Challenges to Faith in Higher Education

Finlay Malcolm is a research fellow at UH.   Here, he describes research into the experiences of students with religious faith.  University can be an unsettling experience for such students.  Finlay argues that in order to understand this and do something about it, we must first find the right way to think about faith.

The experiences of religious students in higher education is a major research interest for sociologists of education. Many of their discoveries are pertinent to philosophical treatments of religious faith. But equally, philosophical accounts of the nature of faith can facilitate sociological research into religion in general, and faith in particular. Exploring these connections is a research activity of mine as a philosopher working on religion and faith. I want to propose a few ways by which philosophy and the sociology of education can positively interact on questions concerning religious faith. The ideas I’ll suggest have a bearing on best practice in both pedagogy and student pastoral work.

To illustrate how philosophy and sociology can positively interact, consider the 2013 publication by a group of sociologists (Guest, Aune, Sharma, Warner), Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith. This work is the result of three years of quantitative and qualitative research into the experiences of Christian students in UK universities. The study produced a great deal of novel and interesting insights. One of the main areas of discussion was on the way that the faith of the students is shaped and developed throughout their time at university. Two particular challenges are thought to be significant in this regard. First, there are disruptions to the familiar patterns of enacting one’s faith in daily life, and the encounters one has with different ways of practising one’s faith. Second, there are the familiar intellectual challenges that conflict with a student’s faith, where, in many cases, these arise from studying the university curriculum, but also come from interactions with other students who hold a different set of beliefs.

This study noted that these sorts of challenges were widespread amongst university students, that their overall experiences did influence their religious faith (to varying extents), and that in a few cases, the university experience led to a loss of religious faith for some students. These observations prompt several questions that are of interest to philosophy. For one thing, we might wonder how conflicts of faith are experienced in similar or different ways by university students. What is the phenomenological profile of these experiences? Are they intellectual, emotional, or do they cause a loss of overall direction? What is it like to experience a loss of faith? One place to begin with addressing these questions, is to address the more fundamental question: What is the nature of the faith of university students (Christian or otherwise)?

In general, the sociological definition of religious faith is intentionally broad-stroked. In this study, for instance, faith is attributed to a student when he or she ‘identifies’ as a Christian. But people identify as religious for many differing reasons, for instance, family heritage or upbringing, beliefs held, practices undertaken, long-term commitments, trust in a deity, subscribing to a set of religious creeds, or adopting a religion’s ethical system as a moral compass in life. When a person has faith in the sense that he or she identifies as belonging to some particular religion for one of these reasons, philosophers sometimes refer to this as global faith.

Determining which challenges a student faces, and the experiences that student has, when these are thought of as challenges to a student’s global faith, will depend in what sense the student has global faith. For instance, if the student’s global faith is held in virtue of her practices, then the challenges will be challenges to her practising her religion. Or, if the student’s global faith is held in virtue of his family heritage, then the challenges will be challenges to his heritage as belonging to a particular religion. Of course, the global faith could also be held for numerous reasons, and the challenges may also be manifold. Presumably, challenges to global faith vary markedly, as do the student’s experiences. In some instances, these challenges may be reasonably unproblematic for the student, if, for instance, they are a matter of being unfamiliar with the surroundings one now practices one’s religion in. These kinds of cases may be thought of as essentially positive, character-forming experiences for the student in question. Even when the student’s global faith concerns firmly held beliefs, and these are challenged intellectually as part of the university curriculum, it doesn’t follow, necessarily, that this is a problem for the student.  Suppose that we view religious beliefs simply as irrational views about what the world is like.  On this view, a conflict or crisis of faith is little more than an adjustment in what a student believes to be true that arises from discovering novel information and arguments – an invaluable experience, and the very thing that a good education should provide.

However, global faith – self-identification as belonging to a particular religion – is not the main interest of recent philosophical writing on faith. The concept is generally seen as too broad and imprecise. Perhaps this is a mistake, and more philosophical attention should be focussed on global faith, and philosophers could look to sociological research in developing their work. Nevertheless, philosophers have focussed on much narrower conceptions of faith, of which two in particular stand out: faith-that something is the case, and faith-in some object, like a government, or a person, like a spouse. Should someone experience challenges to, or a loss of, either of these kinds of faith, it could negatively impact on the person in a way that is not always the case with one’s global faith. Despite the potential negative implications of suffering from conflicts or losses of these varieties of faith (faith-in and faith-that), these concepts are not specifically deployed in sociological research. If they were, though, I believe they would lead to a clearer understanding of religious students, and the challenges their faith experiences.

