Education and Apostasy
By Bryan Caplan
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.