Is University Killing Religion?

There is a common idea that universities and colleges are fertile grounds for secularisation, that they are often seen as responsible for young intellectuals’ lack of religiosity.

FiveThirtyEight has a really fascinating article that looks at this claim and sees that it doesn’t wholly add up.

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.

So whilst this seems to have once been a prevalent source of deconversion, it is no longer the case to its previous extent. I find it interesting that the age where it all seems to happen is as young as it is.

The article continues:

This all makes more sense when we consider that the early religious lives of young people are far different than they were for previous generations. Young people today have had much less robust religious experiences during their childhood than previous generations — only 41 percent of Millennials attended religious services with their family at least once a week, compared with 55 percent of Baby Boomers, according to a recent PRRI survey. Similarly, only 40 percent of Millennials attended Sunday school or some other religious education program weekly, a much more common experience among Baby Boomers (62 percent reported at least weekly participation).

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.

College kids do tend to be less religious than those not educated in the same arena but this does not mean it is necessarily the cause of that lack of religiosity or of some large amount of deconversion.

College-educated Americans, for example, are afforded greater economic opportunity and as a result are more mobile. As The Upshot has noted, even as the overall frequency with which Americans move has declined, young college graduates are relocating at a brisk pace: “About a million cross state lines each year, and these so-called young and the restless don’t tend to settle down until their mid-30s.” This complicates the task of finding, joining and establishing roots in a religious community. College graduates are also more likely to live in diverse social settings, such as cities, which have greater religious diversity and higher concentrations of nonreligious people. This type of social context is associated with lower rates of religious adherence. As a result, unaffiliated Americans with a college education tend to have more secular people in their immediate social network, reinforcing nonreligious habits and helping maintain a secular worldview.3

Even as unaffiliated Americans are increasingly marrying their own, there is an enduring educational divide. According to the General Social Survey, religiously unaffiliated Americans with a college education are about twice as likely to be married as those with no more than a high school degree. But more importantly, secular Americans with a college education are far more likely to marry someone who shares their nonreligious outlook and identity. Seventy percent of secular college graduates have married someone who is also secular, while 49 percent of those with less formal education have a secular spouse. If marriage and having children have been the primary gateway back into the religious fold, secular coupling precludes that possibility.

Tropes still persist that (particularly IS) colleges are anti-theist nests of secular vipers – you only have to see Christian films such as God’s Not Dead (and it has a sequel…). As ever with social science and statistics, the devil is in the detail, and it is always much more complex than we might like to paint it.

For a great synopsis of the nonreligious, check the awesome book by Galen and Zuckerman: The Nonreligious.

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