Dr. Trace Haythorn: Academic Cross Currents

Academic Cross Currents

A recent study shows that students who pursue studies in the humanities in college are likely to show a decrease in religious belief during their four years, while education majors tend to see an increase and folks in the "hard" sciences remain about the same. What's going on here? And what are the implications for our communities?

Let's start with the education students. The fact that their faith is increasing seems to parallel the kind of hope that is central to the very act of engaging young people in any pedagogical exercise. One must not only know the content; one must have a deep and abiding trust (faith?) that children can learn, that the next generation can build upon the successes of the previous generation, that the world is not as it should be and education plays a special role in moving societies towards a greater good. Further, schools function in a similar way to communities of faith: they are places where citizens gather, where they share certain common commitments, where they experience common rituals, where memories and friendships, connections and deep bonds are formed. It is no wonder education majors experience an increase in faith.

I must confess, the experience of those in the sciences surprises me somewhat. Perhaps the exposure to the theory of evolution in high school, the Big Bang, and other concepts were already integrated in such as way as to not oppose one's faith (or perhaps there was no faith to oppose). I recall several biology students who took religion courses with me to fulfill their liberal arts requirements who had an uncanny ability to compartmentalize their faith and their understanding of science. They could happily participate in a fundamentalist Bible study on Monday and ace an evolutionary biology quiz on Tuesday. I wonder if some of them might wake up one day to a deep existential crisis.

And then there are the humanities students. Why would their religious beliefs decline? What is it about history, literature or even the study of religion that might lead one away from faith? Again, I have some hunches. I have to wonder if once someone looks critically at history is it doesn't have the exact opposite effect of the study of education: the diminishment of hope, especially when a good deal of history focuses on conflict. Likewise, I once had a literature professor say no great novels were written by those who had not experienced great pain. If the emphasis was on the pain (and perhaps the futility of life) and not the ability of those who experienced it to endure, I can again see why one would see faith as foolish.

For those of us who have taught courses and advised students in religion or religious studies, these findings come as no surprise. I can't tell you how often students would say, "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about..." as we have explored the sacred texts, rituals and traditions of their faiths. One young man found the contradictions he encountered and the new ideas I presented as so threatening that he met with his mother before each of my classes to pray for strength and to pray that my heart might be changed. Along the way, he confused facts with truth, and his need for everything in the Bible to be factually accurate got in the way of his ability to embrace the complexities of truth. I'm pleased to say that after a rocky journey he has a truly remarkable faith, one that engages life's complexities at many different levels, working towards a better world, a greater hope, a more beautiful way.

I think these findings are important for FTE. As we work with high school programs and as we identify undergraduate fellows, we must do so with a certain kind of care, one that recognizes the challenges these young people face within and among their peers as well as within their academic studies. When my mother first studied religion, questions were neither valued nor encouraged. Today, we spend so much time with questions that students often find little guidance or direction. While at one level this raises important questions for all faith traditions, perhaps it is also a call to a deeper, more reflective kind of leadership, one that is not simply provocative and/or liberative but also invitational, relational, and grounded. We may not be able to explain all of the difficult issues within our traditions, but we must be clear in the ways we live our faith, even amidst the questions.

[Taken by permission from the FTE On Call blog, August 12, 2009.]