College makes you an atheist, Kirk Cameron is right!

I watched this rather bizarre Kirk Cameron video today. He's promoting a plan to distribute Origin of Species with what seems to be a scurrilous preface to college students. His argument is that college students need to know the truth about evolution. I don't know how far he'll get, but I suspect many people will be favorably inclined, most college students are impressionable and dumb, and a non-trivial subset will probably reconsider their nominal acceptance of evolution. I only think back to an acquaintance who was a computer science major, and raised irreligious by his anthropologist father, who began to "question what he'd been taught about evolution" after he started hanging out with some evangelical guys (it was random, his roommate was a fan of the same fantasy author).

In any case, I am posting because I was curious about something: are college students becoming more secular? Cameron offers that data in his rambling presentation. We know that young people in general are becoming more secular, but are college students disproportionately more represented in this trend? I decided to look in the GSS.

The GOD variable has 6 classes:

-Don't Believe
-No Way To Find Out
-Some Higher Power
-Believe Sometimes
-Believe, But Doubts
-Know God Exists

I aggregated the first two as "Atheists & Agnostics. The year data is spotty, and I wanted to increase sample sizes, so these are the years I combined:

1988, 1991
1993, 1994
1998, 2000
2006, 2008

In regards to education, I created two variables, "Non-College" and "College or Higher."

Finally, I wanted to look at young people. So I limited the sample to ages 18 to 35.

Is Kirk Cameron correct?

Tentatively, I think there's something to what he's saying. The two graphs below show the trends in the two extreme categories. It is clear college students are more affected. The sample sizes are small, so take with caution (the difference between the earliest and latest year classes seems statistically significant though for college educated).


Is this because of selection effects? I'm moderately skeptical. The GSS shows that college students are getting dumber since the 1970s, probably because college is becoming necessary for even the dumb to obtain non-manual jobs. These results are plausible to me because poking around the GSS it is clear that degree attainment has a very strong independent effect on many attitudes independent of intelligence. That is, in many ways dumb college graduates resemble smart college graduates more than either do to dumb or smart high school graduates. On the other hand, it seems likely that the young were more secular to begin with (other surveys point to this) even before they reached college, and may be that secular vs. religious is sorting along college vs. non-college lines more than it did in earlier eras. Perhaps seculars are much more likely to live in areas where college is the new high school, while the religious tend to concentrate in regions where high school educations have more value in the labor market.

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I attended a debate years ago at my campus, Micheal Shermer
vs. Hugh Ross ( Old earth Creationist).
I remember Mr. Shermer pulling out a few graphs and statistics showing a direct correlation between education levels and decrease religiosity.

There is a correlation & causation between education/intelligence & religiosity/superstition. The more an individual knows about the mechanics of this world and the universe, the less likely they are to assign aspects of it to the god(s).

Compare the graduating scientist to the bushman in the wilderness, then compare & contrast all the way to the middle.

There is a reason the religious extremists in the Middle East takeover every school established there. The best way to combat fundamentalists is through education.

By Mr. Green (not verified) on 23 Sep 2009 #permalink

College should make students atheist. Hell, reading should make them atheist.

But there is a gap between what should work and what does. ;-)

In my University (located in Kentucky) there was not as much talk or quarrelling about this. Most of the professors were not so vocal about this topic except those who were Atheists. You could also spot those professors by taking their class, looking at their car bumpers, or by looking at their office. I did not major in anything that needed science beyond the basics and I got those at a community college before moving to the university. I am very glad that I didn't have to sit through all this fanatical rubbish. (note: I think some evolution can happen, just not changes from one species to another.)

I almost forgot, one of those Atheists had a poster outside his office that was a quote from a member of the GOP about the more education a person has the more likley they are to be a liberal. I wanted to rip it off the wall. That's mainly why I remembered it.

Razib, in what way are college students becoming dumber? I have no doubt that they are, I am just curious about the details.
I totally agree with your contention that a non-trivial subset of college students will soon hear this bullshit and "convert" to creationist or "teach the controversy" moron. But I also think that using evolution denial as a "wedge issue" will turn out to be a bad move by the Republican Right. The Republican party has always had a non-trivial percentage of rationalists who go along with all the end-of-times nonsense and other evangelical tropes because the evangelicals are such a reliable vote-bank. But while its possible to meld the apocalypse with foreign policy objectives that someone may wish to support anyway (like supporting Israeli occupation or grabbing oil rich medieval kleptocracies), its going to be difficult to keep the lunatic fringe in check once Kirk Cameron and Ben Stein really get going. Its going to become an almighty embarrassment at some point, especially if it starts to have a real impact on science education. Do you think this trend will actually "harm science" in the US at some point or do you think this will be just another superstition that computer majors and liberty law school grads can "believe in" without it having an iota of impact on the actual practice of science in the biology department?

Just because you go to college doesn't mean you're smarter it just means you're more educated. Look at George W. Bush for example he went to college and he's still stupid, just like Kirk Cameron. Knowlege is the substance of intelligence, but wisdom is it's essence. You can't cure stupid.

If one wants to base their truths on beliefs as oppose to basing their beliefs on truth then who is the fool?
Knowlege and wisdom are the subjects to the nobility of truth, so if thy caution thyself not to be the fool and thy have a boastful tongue let it be that which rest upon thy head the Crown of Truth.

By Eupraxsophy (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink