How College Students Can Keep the Faith

Across the nation the school year is starting, and on university campuses 18-year-olds are moving into their dormitories and starting their freshmen orientation. Many are apprehensive. Their parents are probably more so. Among the questions on the minds of their parents especially: are the intellects of the Ivory Tower going to undermine their children’s faith?

A recent article in The Atlantic says no. College graduates are more likely to be religious than their less-credentialed peers. According to Emma Green, a recent study shows that college graduates are more likely than non-grads to identify with a religious group.

Importantly, the study doesn’t measure levels of religiosity, so we should take it with a grain (or more) of salt. As previously discussed here at Crisis, nominal religious identification is still a mark of respectability in America, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for serious religious faith. And it’s hard to doubt that universities have been a major force for moving the American elite to the left. Unless you’ve specifically sought out one of those few colleges in America that have rigorously protected their Catholic identity, chances are that many of your professors would be quite happy to undermine your faith.

As a college instructor myself, I occasionally field questions from anxious parents who have these sorts of concerns. I thought it might be worth recording my advice for the benefit of any undergraduate students who might be anxious about preserving their faith in a possibly hostile environment.

First of all I should admit that I can’t speak to every discipline, college and class. However, as a professor of philosophy, I do have some insight into one of the disciplines that people (understandably) find especially worrisome. Questions about religious belief likely won’t arise in an accounting class. But in philosophy, religious belief is quite relevant, and outside of a few distinctive enclaves it should be admitted that professional philosophers are predominantly atheists. Some are respectful of religious faith, but many are not. I suspect the same can be said of most academic disciplines.

Despite that, I don’t think it’s either healthy or necessary for undergraduates to go through college feeling that their faith is something they need to hide. On a college level, you’re unlikely to be penalized for it, and it’s bad to set a precedent of feeling ashamed of your religion. The thing to keep in mind about your professors is that they’ve had hundreds or even thousands of students over the years. They’re probably not losing any sleep over your personal beliefs. In general, college professors don’t take undergraduate students seriously enough to be threatened by their beliefs.

In a broad sense, most professors probably are trying to persuade their students to share their general worldview. It would be difficult to do otherwise, because even though a college course will typically cover a variety of arguments and views, everyone tends to be most eloquent when making a point they believe to be true. My philosophy courses certainly are not exercises in catechesis, and I think everyone should be able to get something out of them; still, I think they are in broad sense faith-supportive, and it would be difficult to change that without feeling guilty of some duplicity. I suspect many of my colleagues are similar in that their courses are not overtly hostile to faith, but are broadly based in a worldview that is materialist or at any rate not Catholic.

I’ve met professors who take evident pleasure in the idea that they are helping kids from religious families overcome their backwards teachings of their benighted youth. In that sense the “God Is Not Dead” stereotype may be somewhat accurate. It’s less accurate in portraying philosophy professors as insecure, quick to take offense, and easily blind-sided by students who make unexpected points or have the temerity to stand up for themselves. I don’t want to suggest that this sort of person doesn’t exist anywhere, but I think they’re fairly rare, and especially so in philosophy. Philosophers tend to enjoy argumentative sparring, but even professors who don’t are probably used to the idea that some students hold views that they regard as backwards. It’s unusual for them to take this personally.

For most college teachers, the truly frustrating thing about students is their lack of engagement with the material. People occasionally ask me whether I believe myself capable of grading or evaluating my students “objectively” given my strong religious convictions. I actually don’t think it’s very hard, but that’s not because I flatter myself to be a model of perfect objectivity. I just find it so refreshing to see a student engaging the material in any serious way, and doubly so to see him making clear and articulate arguments about it. After all that, would I punish him for the piddling offense of not agreeing with me? Honestly, I’m never even tempted. If students are willing to speak up in class and generate some discussion, I’ll like them even more. I actually have a special affection for the prickly ones who eye me suspiciously as though they suspect that, veneer of academic respectability notwithstanding, I may be interested in saving their souls.

