Losing faith: Students question beliefs after leaving comforts of home

A half-hour spent speaking with Ryan Toth seemed to indicate that he adores Jesus Christ. The religious studies major said he strives to serve Him in every way. Toth is currently a leader in the Campus Crusade for Christ organization at USU.

But Toth, who was raised Baptist, hasn’t always borne fruits of such convictions.

“I just didn’t want anything to do with God,” he said of his viewpoint just more than three years ago. “I still believed a lot of what I’d grown up with, but I had used evil as my scapegoat, saying ‘How could you allow evil to occur?'”

Toth said he remembers walking toward the Living and Learning Center as a freshman, when he saw a mass of students leaving the Logan Institute Building. Small experiences of that nature were critical to a shift in Toth’s religious perspective, he said.

“With the system I was raised with, Mormons are not saved because they are not born again. I see all these people coming out of the building, and I’m saying, ‘Serious, do I care more about these people than (God) does?'”

So goes thought-provoking questions found not only in the minds of those who are considering where they fit in the perspective of their creator, but also as found in the classrooms throughout USU, and its fellow institutions of higher education throughout the country. As students, professors and religious instructors attest, such a forum can give its participants a lot to chew on, intellectually and spiritually.

To what extent is spirituality a priority?

A seven-year University of California-Los Angeles-based study began in 2003, entitled “The Spiritual Life of College Students: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose” surveyed 112,232 first-year students attending 236 unique colleges and universities across the country.

Three-fourths polled said they are “searching for the meaning and purpose in life,” or they have discussions about the meaning of life with friends. Similar numbers indicated high expectations that college will help them develop emotionally and spiritually. Nearly half reported they consider it “essential” to seek opportunities to help them grow spiritually.

Eight students out of 10 said they attended religious services during the past year. Similar numbers discussed religion with both friends and family. More than two-thirds said they pray.

But the proportion of those same students who said they experienced high levels of religious or spiritual growth during college did not quite reflect the data behind the students’ religious practices. At the top of the list was education majors, where 46 percent said they had such an experience. Fine arts followed at 40 percent, while physical science stood at 19 percent. Nearly half (45 percent) of these surveyed students expressed dissatisfaction with how their college experience provided “opportunities for religious/spiritual reflection.”

Richard Sherlock, a philosophy and religious studies professor at USU, said students could encounter both, as they undergo the process of learning new perspectives and beliefs in the classroom.

“When it comes to the philosophy of religion, you take every religious belief down to those who are atheists and try to point out the strengths and weaknesses of each belief,” Sherlock said, who is currently undergoing conversion to Catholicism. “You try to challenge them, so students can tell why and how they believe something. They’ll be challenged in some way, but then they can then say, ‘Look, there’s a problem here, but I know how to address it.'”

In the same national study 40,670 faculty were surveyed at 421 colleges and universities about the importance of spiritualism in the classroom.

“Above all, a college education ought to inspire thoughtful and disciplined inquiry on all topics,” said Phil Barlow, a religious studies and religion professor and Arrington Chair of Mormon Studies at USU. “If you’re asking a fish about water, it keeps eating other fish. Studying religion formally can likewise be uncomfortable, exciting and exhilarating all at once. We humans are self-transcendent; so we can get out of the water and ask questions.”

Though Sherlock and Barlow agreed that a spiritual, though broad, education is critical in higher education, 43 percent of faculty in the study agreed with the statement that the spiritual dimension of faculty members’ lives has no place in the academy.

Thirty percent agreed, colleges and universities should be concerned with facilitating students’ spiritual development. Faculty from health sciences (41 percent) and humanities (40 percent) topped the list among instructors who felt spiritual instruction was important in colleges, while 22 percent of instructors from the biological sciences concurred.

Secularism vs. Religion

These trends are exactly why Wayne Dymock said entities like the Logan Institute of Religion, which he heads, were initially created. The Moscow Idaho Institute of Religion was the first, created in response to Latter-day Saint students no longer having a high school LDS seminary program or young men and young women programs in the LDS Church with which to affiliate.

“The students go out and hear the philosophies and doctrines of the world without having the balance,” Dymock said. “Because you want good kids to go to the universities of the world, you will have them all over (the country and world). With the institute, they feel like having this study provides them what the Lord calls a ‘rest.’ They can get their bearings straight, because it can be very one-sided.”

