Why College Students Are Losing Their Religion – Conor Friedersdorf – Politics – The Atlantic

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.

1 thought on “Why College Students Are Losing Their Religion – Conor Friedersdorf – Politics – The Atlantic

  1. Dennis Prager’s article is hardly worth commenting on, but the rebuttal seems to miss one of Prager’s main arguments about the churches: he thinks that they are misleading young people because their clergy are the products of “left-wing” seminaries who teach false values and bad theology.
    It’s pretty clear from the source of the article (in the National Review) that it is primarily an exercise in neo-conservative ideology and has little to do with life in American Universities, where student religious groups are quite active. Nor does it shed any light on life in the churches, most of which — apart from some fundamentalists — are making serious efforts to explain how the Christian story relates to the lives of ordinary people today, just as in an earlier time.
    During this season of Lent when we read the accounts of Jesus’ ministry from John’s gospel, it should come as no surprise that many people — like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well — do not immediately understand the message of Jesus; it took them some time to catch on. But, like the Pharisees of that day, who never did get it, Prager’s article seems to reflect a similar obtuseness in his understanding of the Gospels.

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