May 5, 2010

When Higher Education Challenged My Faith

It's been argued that higher education is often damaging to religious faith. Part of our Enlightenment heritage whispers that reason and science are marching forth, crushing superstition (including religion) in their path to truth. Some statistical studies have even shown that people receiving higher education are less likely to be religious.1 Such results raise the chicken/egg question of whether such people are losing faith because of education or whether their loss of faith simply makes them more likely to seek higher education. One study focusing specifically on Mormons found "virtually no evidence to support the hypothesis that education has a secularizing influence" on Mormons. Mormons who receive higher education on the whole tend to attend church more often, study and pray more regularly, and profess stronger belief.2  

The study recognizes that higher education at a religious institution like BYU (where it was performed) plays a role, but they tried to correct for that bias by including Mormons educated in other schools. They also note that the lay clergy element of Mormonism could be a significant factor. Church callings requiring skills like "bookkeeping, teaching, organizational management, and interpersonal relations" may be more likely filled by educated Mormons, they speculate.

The study is interesting, it seems to belie the notion that Mormons are a group of simpleton dupes. But it doesn't mention specifically what type of higher education Mormons are seeking. I haven't looked around to see if any such study has been done. My admittedly weak-sauce personal guess is that more people are being educated in medicine, law, and business, but not so much in humanities, religious studies, etc. Those areas would seem to be more likely to challenge traditional religious faith. Such has been my own experience. I have other things to say about the impact of higher education, especially religious studies, on my own faith. This post is about one personal challenge I didn't expect to face.

To earn a minor in Religious Studies I took world religion classes in the areas of sociology, anthropology, history, and philosophy. Several of the professors were somewhat antagonistic regarding belief in God. Nevertheless, I really only found my faith challenged on one (somewhat surprising) occasion: when I was confronted directly by the teachings of Jesus Christ. My World Religions professor (who was adjunct and actually not very knowledgeable about world religions at all, but seemed to excel in areas of philosophy and biology) called out Christians in general for ostensibly not living up to the demands or example of Christ.3

On the "example" side, he asked why Jesus was always hanging out with the bad rabble and condemning hypocrites who only outwardly appeared religious. I felt I had a pretty ready response to this one, pointing out that the old canard about Jesus hanging out with all the sinners was not entirely fair. People who posit that Christ hung out with the sinners seem to believe they're justified in whatever misbehavior they do, perhaps even more than those who are trying to "choose the right." It seems that when Jesus asked something of many of those types of followers few stuck around very long. Jesus didn't just hang out with anyone; he invited and instructed, and many people "walked no more with him" because of his hard sayings (John 6:66). That being said, it is still a fair warning about the dangers of hypocrisy.

On the "demands" side, he brought up the Crusades and more recent examples of a Christian nation that sometimes exploits other countries, or goes to war, arguing that Christians have so consistently not lived up to the teachings of the being they claim to worship. I recognized the oversimplification of the circumstances and his conflation of the religion with the country. The easiest response would be the one that tries to take into account the historical-cultural circumstances of the lapses he brought up. It could well be argued that his very criticism was made possible largely by the influence of Christianity itself, as David Bentley Hart has argued:

"Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible...As for the failure of many of the Christians of the time to transcend their circumstances, it is enough to observe that it is easier to baptize a culture than to change it."4
That's a fine answer, but it didn't come to mind at the time. Instead, for some reason, the Beatitudes struck me with incredible force as we read them out loud in class. The thought popped into my head, "Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46). Even institutionally sometimes I think we have a tendency to underplay the role of the Sermon on the Mount, at least I personally do. I was dumbfounded for a little while, I guess I was caught off guard for whatever reason.

If nothing else, the Beatitudes continually underscore my inability to live up to the things I believe are good and true. My hypocrisy is placed right in front of me and the discomfort causes me to shrink. At the same time, perhaps recognizing this fact about myself will remind me that others are facing the same problem, perhaps I will extend mercy their way for that very reason: I need it too. The very high standards make us acutely aware of where we fall short, and perhaps prompt us to recognize that others struggle too, maybe we will be more likely to forgive others realizing our own shortcomings.

On the whole (and I hope to discuss this more in the future), religious studies classes I've taken have been a net positive for my faith, even in the more personally challenging instances.

