PANEL: Did your faith change in college? How and why?

By Tracy Simmons

In February Rick Santorum told an ABC reporter that conservative students are singled out in college because most campuses are liberal. Then he said, “Sixty two percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it.”

He admitted the statistic was a bit dated, even though he used the stat in a January interview as well.

The Social Science Research Council, however, show that Santorum is incorrect. In fact, those not attending a college institution are the ones who are likely to stop attending worship services.

We asked SpokaneFAVS panelists about this.

Did your faith change in college? How and why?

Rev. Bill Ellis

My faith changed in college more dramatically than at any time before or since. Prior to college it seemed to me Christianity was a prescription for how to live one’s life, and faith was the intellectual assent to the value of that prescription together with an attempt to live according to that prescription.

During college I realized Christianity is in fact far better understood as a description of the predicament of humanity in the face of an otherwise incomprehensible universe.  The Judeo Christian tradition, as I came to understand it, is the refutation of the human attempt to cloud the truth of our finitude, limitation and mortality in the haze created by the human striving for security in an insecure universe, and power when in fact we are ultimately powerless.  Faith is therefore the positive response to that description, the realization that real and true life, as opposed to the denial of life, happens precisely when we abandon our attempts at gaining power and security, and live in accordance with the truth our powerlessness.  Such a life necessarily leads us to abandon the dehumanizing things we do to each other and to ourselves, and I might add, to the earth, because when we are no longer competing for a false sense of power and security the destructive and dehumanizing things that make perfect sense in the world of the denial of our finitude no longer make any sense at all.

Rev. Bill Ellis

Gracie Kiernan

Many atheists and agnostics will say that they “lost” faith in college. I stopped believing in God while in college, but that’s when my spirituality began to coalesce. I read more than ever before. I conversed with people with whom I did not agree, but still respected. I was exposed to philosophies and mindsets I’d never encountered. I soaked up knowledge like a sponge.

As this glut of information sifted itself out, the important concepts remained on my mind. Some aspects of the religion I was born into started to seem a little far-fetched. The things I’d looked to God or religion for in the past (such as compassion, a sense of community and faith) were still being fulfilled, but not by God. In college, I became active in social causes, honing my compassion for those who suffer. College gave me access to a supportive community.

I learned in college that faith doesn’t mean blind following, nor does it require a lack of intellect. Faith isn’t something your parents give you at birth. Faith is most effectively built when you learn about how the world works and you love it anyway.

Gracie Kiernan

Daya Goldschlag

My faith, or actually my belief in formal religion, changed way before college.  I must have been about 7 or 8 years old when I noticed that on the Jewish high holy days my neighbors and family got all dressed up and headed to shule (synagogue), but the emphasis seemed to be on their new outfits rather than any  religious interaction or teaching.  At that point I began to doubt the need for religion.

When I was even younger, probably around 6 years old, I asked my father what God was.  Because I was so young my father answered simply.  He said, “Some people think there is someone up in the sky who looks after all of us and some people think God is in everyone, in all the rocks and trees and animals and everything.”  I responded, “That’s what I believe.”  He said that was fine.  All these years later, that is basically what I still believe.  So, I guess my faith is still strong but it is not based on a particular religious belief system.

Daya Goldschlag

Rev. Alan Eschenbacher

I was a lifelong Lutheran when I enrolled at a Jesuit university (Gonzaga) and in 1978 most Gonzaga students were Catholic, the school was much smaller — around 1,500 or so. My faith was changed in college. It was strengthened. I think I understood grace a little better than my Catholic friends, good thing since I was in need of it A LOT!

Some of my Catholic friends stressed about going to private confession. After they went, they would come back with their “assignment” as I called it (say five Our Fathers and 10 Hail Mary’s etc.) Meanwhile I prayed with my community and church family in “corporate” confession every Sunday and was reminded of the promise of God’s grace and love and forgiveness. My friends said it was like cheating and I wouldn’t remember it since I didn’t have to “do” anything. I said, “exactly right,” Jesus did it for me, I am a sinner, and I sin boldly, as Luther suggested, but I believe in Jesus Christ and the forgiveness he brings even more boldly! College experience with roommates and friends strengthened this for me through practical everyday experience.

Rev. Alan Eschenbacher

Matt Wise

Yes, I feel like it became deeper and more mature. By the way, my college was BYU-Idaho and it was a great experience.

I think my faith grew as I took responsibility for training and developing the gifts I have been blessed with. Also having a community of peer’s to be involved with, sharing and growing together by hearing of each others spiritual experiences and witnesses of the gospel really did improve and broaden my understanding of the gospel and the various aspects in which it effects people’s lives.

Matt Wise

M.C. Paul

Growing up in a non-denominational church in the south, authority to interpret Scripture was given to the congregation’s minister; a man who more often than not, had little or no formal training in theology.

When I attended a Presbyterian college for my undergraduate degree, I suddenly found myself required to attend chapel regularly and take core courses in biblical studies. It was in that first course that I discovered exegesis. The world opened up to me in a new way once I had been given a methodology for approaching Scripture in a critical way.

Before college, my faith could have been said to be inherited from my family of origin — with little more than the minister’s word for what I should believe. During and after college, I found myself doubting everything I had been taught in my faith tradition, then rebuilding my faith on more solid ground; faith seeing understanding of the principles on which that faith was built.

Many years later I attended a Jesuit university and found myself again doubting, questioning, and affirming, in my own theological spiral. That is a place I continue to find myself  today, and I am forever grateful to my teachers who taught me to think critically and seek understanding.

M.C. Paul

Do you have a question for the SpokaneFAVS panelists? Email it to



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