According to Inside Higher Ed, that’s what sociologists found when analyzing data from a longitudinal study of more than 10,000 young Americans. Those who went to college were more likely to remain religious than those who didn’t attend college, with 76% of the non-college group reporting a decline in attending religious services, compared to only 59% of those who attended college. As one of the authors notes, this goes against conventional wisdom:

“Actually we’ve just been wrong about this for quite a while,” said Mark D. Regnerus, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the authors of a new study that suggests students who attend and graduate from college are more likely than others to hold on to their faith.

It’s not that colleges necessarily encourage faith, he said, but for all the talk about how intellectuals are out to destroy students’ relationships to their religions and God, the main obstacles to such relationships have to do with maturing and how young people spend their time. “Some kids were bound to lose [their faith] anyway and they do,” Regnerus said. But the evidence suggests that college isn’t responsible.

They do have some findings about factors that reliably push students away from religion, though:

Behavioral factors, he said, are a better way than college status to predict whether young adults will become less religious. Those who don’t have sex before marriage are also those who don’t experience as much of a drop in religious connection. Those who have smoked pot experience more of a drop. Those who increase alcohol consumption during their young adulthood experience more of a drop in religious connection.

Clearly, militant atheists need to spend less time on education, and more time on the critical task of getting college students stoned and laid. Woo! Par-tay!

Kidding aside, there are a whole bunch of factors that could be at work here that might provide alternative explanations for the results. Many of these are probably addressed in the actual study, but I don’t have access to that so I can’t check, but here’s a partial list of suggestions:

  • There are a couple of “chicken and egg” arguments possible, for example, it might be that religious students who attend college are more committed to their religion than those who don’t. Or they might be better prepared for college, and more likely to graduate.
  • You could also have a “chicken and egg” problem in the other direction, with those who didn’t go to college starting out at a higher level of religiosity as measured by things like church attendance, and thuse being hit harder by work responsibilities. A C&E Catholic (that is, one who attends Mass on Christmas and Easter) who remains a C&E Catholic through college would represent no loss of religious committment, while an evangelical who has to work weekends is more likely to register a drop in church attendance.
  • There could be a selection bias problem– there are a lot of religious colleges and universities out there, and it’s conceivable that they’re overrepresented in some way.
  • There could be a problem of sample sizes– if the college-bound group is much larger or smaller than the non-college group, then the results might be a statistical fluctuation. That’s not terribly likely with a starting sample of 10,000, but weirder things have happened.

I’m sure there are others that the bright folks hereabouts can come up with. Anyway, whether the results are flawed or not, it’s food for thought.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    June 14, 2007

    Since it’s a religious study, the first thing that comes to mind is that the researchers Lied For Jebus. I’m just saying, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see the study compromised in some form by a creo.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    June 14, 2007

    Since it’s a religious study, the first thing that comes to mind is that the researchers Lied For Jebus.

    That’s a pretty serious accusation, and not something I’d throw around lightly.

    The lead author, Mark Regnerus is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, which despite being located in Texas is not noted as a bastion of wingnuttery. He’s a member of a number of respectable scholarly groups, and has won national awards for his work on the sociology of religion.

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to dismiss him out of hand as a lying kook because his findings are surprising.

  3. #3 John Novak
    June 14, 2007

    All I can say is, wow, that’s completely at odds with my anecdotal experience of college. (And I don’t just mean my personal experience of breaking with the Church, I mean my anecdotal observational experience of watching others at a small college.)

    (I’m also not sure that J-Dog’s chain of logic follows. If education leads away from religion, wouldn’t the truly hyper-religious play up that fear to scare people away from religion? Otherwise, they’re lying in a direction that encourages education, and therefore by implication discourages religion? Seems to me if you’re going to call someone a liar, you could at least think through the logic.)

  4. #4 catswym
    June 14, 2007

    my theory is that it’s because colleges have lots of religious groups dedicated to keeping religious students religious.

    you go to college–you’re looking for friends and a group with which to feel comfortable. so you join your particular religious group. that, in turn, keeps you in the religious ‘pattern’–going to church, abstaining from sex, not partying and doing drugs.

    if you’re not in college and just attending a church (or church equivalent) there is not as much of a “support system” there to keep you entrenched in those beliefs.

