By Pillay, Gerald
The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE , No. 2118
Campus is not the secular space imagined by die-hard antagonists, Gerald Pillay observes.
Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith
By Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Rob Warner
256pp, Pounds 65.00 and Pounds 21.99
ISBN 9781780936017, 37847 and 36215 (e-book)
Published 12 September 2013
This study of the religious experience of Christian students at universities in England is both surprising and most welcome. Surprising, because after almost 60 years of propaganda about the decline of religious faith, one does not expect to find a wide-ranging investigation as specific as this one. It is a study of the religious experience of Christian university students in what we have come to conceive of as secularised Britain. On the other hand, it is most welcome because empirical information carefully gleaned can only promote understanding in the ideological battleground between the die-hard secularists who seem to dominate the academy and the believers (by virtue of their faith deemed ipso facto biased) who appear reactionary and overly defensive.
Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Rob Warner have set themselves a modest task: to ascertain how Christian students view their faith within the context of their broad university experience. They present no argument about long-term change or future trends, which is a tendency that sociologists of religion have generally struggled to resist. Many of these projections have faltered on the premise that things proceed along linear lines and that, inexorably, percentages at a given time are indicative of long-term decline or growth. The interconnections between personal faith, participation within communities and formal membership, as scholars including Grace Davie and Robert Wuthnow have shown, are much more complex - illustrated also in the changing habits of declining membership within a range of other voluntary societies over the past 30 years.
The authors seek to present a "snapshot" of Christian students studying at English universities at "a single point in time" in order to understand their distinguishing features as a sub-group. Some 4,500 students at 13 universities were surveyed to reflect the diversity of the English university sector, including so-called traditional/elite universities, inner-city redbricks, 1960s campus universities, post-1992s and the Cathedrals Group, which are Church foundations.
The large survey provided details about moral values, personal encounters with matters of beliefs and practice, and religion and social class. Over and above these survey findings, in-depth interviews with 75 students and relevant university leaders helped the researchers in "challenging preconceived assumptions" about the nature of Christian faith and its practice among these students. …