Did you know a growing amount of kids who grow up in Christian families and in church are abandoning their faith in their first year of college? According to Conor Friedersdorf, who writes in The Atlantic,
[Freshmen] 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. Suddenly they’re surrounded by dorm mates of different faiths or no faith at all” (qtd. in Tripp, “Why Students Lost Their Faith in College”).
But why is this the case? Is it simply due to the change in environment? Is it that kids have always doubted their parents beliefs, and now that they are away from home, they can finally express “who they really are”? I believe that Friedersdorf’s reasoning here is overly simplistic. It’s actually more complex than this.
MY OWN EXPERIENCE
I grew up in a small Pentecostal church, but then when I got into eighth grade, my parents bought me The Way Bible, a modern day paraphrase with articles dealing with various teen issues, but what I really liked about it is that it had a reading chart in the front to where you could mark off the chapters of each book as you read them. Personally, I think every Bible should come with the same reading chart, and by the time I graduated high school, I had finished reading most of the Bible.
When I started a secular community college when I was 18, I was met with atheist and agnostic professors, including those at the University level, who taught biblical courses (which never have made any sense to me). But I had a lot of questions, but even when I went to the ministers who were leading the college Bible club on campus at the time, they did not know the answer to the questions I was asking. But instead of encouraging me to seek God for my answers and to keep digging into the Scriptures, they simply said, “I don’t know,” and left it at that. I ended up dropping out of the Christian club, but I was determined to find my answers, regardless of where I had to go to get those answers, which led me to going to synagogues, churches, and reading both Jewish and Christian books that dealt with the questions I have.
A COLLEGE INSTRUCTOR’S PERSPECTIVE
Now after graduating Michigan State with a B.A. and Northern Arizona University with an M.A. in English, having taught college English now for twenty-six years and been a college advisor myself to several Christian college clubs, and am now an ordained minister since April 2013, I would like to give you some advice.
The problem why many students end up dropping their faith has to do with the fact that they are not encouraged to critically think through their own beliefs, but are simply told “believe.” I have had a number of different conversations with students who have been taught by their parents and the church to not ask questions and “just believe” what their parents and church tells them. That approach might have worked “in the old days,” but it didn’t work with me and it doesn’t work with students today.
We live in an evidence-driven world, and if you cannot provide evidence for your position, then you do not have a position. When I was a freshman in college, I was sitting in a Social Science class, and the instructor was an extremely zealous atheist, and he was not afraid to let us know that. He started the semester discussing evolution, and at the time, there was a young Christian woman, maybe about 18 or 19, and she said that the Bible does not support evolution, but creationism. The next question out of the instructor’s mouth was, “What evidence do you have that what the Bible says is true?” She gave an answer, and then he kept coming back with each of her statements, asking for the evidence upon which she was basing her beliefs. In 20 minutes, I watched him verbally stripped her beliefs down until she ran out of the class in tears. She knew what she believed, but she didn’t know why, outside of quoting the Bible, or on what evidence outside of the Bible it was based.
From this experience, I learned that if I was going to be a part of the academic community, I needed to know what I believed, why I believed it, and on what evidence it was based, both biblical and extra-biblical (or outside of the Bible) sources. I can now defend my positions, using the Bible, archaeology, history, language studies, and studies dealing with what was going on in the society, culture, history, philosophies, and religions at the time. During this process of research, I discovered that somethings I had not been taught was not in the Bible or was not what my denomination said that it meant, so I dropped it, and there were some things I needed to alter or “tweak a bit,” but there were many things that I found were true and what the evidence for them were, and so those beliefs became a lot stronger. I am a much stronger believer now than I was when this whole process began.
If students are not equipped with critical thinking skills and evidence for their faith, then yes, when they are confronted with people who reject the Bible, but have evidence to back up and support their positions, then in many cases, those students either end up dropping their Christian beliefs or they shut down and don’t say a word in public to defend their faith in God or His word since they know they don’t have any evidence to back up and support their beliefs, like I did at that age. However, that is definitely not me today.
KIDS NEED MORE THAN “JUST BELIEVE”
Therefore, parents and churches need to quit telling kids and people to “just believe” and they need to begin offering evidence for what we believe. I have had pastors tell me, “Why should I offer any evidence since you can’t argue anyone into the Kingdom?” or “Why should I just add my voice to a bunch of other opinions?” Both of these are just excuses for academic laziness. Even if you offer some evidence, that is always better than no evidence at all, because then it communicates that your faith is at least based on something, rather than it being based on nothing at all.
Did you know that when I spoke to many of my students, they defined faith as “believing in something when there is no reason to believe in it.” This is the most common definition of faith at the college level and in the United States today. In fact, they believe, “If there’s evidence, then it is not faith.” Just think about this. This is the complete opposite meaning of faith that we see in the Bible. The two people in the New Testament that astounded Christ with their faith, both based their faith on the personal testimonies of others and the woman with the issue of blood, also based it on the promise of Scripture, and the Roman centurion, also based his faith on his military experience. Therefore, how can faith be based on no evidence or reasoning when these two particular individuals both based their faith on evidence of some kind? Obviously, then, we as parents and the church are failing miserably if this is the definition of faith that our children have after being raised by us and growing up in church.