  5. #5 Mike Bruce
    June 14, 2007

    All I can say is, wow, that’s completely at odds with my anecdotal experience of college.

    Both groups showed a pretty large drop. So, that lots of college-going people experience a decline in religiousity doesn’t preclude even more non-college-going people from doing so, right?

  6. #6 RyanG
    June 14, 2007

    I had no decline in church attendance when I went to college, simply because I hadn’t attended church in years. People who go to college could start out less religious and so not have as much room to drop.

    It’s telling that the article does not mention what level church attendance is at, only the percentage of decline.

  7. #7 Jonathan
    June 14, 2007

    it might be that religious students who attend college are more committed to their religion than those who don’t. Or they might be better prepared for college, and more likely to graduate.
    This seems to me to be the explanation with the most meat behind it. For all the emphasis on intelligence, college majors always require a level of commitment and scheduling of time. Those who never miss a church service (I would wildly speculate) would not miss too many lectures.
    Going back a step, that kind of commitment to whatever they are engaged in would also be a strong predictor of doing homework/higher H.S. GPA, a high level of involvement in extracurricular clubs & activities – in other words getting in to college and getting it paid for.

  8. #8 J-Dog
    June 14, 2007

    Chad and John… I am disappointed that my “humor” is underappreciated! I thought it was obvious that my “Lied For Jebus” comment was a slight at the Truly Religious(TM) that do, indeed Lie For Jebus(TM).

    I do see that my words however could be misconstrued, and since I did not add the (TM), I can understand your comments. My intent was not to impugn Mark Regnerus, just have some fun, but I can see your point, and will be more careful in the future.

    Regarding John’s “Logic” comment(s): Duh! are your really trying to claim that The Truly Religious(TM) have a logic train? Follow up: Since when?

  9. #9 jim
    June 14, 2007

    I don’t think anyone’s lying. They didn’t create the data, in the first place. But people do find things that concord with their prejudices. Experimental physicists, I’m told, spend a lot of time making sure that the way they structured the data didn’t unconsciously reflect the result they wanted to get out of it. Social scientists aren’t always so conscientious.

    We don’t have the paper itself. It’s forthcoming. So all we have to go on is the data in the table in the IHE article. There are two odd things about that data. (1) If you ignore the church attendance data (and I’ll suggest later why you might think that misleading), it would appear that the mere fact of setting foot in a college, any sort of college, community colleges, too, helps preserve faith. The big gap is between those who didn’t attend college and those who did, however briefly. Which is hard to find a cause for. (2) Three of the categories are described positively: attended college, earned an AA, earned a BA; the fourth, the category with the anomalous data, is described negatively: didn’t attend college. Note this isn’t “graduated high school, but didn’t attend college.” It’s just “didn’t attend college.” So two educational groups are being bundled into that category: high school dropouts and high school graduates who went straight to work. It’s certainly possible that the real drop in religious faith is among those who dropped out of high school but the categorization hides that fact. That’s the hypothesis I’d start to work with, rather than try to find a reason that setting foot on a college grounds automatically preserves faith.

    Finally, why are the numbers on church attendance suspect? Look at the characterizations. I assume that disaffiliated from religion and religion of less importance are disjoint (if they aren’t then the only college graduates for whom religion is less important are those who disaffiliated entirely), but that decline in church attendance is inclusive of the other two categories. That is, there’s a group of people who still think religion is as important to them as it was, but they now don’t go to church as much. How big is that group? Well, subtract out: didn’t attend: 32.2%, some college: 40.6%, AA: 30.8%, BA: 29.2%. Looks like noise to me.

  10. #10 John Novak
    June 14, 2007

    Regarding John’s “Logic” comment(s): Duh! are your really trying to claim that The Truly Religious(TM) have a logic train? Follow up: Since when?

    Yes. I know you’re joking, but even Young Earth Creationists, while stupid in some aspects, are generally not Stupid With A Capital S. More accurately, it’s not even small s stupidity, per se, as a set of particular pernicious and tenacious mental blinders.

    If they were Capital S Stupid in all things, they’d be no threat to anyone.

  11. #11 ebohlman
    June 14, 2007

    A few thoughts in no particular order:

    College attendance is correlated with class, race, and increasingly gender. Were such demographic factors controlled for?

