Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum recently described universities as “indoctrination mills” which produce less religious members of society. Could he be right? Perdeby takes a closer look at this claim. The degree to which university education affects religion is a sensitive and often controversial issue. The fear that some people have about university is that it creates a secular emvironment: one in which people throw their religion out of the window. The fact that universities either do not cater properly for religious students or provide what is traditionally regarded as a “liberal” education is blamed. The authors of The Psychology of Religion, Hood, Hill and Spilka, maintain this opinion. The book attempts to show that senior university students, when compared to first-year students, are either less orthodox in their religious beliefs, have a more negative view of the church as an institution or are more sceptical about the existence of a god. A study carried out by The Higher Education Research Institute on people who attend university reiterates this – its findings prove that regular attendance of religious services by students has dropped from 43% to 25% in recent years. The study also shows that students who identify themselves as having no religious preference doubled from 8% to 16%. Those who call themselves “born-again” remained stagnant at 25%. The University of Michigan has become the front runner in investigating this issue. According to a study done by the university, the choice of degree heavily influences whether or not a student is likely to become less religious. In this report, it was found that students who major in the social sciences or humanities are more prone to secularisation, while those majoring in education or business are expected to become more religious. As for students majoring in biology or physical science, they are, interestingly, believed to remain just as religious (or irreligious) as they were before they attended university. Back home, the response seems to be more or less the same. “It’s most definitely true, especially I think, for those studying science. Science in its facts points out too many flaws with religion and religious thinking,” says Petra Schwab, a third-year BSc Human Life Sciences student at Stellenbosch University. However, critics argue that education is not necessarily the cause of this change. The maturation that students undergo when leaving home for university is said to play an essential role. Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for the American magazine The Atlantic agrees with this sentiment. “They [university students] leave their church, the community incentives to attend it and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don’t go to services or stray in their faith.” Samantha Taljaard, a second-year BCom Communications Management student at the University of Pretoria, agrees that the influence parents have on children before they leave home could impact the way they would behave at university. “I think a lot of girls whose parents kept them from going out in high school [in order] to get good marks have the freedom now at varsity [to do as they please].” Taljaard also believes that being “forced” to pray and attend weekly masses (as she was when she attended a Catholic school) could result in some people becoming rebellious once they leave high school. “Now at varsity, I haven’t been to church, whereas in school, we were forced.” Friedersdorf argues that for the majority of these students it is evident that their religious behaviour was mostly driven by community, social or parental pressure, instead of their own personal beliefs. Jabu Tshabalala, Chairperson of the Association of Catholic Tertiary Students (ACTS) at the University of Pretoria, believes that a religious background affects whether or not a student is likely to stay religious. “If one had a strong religious upbringing at home, then one will find it easier to establish themselves in religious activities when they reach varsity.” Tshabalala does, however, agree that peer pressure could cause religious students to stray from their faith. On the other hand, some say that attending university could have the opposite effect. Students who come from a conventional religious upbringing could be repulsed by a university culture which often includes alcohol, drugs or sex. This leads to students feeling socially isolated from mainstream university life. Abbas Mahvash, head of the Bahá’í Association at Yale University, argues that attending university could strengthen faith or even develop faith. “When you realise that you’re on your own, you have psychological needs. For that reason, people reach out to religion even if it’s not completely rational,” Mahvash says. Interestingly, factors involving spirituality (as opposed to religiousness) are seen to increase during a student’s time spent at university. These include, but are not limited to, finding a meaningful life philosophy and developing a clear sense of ethical responsibility. Despite what proponents or opponents about this issue might say, if university does one thing well as an institution, it educates individuals on a variety of different matters, and teaches people to think for themselves.

Photo: Eleanor Harding

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