Bryan Caplan  

Education and Apostasy

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Bernanke and Poole on Secular ... My Review of Barbara Bergmann...
Intriguing and eloquent words from Uecker, Regnerus, and Vaaler ("Losing My Religion," Social Forces 2007):
Sociologists of religion have long linked educational attainment to religious decline (Caplovitz and Sherrow 1977; Hadaway and Roof 1988; Hunter 1983; Sherkat 1998). But the assumption that a college education is the reason for religious decline gathers little support here. Emerging adults who do not attend college are most prone to curb all three types of religiousness in early adulthood.Simply put, higher education is not the enemy of religiosity that so many have made it out to be. So if a college education is not the secularizing force we presumed it to be, what is going on?

Certainly many college students participate less in formal religious activities than they did as adolescents, but church attendance may take a hit simply because of factors that influence the lives of all emerging adults: the late-night orientation of young adult life; organized religion's emphasis on other age groups, namely school-aged youth and parents; and collective norms about appearing "too religious." (Smith and Denton 2005)

The overwhelming majority (82 percent) of college students maintain at least a static level of personal religiosity in early adulthood. Similarly, 86 percent retain their religious affiliation. For most, it seems religious belief systems go largely untouched for the duration of their education. Religious faith is rarely seen as something that could either influence or be influenced by the educational process. This is true for several reasons. First, some students have elected not to engage in the intellectual life around them. They are on campus to pursue an "applicable" degree, among other, more mundane pursuits, and not to wrestle with issues of morality or meaning. They instead stick to what they "need to know" -- that which will be on the exam. Such students are numerous, and as a result students' own religious faith (or lack of it) faces little challenge. Indeed, many university curricula are constructed to reward this type of intellectual disengagement... What is not contested, then, cannot be lost. Faith simply remains in the background of students' lives as a part of who they are, but not a part they talk about much with their peers or professors.

Second, while higher education opens up new worlds for students who apply themselves, it can, but does not often, create skepticism about old (religious) worlds, or at least not among most American young people, in part because students themselves do not perceive a great deal of competition between higher education and faith, and also because very many young Americans are so undersocialized in their religious faith (before college begins) that they would have difficulty recognizing faith-challenging material when it appears. And even if they were to perceive a challenge, many young people do not consider religion something worth arguing over.

On the other hand are devoutly religious college students. They arrive on campus expecting challenges and hostility to their religious perspectives. When they do not get it, they are pleasantly surprised; when they do, it merely meets their expectations and fits within their expected narrative about college life. Campus religious organizations anticipate such intellectual challenge and often provide a forum for like-minded students. In fact, college campuses are often less hostile to organized religious expression and its retention than are other contexts encountered by emerging adults, such as their workplaces. Campus religious organizations provide additional religious community to which non-students lack access. Furthermore, the arrival of postmodern, post-positivist thought on university campuses has served to legitimize religiosity and spirituality, even in intellectual circles. Together with heightened emphasis on religious tolerance and emerging emphases on spiritual development, antireligious hostility on campus may even be at a decades-long low.
"What is not contested, then, cannot be lost."  True enough.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)

Based on my own experience, nothing in college life in two very different countries had anything to do with my choice to reject my family's religious roots. College is an institution that, contrary to its own beliefs, is enormously invested in the status quo, which is yet directly or indirectly determined by organized religion and superstitions.
I lost my religion almost entirely autonomously, first through critical thinking at very early age, then through the self-teaching and contrasting of different philosophies and the moral codes of freethinkers (Voltaire, Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan come immediately to my mind), and finally by realizing that the first and most important step in the achievement of freedom happens at the personal level after the dismissal of all superstitions ("Gott ist tot").
Hence college had no significant role in this process, much on the contrary, it's where I could observe some of the most dangerous and active manifestations of close-mindedness in my lifetime.

Winton Bates writes:

Much the same story for political allegiance, I expect.

John B writes:

So 'college' is the only place people are educated is it?

