It Turns Out Colleges Aren't Actually Atheist Factories

For people born after 1960, having a college degree doesn't cause religious disaffiliation—young, highly educated people are more likely to identify with a faith, according to a new study.
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It's a classic scene from Philosophy 101: A group of scared teenagers arrive for the first lecture, all carrying their used copies of Nietzsche. An inevitably male, white professor, obviously hoping to beat his students into intellectual submission on day one, begins the class with a bold declaration: "There is no God." The students who aren't on Facebook dutifully type this into their notes. They don't know it now, but this is the beginning of the end for them and God; after all, the raison d'être of the university is churning out militant secularists.

Or at least, that's the caricature that some people, particularly conservative Christians, tend to toss around. The movie God's Not Dead, which was released last spring, includes a scene that's almost identical to this one—except in the movie, the professor is challenged to a rhetorical battle by an earnest Christian student, who eventually "proves" this whole God's-dead schtick is really just about the professor's grief over the loss of his mother. The film, which was created by the Christian production studio Pure Flix Entertainment, grossed nearly $61 million in ticket sales. 

But a new study suggests this stereotype isn't true—in fact, college might make people more likely to be religious. 

"The core finding is that the association between graduating from college and religious disaffiliation has changed drastically across generations," said Philip Schwadel, the study's author and a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For people who were born in the 1920s and '30s, the godless-college-grad stereotype is somewhat true: They were twice as likely as their uneducated peers to be religionless, not identifying with a particular church or synagogue or other religious institution.

But over time, that trend changed. "For those people who were born in the 1960s, there’s really no difference between the college-educated and the non-college-educated in terms of their likelihood of disaffiliating from religion," Schwadel said. "And for those born in the 1970s, it’s actually the non-college-educated who are relatively likely to disaffiliate."

This may have happened for a few reasons, Schwadel said. "The growth in college education may have led to a different population of people going to college." In the 1920s, only elites attended universities; especially at a time when religiosity was almost uniformly part of American life, it makes sense that this very small group of top intellectuals were the most likely to reject religion. Now that higher education has gotten somewhat more economically diverse and a lot more widespread, though, it seems natural that intellectual diversity at the university level has grown, too.

But that doesn't explain Schwadel's most surprising finding: For people born during the 1970s, not going to college makes you more likely to say that you're not religious. 

The reason for this may be that atheism, agnosticism, and general religious indifference has become more normal across social classes, Schwadel said. "For those people who were born earlier than the 1900s, it might have been something that wasn’t acceptable among a lot of Americans, except those who were among the upper classes—those select few who were going to college and graduating in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s. But as college education has grown, having no religious affiliation has become less ostracizing."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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