    Students who don’t go to college generally become financially independent of their parents a few years earlier than those who do. Maybe parents who are paying for part of a kid’s education have more leverage to require him/her to participate in religious activities (doesn’t require an actual threat; kid might think he/she “owes it” to his parents).

    Amplifying on Jim’s observations that the non-college group includes dropouts: a lot of kids drop out of high school because they’re GLBT or otherwise socially non-conforming and treated as outcasts because of it. About 20% of dropouts say they did so because the work wasn’t challenging enough (that’s twice as many as said they did so because the work was too difficult for them; the latter 10% are really kids who fell through the cracks of the special-education system). Those two groups are probably more likely to “lose their religion” especially if it’s an authoritarian one. Another group of kids (mostly poor) drops out because they don’t see themselves as having much of a future; they’re probably likely to have a low commitment to anything. Another common reason for dropping out is teenage pregnancy; if a girl’s faith condemns or rejects her for getting pregnant, she’s likely to reject it.

  12. #12 Chris Hallquist
    June 14, 2007

    From anecdotal experience as a college student, I suspect campus religious organizations play a big role. Campus Crusade is an organization for turning the nominally religious into deranged fanatics as much as anything (it helps that they aren’t too loud about their fundamentalism).

  13. #13 AxelDC
    June 14, 2007

    One key sign of intelligence is your desire to question truths and challenge postulates. Intelligent people are always more likely to change religions because they are more interested in learning and more intellectually ambitious.

    This does not necessarily lead to atheism, but since few people are raised atheist, most atheists “converted” at some point by challenging the belief systems they were born into.

    I was born and raised Mormon, attended church all throughout college (BYU), and became an agnostic after I left. I’ve never once smoked pot and I didn’t drink once until after college. Your assumptions that college students are a bunch of slacker potheads who lose faith because of their laziness are based on your own biases and not on emperical evidence.

  14. #14 AxelDC
    June 14, 2007

    One key sign of intelligence is your desire to question truths and challenge postulates. Intelligent people are always more likely to change religions because they are more interested in learning and more intellectually ambitious.

    This does not necessarily lead to atheism, but since few people are raised atheist, most atheists “converted” at some point by challenging the belief systems they were born into.

    I was born and raised Mormon, attended church all throughout college (BYU), and became an agnostic after I left. I’ve never once smoked pot and I didn’t drink once until after college. Your assumptions that college students are a bunch of slacker potheads who lose faith because of their laziness are based on your own biases and not on emperical evidence.

  15. #15 JordanT
    June 14, 2007

    “About 20% of dropouts say they did so because the work wasn’t challenging enough”

    I think that’s just dropouts lying to themselves. Easier to make yourself believe “this is too easy” rather than “this is too hard”

  16. #16 Mark Borok
    June 14, 2007

    When I went to college, coming from an atheistic background and a secular part of the country, I encountered a lot more religious people than I did back home.

    Is it possible that students from less-religious backgrounds have their religious identity reinforced by encountering peers from more-religious parts of the country?

  17. #17 DavyChuck
    June 14, 2007

    You really can’t draw conclusions from this unless you know the details and study design. Personally, I wouldn’t even respond without a look at the raw data. When “surveys” get reported in the media, they seem to make sure that you CANNOT draw your own conclusions. They withold all of this critical data.

    As other posters have said, we must be given the resources to determine where there might be survey bias.

    Finally, the very idea that religiosity is correlated in a causitive way with intelligence is presposterous. They are different subjects, different temperaments, and utterly unrelated.

  18. #18 Dervin
    June 14, 2007

    There’s been a lot of good theories thrown around – and there’s a million ways to look at the data.

    My guess is the college groups it’s binary, religious or not-religious nothing in between. Late night philosophical discussions will lead you into a conscious choice. Where the non-college groups just did what their parents did and slide away.

  19. #19 Chad Orzel
    June 14, 2007

    Chad and John… I am disappointed that my “humor” is underappreciated! I thought it was obvious that my “Lied For Jebus” comment was a slight at the Truly Religious(TM) that do, indeed Lie For Jebus(TM).

    You may have intended it as a joke, but there are people around here who would seriously take that position, and I thought it was important to stomp on that as quickly as possible.

