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."

As for the idea that college communities are inherently hostile to faith, Schwadel said the opposite is actually true. "Today’s campuses have many religious groups that students can participate in, along the lines of Greek and fraternity and sorority houses," he said. 

There are a couple of important limitations to Schwadel's study. First, his study measures religious affiliation, not religiosity—it looks at how many people identify as Catholic, Jewish, etc., but it doesn't take into account how regularly they go to services. Studies have indicated that Americans often lie about how much they go to church, so measuring religious affiliation doesn't necessarily reveal a lot about how much people actually care about God. 

The study also doesn't include anyone born after 1979. That means these findings don't tell us anything about Millennials, whose religiosity is still pretty murky to social scientists. Although today's 18- to 34-year-olds are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than their parents or grandparents were at that age, there's evidence that this generation may return to the pews as they start getting married and having kids—just like the generations before them, Schwadel said. 

College grads are society's best defenders of traditional institutions.

In fact, this is exactly why Schwadel didn't include Millennials in the study. "Young adults, especially when they leave their parents’ house in the traditional way when they’re 18—we often see that they say they have no religious affiliation, or they decline in religiosity in lots of ways. But this often rebounds in the late 20s," he said. The study measures religious affiliation over time, not when people are actually in college. "To make sure I’m not confusing generational differences with age effects, I couldn’t include anyone who was below 25 years of age in the analysis," he said. 

Even so, these findings are important: They offer one more piece of evidence that college grads are society's best defenders of traditional institutions. People with bachelor's degrees are more likely to get married, more likely to marry each other, and more likely to wait until after their wedding to have babies. 

They're also more likely to live 1950s, Leave It to Beaver-esque lives. "College-educated people are joiners," Schwadel said. "They’re more likely to participate in civic groups, to volunteer in their community. What we’re seeing is this moving into religion, too—not necessarily to hold all these different kinds of beliefs, but at least to participate in a nominal sense."

People without degrees—which is to say, people who don't have as much money—might be staying away from church because their lifestyle doesn't seem to fit traditional religious teachings. "As they’ve lost the traditional family formation, and this becomes something that’s more common among the educated classes, they may not feel as comfortable in a religious organization any more—organizations that are traditionally focused on family formation."

There are a lot of sociological factors at work here, but all of them puncture the stereotype of perniciously secular higher education. Clearly, those God-defying philosophy professors need to work a little harder if they want to build their armies of atheist young people. 

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

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