360° in 180 – Surviving Secular University as a Christian Student (Part 2)

by Patricia Engler on November 13, 2019

As a Christian student attending secular university, I had every reason to be nervous after reading the professor’s first email. Any student who rejected evolutionary human origins, the letter stated, should reconsider taking the class. What kind of warzone was I about to enter?

Granted, I’d signed up for this. By studying science at secular university, I hoped to learn firsthand how Christian students can survive intensely evolutionary education without compromising their biblical worldview. And, as I’d learned at age 14 from an Answers in Genesis seminar, a biblical worldview rests on the premise that God’s word is our ultimate authority for truth. Every major doctrine in God’s word, however, is ultimately founded in Genesis 1-11 (directly or indirectly)—the most attacked book in Scripture. Because the story of evolution is one of the most common frameworks for attacking Genesis, I’d decided to learn about evolution in-depth through university classes like this one. So, regardless of the ominous email, I enrolled.

There, and behind other classroom doors, I felt like a spy in an enemy bootcamp. I explained some of those “bootcamp” experiences in my last article, where I also promised to tell you how I survived university as a Christian student. Now it’s time to deliver on that promise. So, let me explain three types of personal foundations which fortified my faith to weather the battleground of secular university:

  1. Spiritual Foundations—a close personal walk with God:

    No student can ‘keep their faith’ in university unless they have their own faith in the first place. The point isn’t for youth to masquerade behind their families’ faith, but to cultivate vibrant personal relationships with God that colour their moment-to-moment lives right up through adulthood. And according to a study of 2,400 American youth, key factors which predict whether religious teens will keep their faith into adulthood include praying frequently, reading scripture consistently and making faith an important part of everyday life during teenagerhood.1

    In my own teen years, nothing kindled my desire to pursue God this way more than reading missionary biographies. Those stories of everyday people who witnessed God’s faithfulness in extraordinary ways made me want to know God like that myself, and to approach every aspect of life—even mundane-seeming schoolwork and summer jobs—as part of a greater mission with God. So, by the time I reached university, bringing God the daily challenges, assignments, exams, questions or doubts I faced felt natural. Challenges in university, then, became not wedges to drive me away from God, but winches to pull me closer to Him. By relying on God this way, giving Him my concerns, and making time with Him a non-negotiable part of university life, I could continue maintaining the spiritual foundations I’d begun to build as a teenager.

  2. Intellectual foundations—apologetics knowledge and critical thinking skills:

    As important as I found spiritual foundations to be, however, a close walk with God is only meaningful if His word is true. But in secular education, I encountered persistent, persuasive messages which told me that the Bible is fiction. That’s when I learned how critical it is for students to not only know what they believe, but also to be able to explain why they believe it.

    Enter apologetics, the logical defense of the Christian worldview. Apologetics equips students to be confident in their beliefs, to answer specific worldview questions, and to graciously defend and proclaim the gospel. It’s what Scripture mandates in 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV), exhorting believers to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

    For me, learning about apologetics from Answers in Genesis and other faith-building ministries as a teen proved invaluable for later defending my worldview against common attacks in university. For example, recognizing the difference between evolution and natural selection helped me understand how almost every example of observable evidence for “evolution” in my textbooks fit within—and even confirmed—a biblical perspective.

    But no matter how much apologetics I studied, I would always have another question. After all, no human can know everything! So, I often encountered faith-challenging information I’d never heard before. And that’s when I needed the other side of intellectual foundation-building: critical thinking skills.

    Critical thinking is all about evaluating messages to see whether they’re worth believing. One of the techniques I found to be most useful for doing this involved asking, “Is this message true or false because. . .”

    • Because my textbook said so?
    • Because my professor communicated it so eloquently?
    • Because all my classmates seemed to believe it?

    All these things can make a message sound persuasive—but none of them automatically make that message true.

How I learned to think about ‘facts’ that challenged my faith:

After four years of evaluating persuasive-sounding messages, I began to develop a system for critically processing any new ‘fact’ without draining hours of study time. First, when I heard information that seemed to contradict my worldview, I resolved not to panic. I knew God’s word is true; therefore, any message that conflicts with Scripture must be a lie. And on some levels, all lies have to fall apart.

With this in mind, I would put faith-challenging information in quotation marks when writing notes in class, to remind myself that it was just my professor’s explanation—not an absolute fact. Next, I would flip to the back of my notebook and write down my questions about the information. This physical record of my questions allowed me to follow up on finding answers later, which freed me from feeling like a weight of vague, unspecified evidence were accumulating against my beliefs.