And 'education' just means the academic stuff and not general understanding that scientific explanations exist for natural phenomena and one does not need superstition, magic and supernatural Beings to explain them?

Jameson writes:

This is certainly an interesting passage. However, commenter John B hints at what causes confusion while reading it. When most people think of the relationship between education and religious decline, they don't think of a large trend in all of society. They think of the fact that if you poll university professors, you will find a minority believe in God, while if you poll the general public you find a large majority believe in God.

Personally, I think the really interesting story in Western civilization is the decline in belief among intellectuals. The decline in belief among the general public is also there, but in many ways it matters quite little what the general public thinks if our intellectuals say otherwise. Faith that has no intellectual respectability will be banished to the confines of one's home, so that even true believers will be embarrassed to show it, and when they do show it, everyone will feel awkward or angry. Sound familiar?

Steve J writes:

@Jameson - the general public is not embarrassed by belief in the southern US. That intellectual elites do not believe in God has little relevance to the vast majority of people here.

Brad writes:

Steve J.

That is one thing I have found somewhat suprising. I grew up in the South and Religion was always an integral part of society. But what has suprised me how well it has held up even with the "elite"
in my current hometown of Raleigh.

Given the area of town I live in is populated by folks in the 90%+ income percentile, most with graduate degrees, and moderate/liberal political views it is amazing how prominent religion still is. In the network of families we met through my children's school I would guess at least 50% attend church regularly.

Like my peers I am moderatley religious so I fit right in, but given what I understand of national trends I find it suprising how well mainline protestantism is doing.

IVV writes:

"So if a college education is not the secularizing force we presumed it to be, what is going on?"

This wasn't answered.

I'd imagine that your typical holder of a graduate degree, however, has a generally stronger grasp of the underpinnings of the scientific method, knows how to internalize a moral code without environmental reinforcement, and has been exposed to more people of differing faiths, and have access to more powerful social circles that do not require a homogeneity of faith.

If you no longer need a religion to explain the world around you, teach you how to be a good person, and give you a position in a social circle, then your need for religion wanes.

Jameson writes:

Even in the South, believers have an intellectual inferiority complex. They might not care what the intelligentsia thinks, but in many ways this is a self-conscious rebellion against perceived power structures. Cf. the creationist movement and its portrayal of Darwinism as a conspiracy.

P.S. I live in the South.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I don't think it is that college results in a loss of religious faith. Only that the more intelligent often drift away from religion, and of course, most of those go to college. I think it is clear to many that the need for religion fails Occam's Razor, and this realization may hit about the time they go to college.

Of course this is only a general trend that makes the college educated less religious than the less educated. There are still several islands of strong religious belief in some highly educated areas, as discussed in posts above.

Admittedly, this is written from a biased viewpoint by someone who has been an atheist since high school, over 40 years ago.

Eric Rasmusen writes:

"Very many young Americans are so undersocialized in their religious faith (before college begins) that they would have difficulty recognizing faith-challenging material when it appears."

That is, people are ignorant...

"And even if they were to perceive a challenge, many young people do not consider religion something worth arguing over."

and closed-minded.

Both are just exacerbated by professors who are obviously biased and ignorant about religion, ad belittle it rather than giving arguments against it.

Fred Anderson writes:

@Mark V. Anderson and ". . . The need for religion fails Occam's Razor . . . ."
Maybe not.
While I'm too lazy to dig out the references just now, I know there are respectable students of evolution who have pointed out that, given our current understandings, the number of evolutionary steps required to get from carbon atoms to something so simple as an eyeball -- more particularly, the time needed for all those steps -- substantially exceeds what seems possible given the age of the universe.
(Somewhat in parallel, some have argued that perhaps the reason we have no evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations is that there aren't any. That Nature in billions -- perhaps trillions -- of tries only succeeded once. Here.)
Thus Darwinism, too, may be resorting to belief in the miraculous.
And (paraphrasing someone smarter than me) if you're going to believe in the miraculous, it's just simpler to imagine that lightning struck an oak tree and -- voila! -- Adam and Eve stepped forth fully formed.

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