Religion and faith are an integral part of many people’s lives and have shaped the modern world. Christianity largely influenced western society as this religion was practiced by the majority of colonial powers. As the church and state were tightly intertwined through the development of western society, religious ideology had an impact on government, politics and education. Church financing of learning institutions undoubtedly imposed ideological alignment with the church, but scientific thinking eventually shifted this. Of course, Christianity is not the only religion followed globally, but it has had the largest influence on the development of the modern university. Since then, globalization has brought a diverse range of religions and world views together, especially on university campuses.

The role of religion in the establishment of the University began with the colonial period at the end of the 15th century. Pre-dating western universities, establishments termed studia generalia arose out of places of study for clerks and monks affiliated with Catholicism and Buddhism. The modern university was established at the peak of Catholicism in Europe, when the Church and state were still tightly intertwined. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the church played a substantial role in the infancy of these educational institutions. In fact, a central role of the papacy was the granting of a charter to a university. Due to financing by the church, teaching at these universities had to abide by the views of Catholicism or Protestantism. By the 17thcentury, the defense of religious doctrines in higher teaching began to impede progress that was fueled by a new interest in science in western society. Due to an unwillingness to change or adapt, Church-funded universities began to decline. Impediment of science by religious doctrine or traditions had a significant theme in the development of the world we know today. For most early scientific discoveries, evidence not only had to be provided but an argument against creation by God also had to be made. Fear of being shunned by the Church triggered a rejection of science. However, without science, teaching in universities could only go so far as to preach already-established doctrines, so innovation lulled. The first modern university to abandon religious doctrine in teaching was founded in Halle, Germany in 1694. Lectures were given in German, rather than Latin, and objective thinking was encouraged. Gradually, universities shifted to teaching the scientific method and examining current beliefs with rigor and impartiality. Religion faded as the dominant force in society, reducing financial dependence of the university on the church. The University of Berlin, founded in 1809, was the first to completely re-place religious doctrine with laboratory investigation and critical examination.

Universities in Europe and North America today are home to religiously diverse global communities of people. However, religion no longer has a large financial or ideological influence on these institutions. Looking back at the history of how universities were established can teach us lessons on how to create a better future. It’s important that education remains objective as to not favor the agenda of a specific organization or group of people. Moreover, objective education allows for the inclusion of people from all backgrounds.


1.          Mayrl, D. & Uecker, J. E. Higher education and religious liberalization among young adults. Soc. Forces 90, 181–208 (2011).

2.           Colleges and Universities with Religious Affiliations – Characteristics, Relationships, Leadership and Control, Issues for the Future – Church, Education, University, and United – Available at:

3.           The Catholic Church and the Creation of the University. Available at:

4.           Education – Europe in the Middle Ages | Britannica. Available at:

5.           The roots of the modern university – Manchester Historian. Available at:

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Marie-Christine Perry

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