The Misguided Attacks on Religion Are Designed Around Scapegoating Not Religious Freedom
In the 1962 musical The Music Man, con artist Harold Hill is creating an object a fear to better manipulate the population of River City. He notices a local pool hall and speaks of the den of sin and poor moral influence it will bring to the impressionistic youth. This same tactic is being used today by religious conservatives, except it has switched to college.
Donald Trump Jr. has railed against colleges that teach “hate against religion” and Bibles are held as “hate speech.” Students have declared their fear in “coming out” as religious to their fellow students, and I have spoken to incoming students that worry that discussing their beliefs in their applications will deny them admissions.
I have only one response to this. Stop it. Relax.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. William Jennings Bryan, in a 1921 address, argued that warning labels should be attached to universities that read: “Our classrooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women.” Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have used it as an election issue.
This isn’t an attack on colleges, it is really an attack on liberalism. I don’t mean political liberalism, but intellectual liberalism. The exposure to different ideas and the dynamic nature of learning. The belief that you may change your ideas and you may change how you think about the world. This is a scary thought to anyone who is deeply religious. Because religion requires conservative thinking. An individual has to have complete and unwavering belief and cannot alter the teaching of their God or religion.
But is this fear realistic? No. Studies have shown that individuals actually change their religious beliefs before attending school. Recently, the lack of formal religious practice by millenials growing up means that they are less committed to their faith. 79% of religiously unaffiliated individuals change their beliefs during their adolescent and teen years. It could be that we have a more mobile college-educated workforce, making the formation of a religious community harder. There is no easy cause and effect relationship.
If anything, the college system supports traditional institutions religions care about. People are more likely to be married and wait until marriage to have children if they attend university. There are a multitude of religious organizations at any school, religious universities, and specific programs of study on religion.
This siege mentality could be traced to alternate causes. Maybe Donald Trump Jr. doesn’t like colleges because if you went to college you were less likely to vote for his father. Or maybe it is the same reason we hear about the “war on Christmas.” It creates the fear that makes it easy to convince people to act. Tell someone to move, they might. Tell someone to move because their house is on fire, and they will be running as quickly as they can. This is why we have movies like God’s not Dead about a college professor who tells his class God is dead and pushes his belief system on his students. The movie made $61 million dollars in ticket sales.
The danger of this rhetoric is that it attacks one of the foundations of democracy, a well-educated population. With everyone worried about “fake news” don’t we want people with the critical thinking skills to be able to know what is accurate and what is the result of Russian trolls?
And why do these religious organizations feel threatened? If they have educated their populations then hearing counter information should not worry them. Do they doubt the power of their faith? It seems more like insecurity about their ability to teach their religion. If that is the case I would suggest going back to school about teaching or religion. You could learn a thing or two.