Consider the first variety of faith, for example. When someone has faith-that, she has faith that certain propositions are true. In religious cases of faith, a person might have faith toward numerous propositions, for instance, that God exists, that there is an afterlife, and that the scriptures are divine revelation. Faith-that is generally thought to require belief or acceptance that a proposition is true, and for someone to be in favour of the truth of that proposition. One cannot, for instance, have faith that God exists, whilst wanting it to be false that God exists. Moreover, we generally have faith toward something when we regard that thing positively. So, whilst we may have faith that democracy will succeed, it would be unusual to have faith that we will contract a serious illness. With the second variety of faith – faith-in – one person is in a relation to another person or object, through either trust or reliance. We have faith in democracy, or a friend to make his business a success, or a politician to lead in a virtuous way. In each case, we either trust or rely on the object of faith.

Having faith in something, or that something is the case, is often thought to require being resilient about that thing. So, if I have faith that Theresa May is a strong and stable leader, then my faith won’t be lost, even if she fails, from time to time, to be strong and stable. My faith in her will persevere, at least for a while, through challenges and counter-evidence. Moreover, since I am in favour of the truth of that which I have faith in or toward, then it follows that I desire to see that which I have faith in come to pass. I cannot have faith that there is an afterlife, for instance, if I don’t desire it to be the case that there is an afterlife. Indeed, this conative component to faith may explain why my faith is disposed to persist through challenges and counter-evidence. Faith also has an effect on my overall dispositions and commitments. When I have faith in a God, and faith towards various religious propositions, then I will be disposed to commit myself to a particular way of life, given those commitments.

So, both faith-that and faith-in are thought to require, first, a disposition to persevere with one’s faith; second, a desire for the realisation of the proposition or affection for the object to which one’s faith is directed; and third, a disposition to adopt an array of commitments and plans to a particular course of action or way of life.

Now, if faith is understood in terms of these philosophical analyses of both faith-that and faith-in, we can make several predictions concerning the nature and impact of challenges to a student’s faith. First, faith requires being in favour of the truth of something, and hence being opposed to its falsity. Conflicting information – perhaps arising from the university curriculum – can thereby seem to undermine what the faithful person desires or hopes for. Plausibly, in some cases, students will develop various strategies in order to retain and protect their faith. This may involve remaining part of a close religious community with others of shared faith, who agree with one’s own views. However, some students may disengage to an extent with their studies, with a corresponding effect on their participation and grades. These considerations are particularly applicable to best pedagogical practice.

Second, if someone is disposed to adopt an array of behavioural commitments and plans, then challenges to faith encountered in education do not merely impact on the beliefs of the student, but also on these associated commitments and life plans. When faith is challenged or even lost, these commitments and plans will seem pointless, leaving someone feeling a loss of direction and an overall sense of demoralisation. Undermining plans may accordingly erode what the faithful person cares about, plausibly leading to a loss of personal identity. Moreover, since religious faith often concerns matters of utmost importance, including eternal life and the meaningfulness of their very existence, losing faith in these matters could, in extreme cases, cause an existential crisis and feelings of angst, hopelessness and depression, not unlike suffering a bereavement.

The practical implications of a loss of faith are clearly relevant to policies concerning student wellbeing, and pastoral practices in the university sector that support students through times of hardship. One particular concern is over student retention. If a student’s loss of faith can be as distressing as I have suggested, it seems possible that some students could leave their courses altogether.

By working with the definitions of faith-in and faith-that, which are more precise and robust than mere identification with a religion, sociologists can gain a clearer understanding of the religious faith of university students. These definitions can also helpfully reveal the nature of the challenges to faith that students experience, and can provide for fruitful avenues of further research, particularly concerning interdisciplinary work. Moreover, sociological studies of these varieties of faith could support an empirically-informed philosophical account of faith, and could feed in to university pastoral and pedagogical policy. These are some of the goals I am working towards in my own work, and mark one way by which philosophical and sociological research on religious faith may positively interact.

(Many of the ideas outlined here are shared and co-developed with my collaborator, Michael Scott, from the University of Manchester).



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