For instance, a 1975 study found that "The higher the level of education, the less likely one is to be orthodox or fundamentalistic in one's religious beliefs. In addition, the higher one's educational level, the less likely one is to believe in God and to think of him as a person, the less favorable one is toward the church, and the less importance one attaches to religious values." From the study of Argyle and Beit-Hallhami, The Social Psychology of Religion, cited in Stan L. Albrecht, Tim B. Heaton, "Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity," Review of Religious Research 26:1 (1984), 46.
"The one important exception," they note, "is that Mormon women who continue their education beyond college graduation do show a slight decline on all our measures of religiosity," (Albrecht, Heaton, 57). This point brought to mind a recent interesting series at Juvenile Instructor called "Women in the Academy." Incidentally, they have a "secularism and religious education" series going on right now, too.
As for the professor, it is interesting to say that although I think he knows less about the religions we have discussed in class than most of my other religion professors, he is actually more cautious and respectful, perhaps for that very reason. Even in this particular discussion about Jesus Christ the feeling was more challenging in a good way as opposed to deliberately upsetting or heavy-handed.
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (Yale University Press, 2009), 32-33, 44. See my review of this book here.
The image is believed to be an early Christian depiction of the Sermon on the Mount (4th c.). It was discovered in the Catacomb of the Via Dino Compagni in Rome. See Robert Milburn, Robert Leslie Pollington Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture, (University of California, 1988), 49. It has also been argued that the image depicts Moses at Mount Sinai, see H. Gregory Snyder, "Pictures in Dialogue: A Viewer-Centered Approach to the Hypogeum on Via Dino Compagni," Journal of Early Christian Studies 13:3 (2005), 349-386.


the narrator said...

It is certainly the case that the type of higher education one goes into has different affects on one's continued faith. This is a point all to avoided by those who want to point to the general statistic to claim that it has no negative affects.

In my experience, those who go into higher liberal arts education rarely leave with their testimonies where they began. If not lost, it is almost always different.

I think one of the larger challenges that they face are not with historical religious claims which can often be easily adjusted, but are rather with contemporary religious claims--particularly concerning ecclesiology.

BHodges said...

In my experience, those who go into higher liberal arts education rarely leave with their testimonies where they began. If not lost, it is almost always different.

Same here. At least in the case of lost testimonies, I still wonder about the chicken/egg correlation/causation issue, though.

Interesting suggestion about ecclesiology. What can help prevent that from becoming a challenge? Channeling Gene England's "Why the Church is as True..."?

dltayman said...

Even institutionally sometimes I think we have a tendency to underplay the role of the Sermon on the Mount

I found this an interesting statement, with unfortunate implications, seeing as I consider the directives presented by the Savior in the Sermon on the Mount (and the Sermon at the Temple) as the pure Law of the Gospel that many of us Latter-day Saints specifically covenant to Obey. (2 Nephi 26:1)

BHodges said...

dltayman, yes, hence a little bit of the discomfort I felt during the class lecture. We face the double danger of neglecting the demands of the Sermon by focusing instead on other things (like politics, etc.) or by talking about the ideals so often that the sacred becomes profane ("I've heard this lecture before, commence tuning out," etc.).

I am Chree-uz said...

An interesting and honest topic. How interesting the time that "shook" your faith was a religion class. Makes sense though.

I find my faith changing (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) as I experience and learn in general, not just in school. In fact, as an art student I saw so many people being anti-religious as a bandwagon statement in an attempt to be edgy that it just further encouraged me to have strong faith. And in virtually every science class I had (especially astronomy) I found my faith strengthened in learning just how God may have "created" all this stuff.

As the old saying goes, the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. I think of religion in less "magical fairytale" terms then when I was young, so I find myself often questioning the "facts" of certain aspects. But I have also developed a more solidified respect for the very principals behind it all. As I learn more, I see how vital these religious principals are in leading a decent life and caring for those around me, and I care less and less as to exactly HOW it all goes down, realizing (as the scriptures say) that we can never know all God knows. I'm less convinced of the literal translation of the legends and stories of thousands-of-years-old scripture, but I grow more and more convinced of the lessons they teach.

I think sometimes higher education affects faith because school deflates what we learned in primary: there is no way Adam was the first man, or how impossible the story of Noah's ark is, etc. etc. If our faith is based in ancient stories, it will certainly be shaken. But if our faith is based in the principals BEHIND the story, it won't matter.

