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What really happens at university?

13 September 2013

As a new batch of undergraduates heads for university, will they drink too much, ditch their faith, and lose their way? Mathew Guest reveals the findings of a survey


Work and play: Christian students felt less challenged by the content of their courses than by the hedonism of student social life

Work and play: Christian students felt less challenged by the content of their courses than by the hedonism of student social life

THE idea that education is a force for secularisation is well entrenched in British culture. And higher education is commonly viewed as a particularly powerful unsettler of religious beliefs. Undergraduate students are, typically, young adults entering a transitional period in their lives, when they are open to new ideas, and fresh possibilities.

Those leaving home gain freedom from parental oversight, and a greater sense of control over their lives. Add to this the acquisition of new knowledge, and we have an experience of empowerment - one that has the potential to undermine previously held convictions, and replace them with new ones.

In the popular imagination, a naïve young student, raised in a devout family, enters university as a committed Christian, and leaves a zealous proponent of a rationalist atheism. Indeed, some public advocates of a secularist standpoint would see this as a reasonable and desirable outcome of a good education. Universities are thereby viewed as purging groundless claims - debunking astrology and the resurrection alike.

But such perspectives are often based on unexamined assumptions about what kinds of ideas belong together. There is a common tendency to set religion and rational thinking at opposite ends of a spectrum. This has reinforced the notion that universities are the enemies of religion.

Many churches and Christian organisations maintain precisely this view. I have interviewed students for places on the theology programme at Durham University who have been told by their church leaders, or peers, to be careful, because university might damage their faith.

They worry that critical academic study will undermine Christian belief, and also about the morality of social life on campus. The prescribed remedies vary, ranging from earnest, regular prayer to immersion in a series of classes at a church, which provide a parallel curriculum of Christian content, to offset the potentially subversive material heard in lectures.

IN AN attempt to get behind these assumptions, a team of colleagues and I have spent the past four years researching the lives of Christian students who are studying at universities in England. It is the most ambitious study of young Christian adults to date, within the context of the UK. It includes a survey of more than 4000 undergraduates, and interviews with 100 individuals, and offers a unique insight into their lives. It wanted to find out what they believe; what kind of moral convic- tions they hold; and how the ex- perience of university shapes these values.

Some of our findings are surprising. For example, the vast majority of students surveyed (89 per cent) - both Christian and non-Christian - said that, overall, their perspective on religion had remained the same, or they had become more religious since starting university. Only 11 per cent felt that their religious identity had diminished. The students themselves do not generally see university as the radically secularising force it is often claimed to be.


Among the Christian students we interviewed, those who said that university had posed a serious challenge to their faith were a small minority. It was much more com- mon for them to say that their faith was strengthened, that they developed a clarity of perspective, that they felt better able to place their convictions on stronger foundations, and within a broader context.

One student said: "A lot of people said, 'Oh, it will make you want to lose your faith, or it will pick holes in your faith,' but it's not really done that to me. It's more made me want to find out why I believe what I do, and not just say 'I accept this because I was told it on a Sunday.'"

University offers opportunities for interpersonal encounters that help students to achieve a clearer understanding of their own identities. It also reveals, for many, the legitimacy of a faith that evolves in tandem with new learning: "A faith that you don't think about, that doesn't change, is no good to anybody. It's got to be about growth, and it's got to be about gaining further understanding of yourself, as well as God."

IT IS not that Christian students do not encounter hostility from those who are incredulous at their life of faith, but few of those who do view this as having a lasting and damaging effect. Furthermore, if university presents a challenge to faith, this is not something that is generally associated with what is learnt in the classroom.

When asked how university had affected their faith, very few mentioned their course content at all. Much more prominent were experiences of a social nature. These included: the challenges of living with non-Christians; the hedonism of student social life; and, most of all, informal conversations with friends who hold different perspectives from their own.

This includes encounters with other Christians. One student recounted how their experiences had brought to light tensions between ideals of inclusivity promoted by Christians, and the reality on the ground, which is often more fraught with division. Students develop greater clarity about their evolving religious perspective because of the social rather than pedagogical dimension of the university experience.

Part of this challenge has to do with moving away from home, and the accompanying sense of upheaval that this brings. Being released from the ties of family can be as alienating for some as it is liberating for others. Part of the challenge for a student is being exposed to other students who have a variety of perspectives on life - some apparently incompatible with his or her own.

This can be especially difficult for students trying a forge a social life which is distinct from the heavy drinking culture that is normative in most universities. One Christian student told us: "Because I don't go out clubbing, and I don't go out drinking, it can be harder to identify with others."

UNIVERSITIES also generate a variety of perspectives on religion. This includes those represented by Jewish, Muslim, or Sikh students, as well as "alternative spiritualities", all of which can become more robust when they are the focus of student-run societies. More prominent, though, in the experiences of the students we interviewed, were encounters with students who adopted atheist or secularist perspectives that fostered a degree of scepticism, or hostility towards traditional religion.

