Are Americans Leaving Faith Because of Universities?

538 says No

In a speech last week at an Alabama university, Donald Trump Jr. alternately mocked and ridiculed the culture of college campuses that teach students to “hate their religion” and “hate their country” — places where the moral teachings of the Bible are held up as “hate speech.” Trump Jr.’s impassioned condemnation of campus politics and college professors has become an increasingly common refrain in conservative politics, particularly among the conservative Christian wing. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum railed against the indoctrination occurring on college campuses (and used an errant statistic to buttress his claim). A year earlier, Newt Gingrich similarly accused college professors of undermining the Christian values of the Founding Fathers.

But it’s not a new critique.

Of all the many criticisms weathered by institutions of higher learning, none has been as difficult to shake as the claim that a college education adversely affects religiosity. Colleges and universities have long been accused of subverting the religious commitments of their students. One of the most prominent early critics of college education was the evangelical populist William Jennings Bryan. At a 1921 address at the University of Wisconsin, Bryan accused the university’s president of promoting atheism, and he suggested that a warning label be affixed to university classrooms, stating: “Our classrooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women.” Armed with anecdotes and a 1916 study — which asserted that over four years, students would “gradually abandon the cardinal Christian beliefs” — Bryan barnstormed the country decrying the malevolent forces of higher education.

But if Bryan was worried that the content of college classrooms would create a generation of atheists, his fears were largely unfounded. Though the U.S. is becoming less religious, college curricula have little or nothing to do with it. A recent study found that 24 percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, including 38 percent of young adults. But these changes are occurring at a much earlier age than Bryan or other critics imagined. Most young people who wind up leaving their religious commitments do so before ever stepping foot on campus.

UCLA’s Freshman Survey, an annual study of first-time students at 184 U.S. colleges and universities, found that 31 percent of incoming freshmen are religiously unaffiliated, a threefold increase since 1986, when just 10 percent identified this way.1 Religious attendance is also falling precipitously among incoming students.

The findings from the UCLA survey are consistent with another recent survey by PRRI, which found that most Americans who have left their childhood religion did so before reaching adulthood. Seventy-nine percent of young adults age 18 to 29 who have become religiously unaffiliated report having made this decision during their adolescent and teen years. But this was not always the case. Those age 65 or older who left their childhood religion reported doing so much later: Only 38 percent who reported leaving their religion did so during their childhood years. The majority (63 percent) of unaffiliated senior citizens left during their college and post-college years. …

Moreover, a bevy of recent academic work casts doubt on the idea that college experience directly undermines religious identity (even if the studies do not all come to precisely the same conclusion). A pair of University of Texas sociologists argue that “the religious belief systems of most students go largely untouched for the duration of their education.” They suggest that, instead, students’ religious lives lie dormant, “waiting to be awakened” upon graduation. Another study found that while education did seem to have a negative impact on religiosity at one point, this is no longer the case. Still other research suggests that religious values neither increase nor decrease so much as they are “reexamined, refined and incorporated” with other beliefs….

Despite the steady accumulation of countervailing evidence, the stereotype of the religion-hating professor lives on in Christian culture. Nearly 100 years after Bryan set out on his crusade against the specter of coercive college education, conservative Christians still fear the secularizing power of atheist faculty. Christian films such as “God’s Not Dead” reinforce the narrative of anti-religious faculty strong-arming students into renouncing their beliefs. White evangelical Protestants remain highly distrustful of academics — a recent Pew survey found that only 33 percent of white evangelicals feel warmly toward college professors.

But fully understanding the effect of a college education on religion requires us to account for the many ways the lives of college-educated Americans differ from those without. Still, for now, it’s safe to say it’s not the professors.

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