Conor Friedersdorf writes in response to an essay by Dennis Prager that includes the line: “the agenda of Western universities is to produce (left-wing) secularists.” It’s a silly piece, for Prager probably hasn’t talked to a lot of undergrads since he left college. If he spent any time on a college campus, he would realize that students’ values are largely shaped by eighteen years of immersion in American consumer culture, and if they “lose their religion” in college, it is only because they have left family, home, and community, and encountered in college new avenues for consumerism such as alcohol.
Friedersdorf wants to be charitable to Prager; he labels him “as thoughtful a voice as you’ll find on talk radio.” For Friedersdorf, the chief culprit in the losing of religion is the fact that college students leave home, family, and community, and learn that their religious commitments were largely the product of family and social pressure, and the desire for community. I think he’s right to place much of the blame on churches themselves:
If you’re someone who wants to see organized religion do a better job of holding on to young people – I have no strong preference either way, having friends for whom religion is the best thing in life and others for whom it’s been a terrible burden – the most problematic part of Mr. Prager’s argument is the lack of agency he gives to religions and their congregations. They’re cast as powerless in the face of university influence that is somehow made out to be irresistible.
But if four years of college undo 18 years of parenting and religious affiliation, perhaps the faith community’s tenuous hold is the problem, not the particular place outside its bubble where that hold evaporates.
I think Friedersdorf is exactly right. But I also think that there is a more subtle dynamic at work, too. For many young people, college is a rite of passage, a way of disengaging from their childhood and family and make themselves anew as young adults. If religion can’t help them make that transition, but instead seems to impede it, then religion must also be jettisoned along with other childhood values. Friedersdorf’s essay is here: Why College Students Are Losing Their Religion.