Not every professor is quite like this of course, but I did very well in college just by being my contrarian self, and in general I think students devote way too much energy to divining what their professors believe. Stop worrying about it, and think about what you believe.

The greatest attacks on your faith, in the context of a university campus, will not come in the form of full frontal attacks from nefarious atheist professors. They will come from immersion in a generally debased culture, which makes it difficult to hold to your moral standards. They may also take the form of subtle pressures to “drift” in the general direction of liberal professors and students, who probably do present themselves as the “right-thinking” people, and who may implicitly offer attractive long-term prizes to those who join the club. Undergraduates generally aren’t under much direct pressure to abandon their faith, but the story is very different for graduate students and junior faculty members, and ambitious youngsters of all stripes quickly realize that America’s privileged upper crust is predominantly liberal. The desire to join that elite set represents a far greater temptation than anything you’ll encounter in philosophy class.

Thus, I advise Catholic students to take the initiative in seeking out sources of sustenance for their faith. Read the sorts of books and websites that will help you to nourish your faith. Seek out professors (there probably are at least a few, even on a secular campus) whose courses will help to bolster your understanding of the Catholic tradition. Go to Mass.

Losing your faith is generally more a consequence of neglect than of active persuasion. Like so many things in life, college is what you make of it, both spiritually and academically. If you find yourself in place where faith is countercultural, think of this as an opportunity to be the salt of the Earth.

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • Dick Prudlo

    Many years ago I purposely took a class in Hegelian dialectics chaired by a huge Swede who’s Lutheran faith had passed on. The class was peopled by the usual suspects who enjoyed the three hours weekly to dispel any thoughts of a Divine. I found those 3 hours stimulating and found my personality as a contrarian in opposition to the Zeitgeist.

    I have always found that knowing the enemy is more useful to the Faith than ignoring them. Challenge them with their own arguments and you find lights going on from time-to-time.

    • John200

      That is a good point; the arguments for atheism dissolve completely in Catholicism used as a solvent. Most Catholics do not know this, while Protestants and atheists “know” that the contrary is true.

      There are many ways to do this. You might feed them some Aquinas. They will be unable to counter his main line arguments for the faith. They will also lose the belief that intellectuals cannot be Catholic.

      You can be the one who lets them in on our secret, and smile while you do it.

  • lifeknight

    Thank you for another interesting and enlightening article. We have experienced faith challenges with many of our children—even the ones who attended truly Catholic universities. So far all are still practicing their Faith, but some more devoutly than others. It’s a jungle out there and strong family ties are critical when they are trying to self actualize AND learn.

  • Jay

    FOCUS ministries do a good job around college campuses in Colorado.

    • cestusdei

      They do a great job.

      • John200

        … on a shoestring. Let me do a quick appeal:

        Please kick in a few dollars. The FOCUS student can use and will appreciate $1 here, $10 there, $100 if you can afford it. The program does a lot of good with a little $upport.

        And you can count on ripple effects from getting a young soul to move in the right direction.

  • Fred

    Good article Rachel, I enjoyed the personal perspectives. It is a special age where they really take their first big step towards independence and so can be vulnerable and still highly impressionable. I have a little different perspective because at the time my first child went to school I didn’t have a deep faith and so didn’t help him grow spiritually. The funny thing is, he developed a very deep faith in college personally and with the help of great campus priest. It was a state school and he experienced some of the ridicule you mentioned, but for the most part the program was so intense there wasn’t much time for anything but focus. So, he actually had a role to play in my conversion if you will. My point in sharing that is that Christ works in mysterious ways. We have a lot of concern about their facing the hostile world, and to be sure there is plenty of reason for concern, but the reality is we don’t know what is God’s plan for us or the path we’ll take that will ultimately lead us to him. All we can do is our best, realize that life is a journey, take control of our fears and place our trust in the Lord. It’s taken me quite a while to see that, but I’m ever thankful to have my eyes opened.

