of following God.

  8. Ashley Zappe says:

    Thank you for this one! We've been talking about this a lot for your God-nephew, regarding public vs homeschooling. Working with public school kids, I'm aware of how much pressure there is to conform to transgender philosophy in high school. (Like you said, I want him to know and be aware of such social issues, but I don't want him in a situation where Planned Parenthood is contracted to teach sex ed and all his friends will tell him he's a bigoted jerk merely for thinking our bodies matter and determine gender. That situation just makes things uneccesarily difficult)

    One thought: you could add an easy 'share' button to posts... Save us lazy people the trouble of copy and paste...

  9. Calvin Marshall says:

    Aron -- I wholeheartedly agree with your reader. For the person who thinks that being a Christian means putting your mind on the shelf, one only needs to point them to your site.

  10. Dean C says:


    How hostile do you think a learning institution would be to someone in their Physics department looking at the Horizon problem via the Universe being an Ex Nihilo creation of God, where matter was purposefully set in place and then a God-caused spacetime expansion? (As opposed to the thought experiment of assuming a singularity and a "Theistic or Non-Theistic Big-Bang" requiring another speculation (inflation) to explain one of the shortcomings of the theory.)

  11. Andy says:

    Wow! Thanks everyone! Great advice all around! The advice here was exactly what I was looking for! As someone said, a "share" button for Facebook and Google plus would be great! I was reading the "Revelation" post and just saw this, not sure how I missed it earlier. My kids go to public school now, but I'd guess 80% of the kids there go to church. Believe it or not, graduations, Christmas concerts, etc are usually done in one of the local churches! Last year my church's children's leader was my daughter's 5th grade school teacher! In other words, college will be a shock.
    The greatest advice I've heard is the suggestion to start showing them some other viewpoints now so they aren't blindsided later. It was a struggle for me to mesh science that I love and the bible that I was told was true, so I think about them going through the same thing. I was watching Krauss talking about inflation theory or something and he couldn't manage 2 minutes without the laughing "and nooo, some old guy in the sky didn't do it!" and I thought "how are my kids going to handle this?". Well, we'll just watch it together now! We've seen God's Not Dead so maybe that got me thinking in these terms too. I'm NOT overprotective though :)
    My kids call alligators to them by splashing sticks in the water, catch snakes, climb trees (and my roof), ride bike (Mackenzie was racing BMX at 5 years old), etc. She's had a broken leg and Logan broke his arm doing "parkour" class (I'm still not sure what "parkour is or I'd tell you- apparently an efficient way to rack up medical expenses). But, I suppose there are different ways to be overprotective! Thanks again!

  12. Andy says:

    Scott, great link! (10 reasons our kids leave church). Anyone else interested should check it out.

  13. Scott Church says:

    Andy... I'm so glad you found all of this helpful! Regarding Lawrence Krauss and how your kids can manage him, Aron has a wonderful review of his nonsense. I also recommend Luke Barnes' reviews (Of Nothing and More Sweet Nothings, and (Edward Feser's review as well as all those linked within each. I'm working on an essay of my own about Krauss. It's going into some depth so I may take me a while to finish it, but when I do it'll be posted at my own website here (I hope that some of what's already posted might be useful to you as well).

    As you get further into all of this with your kids, I believe you'll find that despite their claims to "reason" and "science" New Atheists are actually pretty easy targets... at times even embarrassingly easy. [Believe it or not, in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins actually cited a Hollywood gossip spoof site as a serious source!] You can rest assured these folks aren't anything like as intimidating as they might seem. :-)

    Beyond this, for further reading I cannot recommend the following books enough;

    The Last Superstition - Edward Feser

    Illogical Atheism - Bo Jinn

    The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology - Eds. W.L. Craig & J.P. Moreland

    The last one is fairly technical, but thorough across a wide range of scientific, philosophical and historical topics and well worth plowing through. There's plenty more of course but these are a great place to start, and I think you and your kids will find them as entertaining as they are informative.

    Good luck, and blessings!

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