Dymock said such oft-converse instruction from the academic setting is only becoming more necessary.

“Education used to include moral education. But as the world has become more secularized, and God is purposely taken out, this becomes more important to provide the balance that used to be there,” Dymock said. “Kids come with questions about the big issues — about evolution — and this gives us the opportunity to help, but not necessarily teach to their question. If you’re in the scriptures, the answers come.”

A published study from USU President Stan Albrecht supports Dymock’s theory. Albrecht’s “The Consequential Dimension of Mormon Religiosity,” which was published by the Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center in 1998, revealed while most members of a religion leave the faith after they reach a certain level of education, active church attendance from both men and women climbed, from the point in which they started higher education, to 17 years in school. For men, that figure rose from 33 percent to 70 percent; for women, 48 percent to 81 percent.

The UCLA study found Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists and those who identified themselves as “other Christians,” to be strongly spiritual, religious and socially conservative, with little religious skepticism. On the other hand, Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, Episcopalians, Jewish students, and those of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion scored low on religiosity, high on religious skepticism, high on ecumenical worldview, and high on caring and charitable involvement. Latter-day Saints scored the highest in five of the 12 measurement categories: religious commitment, religious engagement, social conservatism, spirituality and equanimity.

Psychologically and philosophically speaking

A variety of factors contribute to a student's losing faith when attending higher education. (Photo credit Utah Statesman)
A variety of factors contribute to a student’s losing faith when attending higher education. (Utah Statesman photo)

USU psychology master’s student John Dehlin has defined related, and more extreme behaviors, in the Dr. Michael Twohig Lab on campus. He has worked with many individuals in analyzing their bouts with what Dehlin said is “religious scrupulosity,” or “OCD” in religious practice.

Although both Dehlin and Twohig declined to talk with The Utah Statesman about the study, Dehlin said, in an online podcast, individuals may resort to religiously scrupulous behavior in response to being taught principles that may conflict with their religious beliefs. This is one possible reason of many why individuals may resort to excessive reading of scripture, praying, or incessant confession to a priest or bishop about a sin that has already been forgiven according to the doctrine of the respective religion.

“The foundation of that problem is anxiety,” Dehlin said, in the podcast. “Such a monster can cause such havoc on life. These compulsions don’t provide the person any pleasure.”

But Brad Ewton, sophomore in nursing, said he doesn’t think one has to necessarily be scrupulous in their religious behavior in order to maintain their spiritual convictions in the secular realm — nor does a love for religious items and principles have to be defined as such.

“It’s easy to get sidetracked from what’s important,” Ewton said. “College is really hard. It’s a wonderful experience, but it can be a negative experience with so many people swaying you.”

Ewton said consistent devotion to reading the Bible, praying, listening to worship music and associating with his fellow “Christian brothers and sisters,” as they encourage each other to maintain their devotions to Christ has been pivotal to him and others being able to stay firm in their faith.

“I don’t believe that people who really own their faith before college will fall,” he added. “You have seasons, but if you’re really a Christian, for example, you would never actually reject Christ. That’s what the Bible teaches to me. There are times where you may feel like you want to walk away from God, but it’s not God that’s the problem. For me, Christ always turns me toward him in those situations.”

Some actually attribute their secular education as contributing to a similar spiritual path in their own lives. Ryan Roos, the former president of the Religious Studies Club, on campus, and the founder of the Association for Mormon Studies at USU, said he has such a perspective.

“Students, especially those obtaining liberal arts educations, are trained to think critically on a range of issues, many of which collide directly with those relating to their faith,” Roos said. “For some, it’s a deal breaker. For others, it serves as a valuable underpinning for their respective religious outlook.

“Once skepticism is employed, the question then becomes: Is this a means to an end, or the end itself? It has been my experience that students who wish to believe often develop just enough skill to get themselves in trouble, but not enough to get themselves out. The management of extreme skepticism is a skill in and of itself.

“My belief is a direct result of my liberal arts education,” he added. “There’s no question about it. My Mormonism asks of me questions that I would not be equipped to grapple with without the philosophical and religious studies training I’ve obtained through the university setting and coursework. That may not be the case for everyone, but it holds true for me.”



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