Then when I had the chance, I would filter the information through a series of mental checkpoints I call the Seven Checks of Critical Thinking:

  1. Check Scripture: How does this message compare with what God’s word teaches?
  2. Check the challenge: Does the message conflict with a foundational doctrine issue in Scripture, like the existence of a historical Adam? Or, does it challenge something negotiable, like the number of magi who visited Christ?
  3. Check the source: Who is delivering this message? How credible are they? Is their worldview founded on God’s word or man’s word? Could they have other motives for saying this?
  4. Check the definitions: Are there any keywords in the message that might have more than one meaning? Do any of the words’ meanings subtly switch?
  5. Check for propaganda: Why does this message sound true? Is it trying to persuade by appealing to logic, or to something else like emotion, aesthetics, or the human desire for acceptance?
  6. Check the interpretations: Which parts of this message are facts from observational science, and which parts are interpretations from historical science?2 What assumptions are behind this explanation? What’s another way to explain these observations from a biblical perspective?
  7. Check the logic: Are there any other errors in reasoning that should make me think twice before believing this message?

This seven-step framework (which forms the backbone of one of the presentations I do when speaking to youth and young adults) helped me reach a biblical, logical response to almost all the faith-challenging information I encountered at university. But sometimes, I still had unresolved questions. That’s when I simply had to give God my question, to remember that He held the answer, and to trust Him even if He never revealed that answer to me.

Unanswered questions can be a devious faith-killer, but faith crises don’t start when Christians begin asking questions. They start when we give up on finding answers. And three great places to find answers include Scripture, solid apologetics resources, and godly mentors. That’s where the last type of personal foundation comes in.

  1. Interpersonal foundations – a strong Christian support network:

    Interpersonal Foundations involve students’ support network of Christian family, friends, churches and mentors. These connections are critical because humans are hardwired for relationships. Relationships, in turn, make up the multiple layers of social influences around us, ranging from our closest friends and family to our churches, schools, communities and cultures. So, students need to ensure that the strongest of these influences in their lives are godly ones.

    For example, I mentioned in my last article how I met Christian biologist Dr. Margaret Helder, who mentored me throughout high school and university. Even though we lived in different provinces, I’d visit her after each semester to ask her my unanswered questions, learn about relevant apologetics resources, and discuss science from a biblical perspective.

    Meanwhile at university, I connected with other Christians by plugging into campus ministries and a local church. Regularly meeting with likeminded students for prayer, encouragement and fun helped me thrive on campus, while reminding me that I was not alone in my biblical beliefs. Likewise, my church congregation supported me in countless ways, whether offering me rides, inviting me for meals, or praying for my exams.

    And speaking of prayer, I can also personally attest to the difference that praying parents can make for students! For instance, remember the email I received stating that students who didn’t accept evolution should reconsider taking that professor’s class? Well, before each of those lectures, I would text my dad to ask him to pray. We both understood the battlefield I was entering every class, but we also knew that one of our greatest weapons was prayer.

The moral of the story:

When I stepped onto the battlefield in secular university, I discovered the value of the three personal foundations I’d been building to fortify my faith. First, the spiritual foundation of an internalized walk with God helped me stay close to Christ throughout secular university. Second, the intellectual foundations of apologetics training and critical thinking skills helped me process every faith-challenging message I heard in class. Finally, interpersonal foundations including Christian mentors, peers, church and family lent me invaluable support, encouragement and prayer during the fight.

While these three foundations helped me keep my faith in secular university, they wouldn’t mean much beyond myself unless they could help other Christian students survive the battle too. So, after I graduated, I began to wonder how other Christian students kept their faith in secular education. How did my experiences at university compare to those of other Christian students in Canada—and around the world?

I didn’t know it yet, but that question was about to launch me on the wildest adventure of my life.

Stay tuned for Part 3!


  1. Smith, C., and Snell, P., Religious trajectories from the teenage years. In Souls in transition: The religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults (Illustrated ed.), Oxford University Press, New York, NY, pp. 211–256, 2009
  2. Observational science involves performing repeatable experiments, observations and measurements in the present, while historical science involves constructing a story about the past. For more information, check out https://answersingenesis.org/what-is-science/two-kinds-of-science/.


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