  • Cap America

    I’ve taught community college philosophy. The big challenge there is to find students who are either willing to do the work to have an opinion, or who simply feel that their opinion is totally worthless and for this reason not worth even speaking about: they are the Discounted in society.

    Students tend to expect professors to rag on religion and are hesitant to talk about their own belief. . . not wishing to “impose” it on others or be portrayed as a hate criminal. So it goes. Religious belief is suffocated by the public’s mistaken version of civil tolerance.

    I was surprised to see what I think is a photo of Notre Dame above the story. I wouldn’t define this as a Catholic institution.

  • ColdStanding

    St. Bonaventure’s Sunday Sermons is a great way to deepen the faith. Solid preaching on the Faith.

  • ForChristAlone

    You forget to mention one of the most important pieces of advice with regard to safeguarding one’s faith: Refrain from participating in the “hook-up” culture that college is. You’ll be much better able to do some serious thinking and come out still Catholic.

  • Deacon Ed

    When I was at Texas Tech many years we had a very active Catholic Student Center. And our pastor, Fr. Tito Sammut was something else. His Masses were packed every weekend. He had two Masses on Sunday. If you walked in the door you were subject to either serving Mass, serving as a Lector, or just taking up the collection. He worked under direct authority from Rome as an experimental parish t see what would reach college kids, and he was very successful.

  • Mike Aidllo

    I am skeptical. For a student to preserve their faith,they must know their faith. Too many students are the recipients of watered down catechesis in grade and high school. Chances are they will receive no substantial teaching on sexual morality ie birth control, homosexuality, premarital sex and pornogrsphy. When they get to college they will be ministered to by a priest who will likely be well liked but will also avoid these topics. So ,sadly, many if most students will leave faith. They have had little training to preserve it and instead ,will be win over by the culture of death

  • Barb

    Great article and an important conversation. I think that indifferentism is the larger problem especially in secular universities. Most children will not leave college being atheists … but will they leave with their Catholicism in tact? Not so easy . . . they’re bathed so thoroughly in *meh* to use the new word. All the texts, all the classes, BCE and ACE . . . not openly anti religious instead mostly — religion isn’t that important. What I see is uncathechised Catholics getting drawn into the emotionalism of the protestant student centers . . . or whatever. Even the professors who aren’t anti-Christian per se have a tacit disdain for Catholicism, in my experience. Even the ones who profess Christianity of some form seem to think that Catholicism is anti-intellectual . . . . And so I think the Catholic students who meet with the earnest Bible quoting protestants can become confused. Joining the campus pro-life organization, I think, is the best antidote.

  • bwc

    I’m an adult convert, so quite well catechized. My husband is a cradle Catholic, not very
    well catechized – – but a Mass goer. Our son has been taught at home the basics of Catholic morality – but some things haven’t been stressed by a dad without much background himself. Now comes college. I’m VERY worried.

  • Isaac S.

    I graduated from St. Thomas (where Dr. Lu now teaches) almost 10 years ago, and I can attest that at UST, at least, all of what she says is true. I entered college as a nominal but conservative-leaning Catholic and left very strongly committed to my faith. I encountered professors of all stripes, from pure atheist to agnostic to liberal Catholic to orthodox Catholic. Not a single professor ever tried to undermine my faith, although a few did ask challenging questions that pushed me to dig deeper to find the answers. The bigger challenge to faith on campus was the booze-soaked, sex-filled party scene that formed the background of all campus social life, and does at most campuses throughout the country. It’s a huge challenge to find like-minded friends that want nothing to do with this scene, so you tend to get pulled in just to meet people and be sociable. I would say the biggest benefit of Catholic-centered colleges like Steubenville or Wyoming Catholic would be the stricter rules and the healthier campus social life, not so much the philosophical orientation of the faculty.