Tougaw: Don’t let a bad experience with religion destroy faith

Ryan Tougaw

Pope Francis Waves to a Crowd in The Vatican
Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio, elected Pope Francis waves from the window of St Peter’s Basilica’s balcony after being elected the 266 pope of the Roman Catholic Church at the Vatican. (Credit Image: © Osservatore Romano/ANSA/

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

When I talk to college students about their beliefs, I’m often told stories where the students were once part of a church or youth group and things just sort of went south.


Things like lack of acceptance into a community, interpersonal drama within the group, or disagreements over certain issues have driven students I know away from not just that church, but religion entirely. 

Whether it be over a disagreement on social opinions like gay marriage or abortion or generally a disillusionment with a body practicing religion as a congregation, it seems a lot of young adults have serious trust issues when it comes to religion.

I can understand where they are coming from, as I am a person who prefers to stay away from church as well. I find the experience of being in a room with others, having someone else recite prayer for me to be somewhat of a middleman in the God + Me equation. For me, it dilutes the faith experience.

But this idea certainly does not inhibit my ability to practice faith, nor should it for anyone. There is a huge difference between religion and faith, and too often people use bad experiences with religion to turn them off faith entirely when the concepts are quite different.

Religion is more a codification of subjective interpretations of the scripture. A set of rules by which to play. Each denomination of Christianity is an example of this.

For instance, large portions of the Baptist church denounce homosexuality, whereas churches like the Metropolitan Community Church were founded almost explicitly for the advancements of social rights. As a matter of fact, MCC was the first to perform same sex marriages, something that some other denominations still will not do.   

There are many ways to achieve a relationship with whichever God you pray to. This is where faith comes in.

Where religion is a “rule set” that enjoys significant diversity, faith is the uncompromisingly personal and close bond that an individual forms with whichever divine entity they believe in.

Some people derive deep spiritual satisfaction in following the rules outlined by the doctrines of their churches; others may find that same connection in meditation on a mountaintop, far away from anything of the sort. As John Muir said, “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God than in church thinking about the mountains.” This perspective on faith is totally legitimate.

Some still find the idea of a church interpreting their systems of belief to be off-putting, and for this reason choose to disavow belief altogether.


This is an error, especially for students. We are in a transitory time in our lives. Students should not paint religion and faith with the same brush, nor should they let the actions of one group shape their outlook on the concept of religion as a whole.

People are very different, and this absolutely applies to their religious beliefs as well. Just because someone may disagree with Catholics and their worship procedure does not render the entire religion of Christianity obsolete. So too with any religion.

Faith is nurtured by the individual, ultimately. A person’s relationship with the divine is as personal and unique to them as is possible to be. The idea that any institution could simply revoke a belief in God is erroneous by nature.

If one formula doesn’t work, try another. College is the perfect time to find the best fit for your faith life. There are many, many churches, temples, mosques and synagogues out there constantly looking for new members with whom to share their experiences.

Faith is an enriching thing. Students should not let one bad experience with religion ruin their faith.

Columnist Ryan Tougaw can be reached at or online at @rjtougaw