"I'm a liberal, pacifist, atheist, and if you don't like it, you can leave," the professor said as he began the first day of Renaissance history at the University of Colorado. Joni Raille, who grew up in a conservative Christian home, was taken aback and wondered what her professor's bluntness had to do with Renaissance history. I asked her if she ever considered dropping the course. "No," she replied, "I can learn from anybody, even if he is an atheist."
A few days later, Joni's professor began speaking of religious changes within European Christian culture. He wrote a Bible verse from the Gospel of Matthew on the board. "How many of you are Christians? Raise your hand!" Joni felt singled out. But she, along with four other students, raised their hands. The professor probed further. "How many of you read the Bible everyday? Keep your hand up." Joni kept her hand up. She was the only one. "What, are you going to be a nun or something?" Joni smiled, and politely said, "No." The professor smiled back. "C'mon Joni, I think you would look good wearing a religious habit like a nun."
Losing Their Religion
Some parents who raised their sons and daughters in the church fear that their student will leave the faith while in college. There is some reason for their fear. As Cathy Lynn Grossman wrote,
Seven in ten Protestants ages 18 to 30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34 percent of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.
Bill Savage, distinguished senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University, sees no problem with students walking away from their narrow-minded faith. Savage wrote,
For the foreseeable future, loyal ditto-heads [conservative parents] will continue to drop off their children at the dorms. After a teary-eyed hug, mom and dad will drive their SUVs off toward the nearest gas station, leaving their beloved progeny behind.
And then they all are mine.
And as the late Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty said, "We try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own."
In response to college students leaving Christianity, some have argued that the church must change its beliefs about issues like gay marriage to keep college students and young professionals in the pews. But if this thesis were correct, then mainline denominations that have already changed their doctrine and accepted gay marriage would be growing numerically rather than declining rapidly. According to the research of Christian Smith, published by Oxford, the most frequent reason given by students for leaving Christianity (32 percent of respondents) was doubt and intellectual skepticism.
Logic Is On Our Side
Stephen Guise left the small, evangelical Johnson Bible College in Tennessee to attend the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, to study business. He was required to take Philosophy 101. Stephen says that having a foundation of logical principles and Bible doctrine before entering the course helped him maintain his faith. The professor often played a Socratic role and allowed the students to discuss among themselves the issue of whether truth is relative or absolute. "The class was always exciting," Stephen recalled. "I was the only outspoken believer in God, and so it required a little courage to speak up." Stephen questioned his teacher, "Your statement, professor—'There is no absolute truth'—is that statement absolutely true?"
Many students find they don't need to get into heated argument or even say much at all in defense of their faith. They merely apply the law of non-contradiction to criticism. Sometimes they ask a simple question of clarification. An agnostic professor might say, "When it comes to matters of faith or God, you can't be certain about anything." A student like Stephen may think, Are you certain about that? A professor of sociology will say, "The religious must accept the reality and goodness of gay marriage, because we can't tolerate a lack of tolerance." A student who knows the logical principle of non-contradiction may ask, "Why are you being so intolerant of intolerance?" An atheistic lecturer may say, "You should reject belief in God, because you can't know anything is true unless it is scientifically verifiable, tested, and proven." But has her theory been verified, tested, or proven? Was it proven in the lab? If so, when? Where is the data? Because if this professor's statement is correct that her theory (which is really a philosophy) has not been proven in the lab—scientifically verified and tested—then why should we believe it is true?
Not By Logic Alone
C. S. Lewis was convinced that reason is on the side of Christianity. In his classic fictional work The Screwtape Letters, he describes a veteran, experienced demon named Screwtape who advises a young, naive demon named Wormwood on how to keep his patient (a Christian) out of God's (the Enemy's) hand:
Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future . . . .The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy's (God's) own ground. He can argue too. . . . By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?
Logic is a friend to people of faith and can be an aid for students to maintain their faith. But it is not the only factor in maintaining religious convictions. Joni, whom I mentioned earlier, was convinced that the grace of God preserved her relationship with Jesus. "In so many ways," she said, "I really don't know how I got out of college in one piece." For Joni, her "logic flowed from her faith." She cited G. K. Chesterton: "You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it."
Young believers who persevere in orthodox or traditional Christianity love God with all their intellect but also with all their heart and strength as they love their neighbors as themselves. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit convicts them of the reality of God when life gets difficult. Logic and reason are tools that can certainly help prevent our sons and daughters from leaving the faith. But the most important means of preventing your child from leaving the faith is pointing them to spiritual conviction of Christ's grace.