I think it is time for us, as parents, and for the church to quit being lazy, and to offer our kids evidence for what we believe and why. For example, share your own testimony with your children and tell them why you believe. The more they can hear the testimonies of people they know who has experienced God and it has changed their lives will impact them so much more than just telling them “just believe.” This may sound a bit harsh maybe, but when it is the lives of our children that are at stake, I don’t think we can continue to spend our time “playing church” and hope for the best. We live in an age that believes in either “scientific evidence” or “emotions” (i.e., “what I feel to be true is true”), but neither one of these is biblically supported.
There are many things today which are called “scientific evidence,” but is not. If something can be tested and verified in a laboratory, then that’s “scientific evidence,” but historical documents, archaeological pottery, remains, and bones are not “scientific evidence,” but “historical evidence.” Consequently, there’s no such thing as “scientific evidence” when it comes to evolution since they cannot prove evolution within a controlled laboratory situation.
But for that matter, Science is incapable of proving where I was six months ago. They cannot prove where I was in a laboratory situation where all the different variables can be controlled. Instead, they have to rely on “historical evidence:” photos, eye witness accounts, receipts, finger prints, etc. The problem is that because of various television shows that combine scientific and historical evidence, many people think that it is all “scientific evidence,” when it is not.
Also, kids and students need to be taught the difference between “fact” and “interpretation.” For example, if an archaeologist finds a bone, the bone is “a fact,” but the significance or importance of that bone is an “interpretation.” And there are many, many things that kids are taught in school, and the distinction between these two things are blurred. For example, in our history books, they teach that “Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.” However, Columbus never stepped foot in the United States, but he landed in the Bahamas. Also, how could he have “discovered America” when there were other people here who met him? So who really got here first?
Another good example is the whole Pocahontas – John Smith story. This whole story is based on the journal of John Smith, but the event never actually happened. Pocahontas was only 10 years old when she met John Smith, who was a paid assassin for the colonists. He earned his money by killing people. He was hardly the person presented in the Disney version of the story. And when you read his journal, what is really interesting is that wherever he went, the same thing happened: a native woman fell in love with him, he gets captured, and she risks her life to save him. Now either this guy is extremely lucky with women, or he lies. And since Pocahontas was only ten at the time, I hardly think the romantic scenario presented in the Disney version is true. Consequently, the whole Pocahontas narrative is an elaborate American myth, but it’s not American history.
But when teens come to college or to a university and their instructor or professor says that they have “evidence” for what they are saying, then students assume these “experts” are telling the truth and know what they are saying. However, when many of these academics are atheists and make statements that discredit the Bible, students don’t know how to counter their students or know how to use critical thinking to figure out the logical fallacies (or weaknesses) of their argument because their families and their church did not take the time to prepare them by teaching them critical thinking skills, nor did they give them any “evidence” to the contrary, except to say “Just Believe.” As a result, these students are going to follow the evidence that they are being provided with since they don’t have anything else to consider.
In the first century, A.D., when the New Testament was being written, personal eyewitness testimony was the strongest evidence available at the time. In comparison, it was the forensic evidence of the time.
So when the Apostle John writes,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life; which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you…. (I John 1:1-3a)
John says here, we have heard Him, seen Him, touched and handled Him, and we know that what we are telling you is the truth. Isn’t this the equivalent of “scientific proof”? Don’t we consider it “real” when it is something that we can experience in and through our senses? Isn’t this what John is telling us was his experience with Jesus? He didn’t have a vision of Him, or a dream about Him, but he literally interacted with Him for 3.5 years.
Or what about Thomas? Thomas was very much like many people today. Yet Jesus appeared to him and the others, and He allowed Thomas to stick his hand into his wounds in His hands and the wound in His side. Now if faith does not require evidence, then why didn’t He just tell Thomas to believe without giving him the opportunity to touch His wounds?
Being told to “just believe” might have worked in the “old days,” but not anymore. In today’s world, people want some form of “evidence” and reason, not just unsubstantiated opinions and beliefs. And the one evidence that no one can really argue against is still personal experience. Some will try to discredit it by saying that personal experience is subjective and doesn’t count. My counter to this is to say, “But what about the courtroom. If we can send a person to prison based on the evidence of personal testimony, then obviously personal testimony does count as evidence in a court of law. If it is evidence in a court of law, then why should it not be evidence outside of a court of law? To say that it is evidence in the courtroom, but not evidence outside of the courtroom is inconsistent and contradictory. Therefore, my personal experiences with Christ are, in fact, does function as evidence that my faith is based on something.
Consequently, then, the church needs to abandon this view that critical thinking is “anti-God” or “of the flesh.” It is a neutral tool that God has given to us to better understand Him and His Word. We can teach our kids to use it for His glory and to show them how to use it to dig into the Scriptures, or others will teach them to use it to take our kids away from God. As parents, it is our responsibility to teach them. If we leave it only to the church, it won’t get done. Churches can help, but they are not the primary teachers. We are as parents. This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. Trust me, it’s not a lesson you want to learn in the same way I did.
In the next part, I want to discuss some evidence that backs up and supports the Bible. These are lessons we all need to learn.