Tarra said...

Did you catch this study last year?

It has some fascinating stuff. Like this: "Looking at religion's importance through the lens of education level, patterns among Mormons are the reverse of what is seen among the general population. For example, among the public, 60% of those with a high school education or less say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 50% among those with a college education. But among Mormons, the reverse is true: More college graduates (89%) than those with a high school education or less (76%) say religion is very important. It is important, however, to note that both groups among Mormons place a higher importance on religion than either group among the general public. A similar pattern emerges on belief in God, frequency of prayer and religious exclusivity. On each of these questions, Mormons with more formal education are more religiously committed, whereas in the general population the opposite is true."

I've found as I have gotten more education that questions about my beliefs or attacks on my beliefs have led me to more self-study and a re-commitment to my beliefs than if they were to have gone unchallenged. To be honest, the times when I felt my testimony most challenged were sitting in seminary getting lessons about appropriate meals to prepare on Sundays and other such crap and then being in a student ward and witnessing that "Ward Prayer" and FHE were just sober hook-up parties.

BHodges said...

Loyd, to put it in a different and more hifalutin way: does the (supposed) greater likelihood of liberal arts students apostatizing need to be understood in either an extension-reflecting or an extension-determining role?

Chris, several of my religion courses directly challenged points you and I feel are fundamental to Mormonism, including the very existence of God or our actual ability to know who or what God is. One professor in particular (sociology of religion) was cynical at best and openly antagonistic at worst toward Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and pretty much anything else except for atheism and his own idiosyncratic secular Buddhism (which seemed to me more inspired by Sam Harris than by any actual study of Buddhism itself). In the recommended course materials he included suggestions like "Secret Ceremonies" and "Leaving the Saints," two essentially anti-Mormon personal accounts. There is frankly little value in recommending gossipy and poorly-conceived books like this when there are many better books on Mormonism available (even books which would be seen as antagonistic by some members of the Church). At least he recommended "The Book of Mormon, written by Joseph Smith" as well, though!

BHodges said...

Tarra, thanks for linking to that study. I remember being struck by this little snippet:

When asked about the theory of evolution, only 22% of Mormons say it is the best explanation for human life, with three-in-four (75%) disagreeing.

I think part of the problem is the formulation of the question. Even Mormons who believe in evolution could disagree with it being the "best explanation," perhaps thinking the formulation doesn't give due credit to God, even if evolutionary mechanisms were used. At the same time, I think there are still a lot of members of the church who are still influenced by the "no death before the fall" biblical literalism emphasized by leaders like Joseph Fielding Smith (I used to be in that camp myself). Higher education, in any basic biology class, would counter the notion that evolution is "false" of course. Could such teachings affect a person's faith? I've seen it happen, unfortunately.

Craig M. said...

On the LDS/higher education study mentioned in the post, I agree that the disciplines have to be taken into account - many LDS with advanced degrees gain professional degrees, which certainly provide a different educational experience. I'd really like to see a study for LDS with advanced degrees in liberal arts.

But I wanted to make two comments "in defense" of the study:

1. For what its worth, law and medicine are traditionally considered two of the three "learned professions" (along with the ministry), which have been understood as requiring higher education and principles. Many law and medical students were exceptional in their undergraduate studies (in the humanities or social sciences for law or sciences for medicine) and continue to consider those subjects beyond their formal education.

2. Although the curriculum in professional schools may not engage the mind in the same way as the liberal arts, they still require critical thinking skills that one could argue would lead one away from religion.

the narrator said...


Well first I would completely reject calling it apostasy--that term has way too much of a negative connotation.

Then I would say that I'm not sure if I understand your question.

I am Chree-uz said...

Blair, I recall a pre-mission "heated" debate about the possibilities of death before the fall, etc. : )

BHodges said...

Loyd, my overly technical rephrasing was tongue-in-cheek. I'm just saying it's difficult to show whether the higher education causes doubt, alienation, or whatever else, or whether people interested in the liberal arts are already on the road away from so-called "orthodox" faith.

Craig M.: Great points, good clarifications.

Chris: Yes, that fateful conversation was one of several turning points for me. How strange that my mission didn't really make me more rigid, but instead more flexible in certain crucial ways. I wouldn't have predicted that!

DR said...

It's because your Mission made you more human (which it should) and not a Mormo-bot.

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