How Christian students practice their faith at university

Picture by Luca Baggio

In the second article of her series, Laura Illeris introduces us to some of the Christian university students living in Amsterdam. What are their perspective on issues such as the debate on science and religion? And how do they deal with questions and struggles regarding their faith? “Science is for the brain and religion is for the heart.”

Christian churches in the Netherlands face several issues related to declining religious affiliation. When it comes to young people and students, the church struggles to attract them in the first place. At the same time, experts such as Thijl Sunier, professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit, say that this idea, that religion is disappearing from our society, is simply wrong.

So, who are the young Christians of Amsterdam and what is it like to be young and religious in such a diverse yet secular place? Meet Jenneken Schouten, Sarah Ashworth, and Evianne Rovers: three faithful students in the Dutch capital.

Three different paths to one destination

Jenneken Schouten. Picture by Haya Yousef

For Jenneken Schouten, 24, religion is everywhere in what she does. She grew up going to church with her parents and eventually began studying in Leiden where she joined a Christian student association. Nowadays, she is living in a Christian student home in Amsterdam, and attends church every week, whilst praying and reading the Bible every day. For her, religion brings both clarity and a sense of belonging.

Sarah Ashworth, 19, was raised in a Christian household, but growing up found herself with “one foot in each world,” defending the views of both religious and nonreligious people. She began exploring her faithful side, but once at university was suddenly without any religious community and stopped being active in exploring her faith. Eventually, in a state of distress over her lack of dedication, she attempted to stop believing for one week to see if it would sway her one way or the other. During this week she experienced several meaningful encounters, such as running into students from her university that were looking for someone to attend church with, and stumbling upon a gospel music concert by accident, convincing her that she should reconnect with her faith.

Science is for the brain,
Religion is for the heart

Evianne Rovers. Picture by Laura Illeris

Unlike the others, Evianne Rovers, 20, grew up in a nonreligious household. She converted to Christianity at the age of sixteen after discovering that religion was the only effective force in coping with severe phobias that she had struggled with throughout her life. Her mother was skeptical when she learned that her daughter was starting to attend church and warned her not to “get infected”, but has since accepted her decision.

Leading a life guided by faith as these students do in a higher education context, can sometimes be challenging as many in this day and age of declining religious affiliation  have misconceptions about what it means to be religious. One such misconception is that science and faith do not go together, and that therefore highly educated people generally are not religious.

Science and faith 

For those of us who grow up in completely secular surroundings, lack of exposure to religion and the people who practice it might lead to the view that science and faith exclude each other. If we don’t believe it can be hard to wrap our heads around having faith in something that cannot be seen and cannot be proven.

Sarah Ashworth. Picture by Laura Illeris

Many Christian students are disappointed when they come across the view that faith and science are contradictory. In fact, many are studying sciences themselves, such as Rovers and Ashworth who study bio-medical sciences and physics respectively. Ashworth sees the view as stemming from the misconception that in faith there is no room for criticism. The view is not accurate according to most of the Christian students who say that while there are certain core principles of Christianity, there are also many peripheral issues where there is room for interpretation.

Christina Keßler, 21, who was raised Catholic but now considers herself agnostic also sees the view that science and faith are mutually exclusive as too simplistic. She explains that “science deals with the material world, and religion does not.” According to her, science tries to expand the realm of what we can explain, but there are subjects that science does not deal with. Daan Schalkwijk, a Catholic biology professor at Amsterdam University College, and members of Ashworth’s Bible study group agree that science and faith are two different fields. One Bible study group member adds that she thinks science is for the brain and religion is for the heart.

Believing is a form of knowledge

Some admit that within some Christian communities, there are points of tension between the Bible and what science can prove today. However, only one of the interviewed people seriously struggled with reconciling a scientific interpretation and her personal interpretation of the Bible. Schouten feels that science is very inconstant. “Every time there is a different theory and people look at things differently,” she says, whereas she finds solace in that the Bible has remained the same for thousands of years and that God is always the same. According to her, this makes the Bible more trustworthy and reliable.

Ultimately, the most common advice to those who are curious as to whether science and faith are compatible is simply to investigate the matter themselves. Schalkwijk encourages this in his booklet “Can I, a Scientific Student, Believe?” The booklet  describes his own journey from being prejudiced against very religious people as a teenager, to becoming interested in the Catholic faith and having to find out whether science is compatible with faith. Now, he recommends others to do what he was advised to do at the time: “If you want to know how faith and science combine, and you know what science is, you need to learn what the faith is, for believing is a form of knowledge.”

Searching for answers 

Noorderkerk (Amsterdam). Picture by Haya Yousef

Where then do people seek this knowledge? When faced with questions regarding her faith Ashworth says that she was unsure of where to express her questions. “I did not want the answers I got to already be predetermined depending on who I talked to,” she explains. Her solution so far has been turning to other young people. Before university she studied texts with other young people from her church where she learned to think critically and reflect on meaning. Now, she has founded the Bible study group which serves a similar purpose.

One person working for Navigators, a Christian student association with 3,500 members across the Netherlands, sees a similar trend and believes that many students feel more comfortable deliberating with fellow students in the same situation, rather than looking directly to the church for answers.

Despite the common assumption that religion is the easy way out and that its followers accept all doctrines without question, all the Christian students were very open about the struggles and questions that they have encountered regarding their faith. As young university students, most are still grappling with all of life’s questions both big and small.

So while there may be differences in beliefs between Christian and non-Christian university students, they do not necessarily run as deep as we might think. Naturally, there is also diversity to be found among Christian students in what and why they believe. They, however, remain united by a desire to seek out knowledge, both spiritual and otherwise.


This is the second article of a series on faithful students in Amsterdam. Read the first article for an introduction to the state of religion among the youth of the capital city, or continue reading with the third article on Judaism and the struggles young Jews are facing.