Students Continue to Believe

It has long been conventional wisdom that the increased education results in reduced adherance to faith. A new study by several sociologists at the University of Texas suggests that this conventional wisdom is wrong. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which tracked more than 10,000 Americans from adolescence through young adulthood from 1994 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2002, the researchers found that students who attend and graduate from college are more likely than others to hold on to their faith.

As Inside Higher Ed reports:

Whether the source is God and Man at Yale or any number of more recent studies, the conflict between a college education and the faith that students bring to campus (secular campuses at least) is well accepted. The more you pursue a higher education, the more likely you are to abandon your faith — at least that’s what conventional wisdom holds.

“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.

. . .

The data were mined for trends on three factors of religious activity: attendance at religious services, relative importance of religion, and disaffiliation from religion. A substantial majority of young adults report a decline in attendance at religious services, while a minority report that religion has become less important and that they have completely dropped their religion. But the greatest drops come from those who are not in college.

Those who did not attend college had the highest level of reduced religious activity: they had a 76.2% decline in attending services, a 23.7% decline in a reported mportance of religion in their lives, and a 20.3% disaffiliation from religion altogether. In contrast, while those who earned at least a college degree had significant reductions in religious activity, it was much less than other groups: they had a 59.2% decline in attending services, a 15% decline in a reported importance of religion in their lives, and a 15% disaffiliation from religion altogether.

The lead author of the study, Mark D. Regnerus, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, offered some speculations as why this would be the case:

Regnerus said that what the study suggests — and his personal experience confirms — is that while there are plenty of non-religious professors around, they aren’t trying to discourage any students from practicing their faith. “Of course there are some who are hostile to religion. But they don’t teach that. They teach their discipline,” Regnerus said. The attitude, he added, is: “Whatever I think about evangelicals, when I go to teach quantum physics, I teach quantum physics.”

More broadly, so many students are in pre-professional programs, Regnerus said, that they are focused on practical matters much more than on wondering whether God exists. As a Christian who earned his undergraduate degree at Trinity Christian College, Regnerus said he spent a lot of time talking about philosophical issues in college, but that’s not the norm for many undergrads these days. (Christian colleges in recent years have experienced a boom, in part from students who don’t want to become secular, or whose parents don’t want them to become secular, and Regnerus said his study doesn’t contradict that belief. Because there is a decline in religious connection during the college years — looking at religious and secular institutions together — those at religious colleges are less likely to experience that decline.)

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.

Read the full Inside Higher Ed article here.

What lessons does this study offer the Episcopal Church? Isn’t the real story here the fact that all young people have a large drop off in attending religious services and the importance of religion in their lives? Does this suggest that this is a group that the church is failing to reach?

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