Questions, Questions

10.12.14 10:45 AM ET

Can Christians Still Go to Harvard?

America’s colleges are increasingly hostile to religion, but a Veritas, a Christian organization, has found a way to thrive.

It’s become standard Christian folklore that America’s elite universities are the killing fields of religious faith.

The stats indicate this may be more than mere legend. According to LifeWay Research, 70 percent of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school drop out of organized religion during their college years. Almost two-thirds return to regular church attendance later on, so there seems to be something about their experiences during this life phase that pushes them away from religion.

But amid this abysmal picture of floundering faith is a story of hope and perhaps a model for how faith might thrive at even the most secular institutions.

It’s called The Veritas Forum, a national Christian organization founded by Harvard students 20 years ago. They host events at universities across the country that seek to “engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ.”

Veritas, meaning “truth” in Latin, is not your fundamentalist grandmother’s Christian group. Their forums take place at America’s top universities—including the Ivies—and the questions they address are not simplistic spiritual queries. For example:

Duke University’s forum asked whether science has rendered God irrelevant.
Harvard University’s forum asked whether belief in the supernatural and miracles was irrational.
University of California at Berkeley’s forum probed the nature of reality.
Emory University’s forum surveyed the intersection between faith and genetics to ask key questions about human identity.
MIT’s forum looked invited a robotics professor to explore what it means to be human.

The Veritas forum is everything that Christians, many of whom have suffered under the stereotype of being anti-intellectual, want to be: thoughtfully engaged in America’s marketplace of ideas while holding steadfast to the core tenets of their faith. And this mix of intellectualism and faithfulness is filling an unmet need among students on many of these campuses.

Columbia University senior and Veritas participant Avantika Kurmar says, “Veritas fills that role of providing a space for Christians and non-Christians to seek truth together. A lot of people—Christian or not—have the hard questions that Veritas seeks to investigate.”

One of Veritas’ secrets to success seems to be their tone and tenor. Rather than lecture why non-Christians are wrong or use their events as an opportunity for stealth proselytizing to secular students, the forums seek to facilitate dialogues where religious perspectives are heard and considered against other views.

Ashley Byrd, a regional director of Veritas, attributes the organization’s flourishing to the fact that they are not “afraid or defensive and instead cast a more compelling vision of what it means to be in deep relationship where your respect for each other isn’t dependent on agreeing on everything.” He added that sometimes Christian students feel they have to hide their faith to fit in, but “We tell students, ‘You don’t need to fake it.’”

But aren’t students mistreated for their faith, as we so often hear? Luke Foster, current president of Columbia’s Veritas Forum says that while mistreatment isn’t unheard of, more often they are just treated “like a curiosity in a museum.”

Even a skeptical agnostic like Torsten Odland, a 21-year-old Columbia senior who has attended Veritas Forums, has found himself supporting their cause. He says that the forum confronts the “perennial questions that underlie a lot of what we study. They provide something … I think is missing at Columbia in some respects.”

“There should be someone posing these questions,” Odland says. “The more that college is viewed as a site to prepare for a job, just a pre-professional location for you to jump into one particular stream and start your life, there isn’t really a place in that for a real focus on the questions that Veritas finds interesting.”

The work of Veritas demonstrates that faith can survive, and even thrive, on America’s college campuses.