Tougaw: Religion will always be relevant for college students

Ryan Tougaw

A cross sits atop a building at sunset
A cross sits atop a building at sunset

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Religion is a funny thing. It seems to just endure the test of time, being prevalent in virtually every human society to date. It takes many different shapes, from polytheism to monotheism, with roots spreading out all over the world. No matter where people go, religion seems to follow.

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It also manages to endure criticism, time and again. For instance, in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church as an institution was responsible for quite a lot of human death and yet it still remains today as one of the most populous religious institutions in the world.

College religiosity has steadily declined over the years, with about 32 percent of college students classifying themselves as religious. But religion is still relevant to college students, in spite of these declining numbers.

This is because religion is predicated not on blind faith in the words of a book written thousands of years ago, but on underlying  archetypes that humans resonate with innately. Basically, these archetypes are the personification of traits that humans consider to be worth validation. Despite falling numbers, as students learn more and grow in a university setting, these archetypes will continue to resonate with them. Churches have enjoyed a recent resurgence on college campuses with new evangelical presences marketed specifically to students, like Campus Crusade for Christ, doubling or tripling in size

While the rising popularity of atheism may have caused a brief dip in college student belief numbers, religion will always come back to college campuses, because the concepts themselves will always appeal to humanity.

This isn’t solely relegated to religion; this idea is what makes a good movie or story. Being able to relate to the embodiment of human emotion is what makes old playwrights and authors like Shakespeare and Chaucer still relevant. 

Jesus once said, depending on the version of The Bible you read, that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friendsThis motif is everywhere in the movie industry. Productions like “Braveheart,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic” all feature this idea.

These are some of the best productions ever made too. Let’s not lie; it’s compelling. Getting attached to a character, watching them grow and develop, seeing them get in epic fights they barely survive only to lay down everything they’ve worked so hard for in favor of the greater good makes for popcorn-pounding viewing.

This theme is also seen with the concept of justice. The idea of “an eye for an eye” is quite prominent in the Old Testament.Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

Sacrificing yourself is everywhere in the movie industry; this idea is simply ubiquitous. A protagonist conquering an antagonist after a movies-worth of beatings is simply one of the most satisfying things in existence.

But this isn’t a conscious joy. No one sees a riveting film where the protagonist does something profound and says, “you know, I really liked that because it speaks to an innate desire that I have for justice.”

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It’s just there, under the surface, and movies are superb at speaking to it. So is religion. College students are a major movie-going demographic, so it makes sense that these same themes will be appealing to the students.

Jesus preached things that were so radically different from the status-quo of the time; universal human truths of equality under God, equality of men and women, laying down your life for another and the idea that the human soul was worth something, that each life mattered. These teachings were extraordinarily different from the Roman Empire’s philosophies, and yet the teachings of Jesus outlived the Roman Empire.

This is because the teachings of Jesus spoke to the themes of humanity, and not the skin-deep social aspects of people like the Romans did. Just like the movies, archetypal stories are far more compelling than their stereotypical counterparts.

Because of this compelling narrative, the rebirth of religion on college campuses will be a successful one.

Columnist Ryan Tougaw can be reached online at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter at @rjtougaw