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.