From the Horses’ Mouths: Students on Religion

Written by Brandon O'Brien on January 30th, 2013

About this time last year I wrote a series of posts on the religious lives of twentysomethings, in which I summarized some anecdotal findings under the headings of things I didn’t find surprising, things I did find surprising, and some suggestions for Christian leaders.

I’m going to be briefer this time.

Here are some themes that have emerged consistently in the last year from my students’ reflections on religion in their lives.

They are pretty certain there’s a higher power.
I get my fair share of atheists and agnostics, but when push comes to shove, the vast majority of my students are confident there is Something or Someone out there. (In this way, they reflect the population of the United States in general.)

They don’t feel church is necessary.
Many of my students, regardless of their religious background, don’t believe worshiping with a religious community is necessary. For most of them, “being a good person” is essential; being part of a congregation is superfluous. Some of my Roman Catholic students feel guilty about not attending mass, because they feel they are supposed to—but that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t see the point.

They pray when they are in trouble.
An overwhelmingly high percentage of my students say that they do not consider themselves religious but, even so, when they are in a tight spot—they pray. I’m tempted to say this is a conditioned response that kids learn growing up in religious families or communities. But many without a religious background still claim to pray when the going gets tough.

They feel their questions are unique.
Many of my students say they are no longer religious because they wrestled with difficult questions as they were coming of age in their faith. They felt isolated by their perception that no one else was wrestling with the same questions. I hear this enough that I have to assume that many students are asking the same questions and none of them know it!

They feel their religious leaders and family can’t handle their questions.
These students who struggle with faith questions are routinely turned off by one of two responses: 1) they are scolded by parents or religious mentors for lack of faith or 2) their parents or religious leaders try—and fail—to offer satisfactory responses.

They don’t feel free to make truth claims.
Even my students who profess faith—whether in Christ or karma (or both!)—are afraid to claim that they are right. Many of them will say, “I believe Jesus is the Son of God,” and then immediately qualify the statement: “But that’s just my opinion and people are free to disagree with me.” Religious leaders may feel young people don’t know what they believe. It may be that they know but are afraid to admit it for fear of appearing intolerant.

What should we make of this? Well, for one, it strikes me that we most often emphasize what young people believe. We rightly want them to be equipped with the right information about the faith. Maybe, since prayer appears to be an instinct of sorts, we should emphasize spiritual formation. Second, we should be thrilled that students have questions about their faith. And we need to learn not to be intimidated by them. I frequently tell students, “I don’t know”; and they don’t mind. But they want someone to talk through the issues with. Who doesn’t?!

I’m eager to hear from you. Thoughts?


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Clay Knick says:

    I think that’s a great point about working on spiritual formation. And yes, walking with anyone through their questions is vital. At times I think we are too quick to give answers. We come of as glib or as giving “stock” answers or the company line. Listening is so, so important and saying, “I don’t know” is honest.

  2. Brandon says:

    Thanks for checking in, Clay. I’m curious if anyone out there has worked with students via spiritual formation–versus information. If you hear of anything, I’d appreciate the heads-up!

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