    Finally, why are the numbers on church attendance suspect? Look at the characterizations. I assume that disaffiliated from religion and religion of less importance are disjoint (if they aren’t then the only college graduates for whom religion is less important are those who disaffiliated entirely), but that decline in church attendance is inclusive of the other two categories. That is, there’s a group of people who still think religion is as important to them as it was, but they now don’t go to church as much. How big is that group? Well, subtract out: didn’t attend: 32.2%, some college: 40.6%, AA: 30.8%, BA: 29.2%. Looks like noise to me.

    That’s an interesting point. Of course, the same basic pattern holds for the “less important” and “disaffiliated” groups– that is, those who attend college are less likely to report a drop in religious activity. The effect isn’t as big, but neither are the absolute numbers, and the trend is the same.

    From anecdotal experience as a college student, I suspect campus religious organizations play a big role.

    Could be.
    I’m a little dubious, but I guess it depends on what the non-college group is doing. If they’re staying where they were raised, I would expect them to remain plugged in to the same social and religious groups they grew up with, which you would think would keep them in the faith. If they mostly move away, they could easily become unmoored in a way that college students don’t.

    I was born and raised Mormon, attended church all throughout college (BYU), and became an agnostic after I left. I’ve never once smoked pot and I didn’t drink once until after college. Your assumptions that college students are a bunch of slacker potheads who lose faith because of their laziness are based on your own biases and not on emperical evidence.

    For the record, this is not my assumption. I spend my days surrounded by college students, and only a small number of them are slacker potheads. Most of them are bright and engaging young people who are fun to be around. I know next to nothing about their religious faith, because the subject rarely comes up in physics classes.

    “About 20% of dropouts say they did so because the work wasn’t challenging enough”

    I think that’s just dropouts lying to themselves. Easier to make yourself believe “this is too easy” rather than “this is too hard”

    What Jordan said.

    You really can’t draw conclusions from this unless you know the details and study design. Personally, I wouldn’t even respond without a look at the raw data. When “surveys” get reported in the media, they seem to make sure that you CANNOT draw your own conclusions. They withold all of this critical data.

    To be fair, I don’t think this is any sort of conspiracy. Academic journals tend to be a little possessive about the papers that they publish, because if you could get all the data from the media reports, why would you subscribe to the journal?

  20. #20 Tom Rees
    June 15, 2007

    Come on guys – it’s obvious that it’s differences in baseline characteristics. Survey after survey has shown that religious attendance is much stronger among families who are poor and ill-educated – this link is especially strong in the US, where wealth differentials are greater than in other wealthy nations.

    The economically secure middle class – those who send their kids to college – don’t go to church to start with (not nearly as much, anyway). How can you stop doing something you’re already not doing???

  21. #21 A Hermit
    June 15, 2007

    I think Tom Rees above may have hit on it; college attenders may start out less religious to begin with.

    Or, as Atrios points out, “colleges generally have plenty of social/religious groups and activities for people to belong to and participate in.” so there’s actually a lot more peer support for those who enter college with a religious affiliation than for someone who goes straight from school to work.

    Probably a little of both.

  22. #22 Chad Orzel
    June 15, 2007

    The economically secure middle class – those who send their kids to college – don’t go to church to start with (not nearly as much, anyway). How can you stop doing something you’re already not doing???

    I would be moderately surprised if they hadn’t accounted for that (which is fairly trivial– you restrict your sample to those students attending college who report a substantial level of religious activity before college). It’s not completely inconceivable– all sorts of idiotic things have been done to statistics in academia, after all– but that’s such an obvious flaw that you’d think they’d try to address it in the structure of their study.

    Again, it comes back to the issue of not having access to the actual study. The journal in question isn’t on-line, so that’s not going to get answered any time soon. I’ll try to remember to look for the article in my copious free time, though.

  23. #23 Neil B.
    June 15, 2007

    This is what I said at Washington Monthly, where Kevin discusses the same issue:
    One thing, unbelievable to many of the materialist/humanists, is that once you appreciate the anthropic fine-tuning issues, the implications of modal realism, etc. then it is actually rather credible (not a proof, of course) to believe in a Ground of Being behind this (and maybe other universe/s.) (You’ll have to read Paul Davies’ The Mind of God or Mortimer Adler to get a good scoop on the high-end argument.) Also, educated people like to connect to “spirituality” in some sense, like my Unitarian Universalist buddies. We can imagine spirituality in various ways, regardless of whether we reify it in familiar ways or not.