Faith and the university experience

Trinity College chapel

The latest in-depth research into the lives of Christian students in Britain reveals that almost half of young Catholics stop attending Mass when they go to university. The task for the Church is to reconcile childhood bonds with new perspectives on life.

- By Mathew Guest for The Tablet

Recent comments by Pope Francis have left me reflecting on whether the Roman Catholic Church might be on the cusp of reconnecting with its younger members. Refusing to judge the lives of homosexuals, calling for humility and kindness, urging mutual respect between Christians and Muslims – it all sounds rather progressive: certainly more in keeping with Western norms of cultural tolerance than the more exclusivist declarations of the past. 

The notion that this would appeal to the young is not born of a naive association of young people with an idealised liberalism. It also reflects what recent research has revealed about the values of young Christian adults. This may be the first Pope in more than 30 years to affirm a perspective that is in step with that predominating among younger generations. 

Sceptics will say this is a most unlikely ­scenario, the stuff of desperate optimism beloved of churches whose pews are emptier with each passing year. What is more, the young appear more cynical than most about mainstream religion, and a recent YouGov poll found more young people viewing religion as a force for evil than a force for good in the world. The same poll found religious leaders behind politicians, brands and celebrities as forces of influence in young people’s lives. So where are the grounds for optimism? 

Our research team has spent four years studying how the experience of going to university influences the beliefs, values and lives of Christian students. Through a national survey and interviews across England’s universities, investigating the lives of more than 4,000 undergraduates, we have been able, for the first time, to paint a detailed picture of this population and their lives, culminating a book titled Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith (Bloomsbury).

In focusing on universities, we not only form a picture of young Christian adults, we also get a glimpse into the lives of those likely to occupy positions of influence and leadership later in life.

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