One interviewee spoke of a kind of "evangelistic atheism", which sought to persuade believers out of their faith. The "new atheism", associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins, has become popular across the country's uni- versities, as witnessed by the growth of atheist student societies, and the establishment, in 2009, of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), which mirrors the various national networks representing Christian and Muslim students.

As the atheist/secularist voice achieves new prominence; so more conservative Christian groups re- treat to a defensive position, against what they see as the insidious de-Christianisation of the university environment. You may recall the conflicts that occurred between the Evangelical Christian Unions and their respective universities five years or so ago, in Exeter, Birmingham, and Edinburgh.

Although specific disputes have found some resolution, underlying tensions surrounding divergent perspectives on gender - and sexuality, in particular - remain.

Indeed, the CUs persist as highly popular and highly vocal channels for university-based Evangelicalism. They are perceived by some students as havens from a university culture that is somewhat at odds with a Christian way of life. As one student put it, "I'm trying to make friends with people at Christian Union, because I think those are the people I should be really hanging around with."

OUR study reinforced this impression, to a degree. CUs are largely - although not exclusively - focal points for a Christianity that places conservative morals, strict adherence to the Bible, and the urgent need to bring non-Christians to a life of faith, in the foreground. Their success as a missionary force, though, is mixed.

On the one hand, only a tiny minority of students come to Christian faith at university; new converts are few and far between. On the other, CU members are the most likely, among the student body, to engage in volunteer work in the community. Their faith has genuine social expression, quite apart from any evangelistic agenda.

But it would be a mistake to assume that the close-knit, highly motivated CUs represent the majority of Christian students, or even their core membership. In fact, those regularly involved in Christian Unions during term time constitute only ten per cent of Christian students.

The majority affirm a more moderate set of perspectives: slow to judge; tolerant of difference; and morally liberal. For example, 60 per cent of students involved in the CUs believe homosexual relations to be "always wrong"; among all other Christian students, however, only 20 per cent hold this view.

While the Church of England struggles with the question of women bishops, and the Roman Catholic Church retains its commitment to an all-male priesthood, only ten per cent of Christian students believe that women should not be admitted to the same leadership positions as men. Most Christians share with their non-Christian peers a commitment to the values of tolerance, and respect of individual difference.

This is strikingly expressed in attitudes towards evangelism, demonstrated by the student who felt "cautious" about "that sort of thing", on account of not believing that "anyone has a right to try and impose their faith on anyone else".

If it is at a social level that university poses its greatest challenges to students, it is in a social sense that Christianity itself achieves most significance at university. Many say that their faith is a significant resource in helping them to adapt to their new environment, and churches play an important part in this process. Indeed, it is the Christian students that are most involved in organised Christianity who have the most engaged, and the most orthodox, faith.

BUT these students are in the minority, and it is impossible to deny an erosion of church involvement which takes hold among many Christian students during university term-time. The statistics for church attendance, by denomination, before and after going to university (see charts), are revealing.

The proportion of students who choose not to go to church almost doubles; and more than half of all Christian students stay away from church while they are at university. If higher education does not foster an experience of erosion of faith on a personal level, it certainly triggers a distancing from institutional expressions of Christian identity.

This is a pattern that runs across the denominational spectrum, as almost all categories of church attract a smaller percentage of these Christian students once they are at university. The only exceptions are the independent Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, whose growth reflects their marked success in many university towns. When non-attenders are excluded from the profile, the Anglican churches - presumably chiefly Evangelical ones - join them as the dominant centres of university Christianity.

The emerging picture of Christian students presents two quite different populations. First, we have the Evangelicals. They are, in terms of numbers, a small minority. Their churches are the most vibrant, their Christianity the most orthodox, and Evangelical students appear most committed to volunteering in university towns.

Then we have the remaining majority. They are united in affirming their Christianity, and take a generally liberal perspective on moral values. Their denominational background is diverse, and their church involvement varied. Some never attend church, and this number grows significantly during term-time.

Clearly, Christianity and Christian identity have a variety of different meanings for Christian students. In so far as university triggers new reflections, and a rethinking of personal perspectives, we might expect these meanings to be further unsettled over time. Whether this constitutes an erosion of faith is another matter.

Some might view the emergence of a more complex perspective, coupled with a critical distance from the churches, to be part of a healthy maturing of Christian identity. Others will undoubtedly lament the withdrawal from church, and the affirmation of a liberal, moral perspective.

We should not be surprised when education changes minds, and unsettles existing assumptions. This is part of its purpose. Some would argue that this is also part of the nature of faith. How the two come together remains a contested issue, but it is one that demands close attention to the evidence, because that, too, often unsettles existing beliefs.

Dr Mathew Guest is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Durham University.

Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding student faith by Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma, and Rob Warner, is published by Bloomsbury at £21.99 (Church Times Bookshop £19.79).

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