When I was in college, already an active religious historian, I worked for the daily student newspaper. One of my colleagues for some reason lost in time informed me Jesus wasn’t Jewish. I disagreed and showed her the Gospel comments of “fellow Jews” and the mentions of Jewish holidays, the addressing of Jesus as “rabbi” and all the other, overwhelming evidence.
That wasn’t good enough, she said. She had gone to a Catholic school where she had learned Jesus came for everyone and therefore could not have been Jewish.
It was my turn to be unimpressed, more with her education than her logic. I don’t care about someone’s belief. I do care about education. I had seen too many Catholic kids in my hometown of Akron, Ohio show little reading and writing skills, but they could pray up a storm. As they soon learned, the ability to kneel didn’t help much in the real world.
Unfortunately, nothing has changed much in the intervening years. Today’s students continue to demonstrate an abysmal lack of knowledge about American history, science and the world, a process acerbated by the influx of religion influence in the curriculum. For example, 34 percent of self-identified evangelical Protestants don’t think Global Warming is happening despite oodles of incontrovertible evidence. The figures are worse for evolution, another scientifically proven explanation for life. In one survey, 64 percent of Americans supported teaching creationism alongside evolution in the classroom. Creationism? That’s belief, not fact.
Finally, decades after I left my Catholic colleague and her non-Jewish Jesus, things are changing. Based on the latest reports, a lot of parents are finally realizing that religion can’t handle the truth. They are opting for state schools, forcing religion-based colleges and universities to take machetes to their tuition in hopes of luring students back to the fold.
"It used to be you could run these colleges very, very simply with a little capital investment because you had enough students to attend purely because of religion," John Nelson, a managing director at Moody's, which rates the credit worthiness of universities, said in a CNN article on this topic. "But when they're suffering a decline in students because a religion is stagnating or declining, they have to do something drastic to attract students."
Apparently, dealing in actual fact isn’t sufficient. Some are opting for disguise. For example, Johnson Bible College, in Knoxville, Tenn., is now just Johnson College – sort of a modern wolf in sheep’s clothing.
However, they are trying to attract an ever-decreasing audience. For starters, religion isn’t drawing the same crowd these days. Just the idea that the diploma came from a religion-related school is enough to turn off potential employers. “Some incoming students fear their job and/or earning prospects will be limited should they graduate from a religiously-affiliated school,” the report noted.
Another problem is that fewer people associate themselves with a particular religion. More than 25 percent of Americans from age 18 to 29 – prime college years -- don’t list affiliation with any denomination, according to a 2011 generation gap survey conducted by Pew Research. That’s double the number of people 55 and older.
Republican presidential hopefuls can boast about their religious ties and try to cater to the bedrock conservative believers, but they are preaching to an ever-shrinking congregation.
The mass dissemination of historically supported research into the origins of religion has become readily available via the internet. Once, the Catholic Church could ban books and keep parishioners from knowing how much historically based studies have undermined the validity of religious teachings. Not anymore.
Protestant and Jewish sects are not escaping either.
That’s understandable. Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, speaking to CNN, said, "Private institutions share a commitment, often based in faith or religious tradition, to providing opportunity to students regardless of their economic background. At the same time, the economic downturn has focused students and parents more than ever on affordability and educational value."
Apparently, teaching people religion and ignoring everything else is no longer acceptable.
There are alternatives to cutting costs and changing names. Several years ago, Stetson University in Florida simply ended its Southern Baptist affiliation, for example. The school wanted to allow students to have alcoholic beverages on campus; the religion objected. A small, private, liberal arts school, Stetson needs to keep its students happy. Bye-bye Southern Baptists.
Or, the college can go out of business. That’s been a popular option. Bethany University, a Bible College in Scotts Valley, Calif., closed its doors after 92 years. Pillsbury Baptist Bible College, in Owatonna, Minn., ended its 134-year run in 2008. Dana College, in Omaha, Neb., shuttered after 126 years. Magnolia Bible College, in Kosciusko, Miss., didn’t make it that far. It turned out the lights after 33 years.
Of course, there is one other option: actually stop forcing dogma down kids’ throats in lieu of real facts, real science and real history. That’s what education is for, isn’t it? The word “higher” in “higher education” doesn’t refer to heaven.
Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.