I came across this blog post recently, “Are Atheists the New Campus Crusaders?” The piece describes the rise of Secular Student Alliances (SSAs) on college campuses. The opening illustration points out activities at the University of Illinois. The mention of the U of I piqued my interest because I will be speaking at the University of Illinois in a couple weeks for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
I am not particularly disturbed at the existence or even proliferation of SSAs. There have always been atheists on college campuses—from students to faculty to administration. During my college years most dorm parties and even some fraternity parties were secular student alliances! College students certainly have every right to explore their beliefs and associate with whomever they choose. Even so, I don’t want my Christian (and other religious) college friends to feel threatened. I want to encourage you college students who have religious faith, and I want to affirm and encourage you with four points:
First, please know that your faith is not antithetical to learning. Several of our most prestigious colleges and universities were founded by people of faith. Those people were certainly far from perfect. For example, many of them preached the Bible but didn’t know what to make of the souls of Black folk. But nevertheless it was a faith in God that moved them to start institutions where people could reflect on the world, and even grow in understanding the evils of slavery. Faith is not antithetical to education. While the atheists may have their crusade, it is clear that there are bright folks, professors as well as students, who think deeply about the world and simultaneously have a deep faith in God. Even though its focus in on the Ivy League, you might find a group such as Christian Union to be encouraging.
Second, you are better off “taking your chances” with God. I don’t have any desire to debate the existence of God, and God doesn’t really need me to. After all, God (as well as those who believe in God) was around long before me and will be long after I am dead. And while I really don’t think believing in God is a gamble, I say “take your chances” because I think there is much to gain through belief and not much to lose. In other words, I find some value to “Pascal’s wager,” even though some people have tried to shoot holes in it (check this out for a good explanation and discussion of the challenge offered by Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and philosopher. The author of the piece at this link even responds to some of the challenges made to Pascal’s wager).
My experiences have affirmed that going through life with faith in God is worth the challenges and the sacrifices. As a pastor, I’ve heard and seen too many stories of people who, after the fun of their younger years of disregard for God, have more regrets than delights. Yes, that is only anecdotal evidence, but check out this study that demonstrated, objectively, that belief in God makes one “happier and healthier.”
Third, God is pleased with your witness in the face of skeptics. Currently I am working on a commentary on the New Testament book of 1 Peter. Some of his words come to mind when I think of Christian college students who might face criticism: At one point Peter writes,
For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:3-5; NIV).
There’s no need to be self-righteous, of course, but knowing that God sees and knows your situation can be very encouraging.
Fourth, don’t be annoying jerks! Sadly, many people are turned away from faith in God because of how people practice their faith. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker and posters that say, “Lord, save me from your followers.” There’s no question that Christianity (as well as some other beliefs) have a history that includes those who perpetrated violence, oppression, and all sorts of evil. There have always been arrogant, self-righteous people who claim to speak for God on all sorts of issues—even ones that the Bible doesn’t address! It may not be fair to be judged by the actions of some (I certainly haven’t stopped going to doctors because there are bad ones out there who have committed malpractice), but there’s also no justification for being pharisaical. If we don’t model the life of Jesus—not just in personal acts of piety, but also in broader concerns for justice in the world—then we should not be so quick to speak on his behalf. Once again Peter has wisdom for us on this topic:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16; NIV).
So I encourage my young sisters and brothers to keep on loving the Lord. Don’t sweat the atheists too much. Focus on doing what you know is right; God will honor you.