Why College Students Are Losing Their Religion

Do university professors really possess the power to make students more secular?

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Dennis Prager, as thoughtful a voice as you'll find on talk radio, has a new column up in National Review that presumes "God isn't doing well" and tries to explain why. His initial theory is that "increasingly large numbers of men and women attend university," and that "the agenda of Western universities is to produce (left-wing) secularists." Let's say for the sake of argument that most institutions of higher education really were trying at their core to produce left-wing secularists (a motive I very much doubt).

How on earth would they succeed?

Typically a faculty member has one or two classes at most with a given student. Often as not these are giant introductory classes on subjects unrelated to religion. Am I to believe that the subset of professors out to secularize their students are so persuasive that in this short interval, they successfully propagandize them into abandoning God? Or do they join forces, each contributing a small part of a larger brainwashing program that runs through Introduction to Economics, Topics In Gender Studies, and Comparative African Politics? It would be quite a feat to build such a program: at once unacknowledged, unorganized, and more intellectually effective than the actual curriculum on offer, which many students absorb only long enough to pass the final.

This beggars belief, especially if you're someone like me who attended Catholic school for 14 years. The institutional structure was expressly designed to turn out practicing Catholics, and given more than a decade of our most formative years and formal religious instruction they didn't manage to hold onto most of my peers. Do the university professors know something they didn't? I just never understand it when conservative critics of academia presume it is so single-minded, effective and powerful in its impact.

To me, there are better explanations for the fact that "the more university education a person receives, the more likely he is to hold secular and left-wing views." One is that people who attend college leave home. That is to say, they leave their church, the community incentives to attend it, and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don't go to services or stray in their faith. Suddenly they're surrounded by dorm mates of different faiths or no faith at all. For many of these students, it turns out that their religious behavior was driven more by desire for community, or social and parental pressure, than by deeply held beliefs. Another reason education correlates with secularism is that secularists are more likely to seek advanced degrees, partly because they're more focused than their religious counterparts on career.

If you're someone who wants to see organized religion do a better job of holding on to young people - I have no strong preference either way, having friends for whom religion is the best thing in life and others for whom it's been a terrible burden - the most problematic part of Mr. Prager's argument is the lack of agency he gives to religions and their congregations. They're cast as powerless in the face of university influence that is somehow made out to be irresistible.

But if four years of college undo 18 years of parenting and religious affiliation, perhaps the faith community's tenuous hold is the problem, not the particular place outside its bubble where that hold evaporates. Consider the believers we've seen in history. With all the persecution that Judaism and Christianity have survived over the centuries, an argument that sites America's Top 310 Colleges as a first order adversary is hard to credit. (Tangentially, Prager writes: "It takes higher education to learn that America and Israel are villains." Really? Would he rather be governed by the first hundred degree-less men in the Riyadh phone book or the faculty of Harvard?)

If high school graduates moved away from home to work in a restaurant or open a muffler repair shop or serve coffee in a Starbucks rather than to attend college, young people would still be falling away from religion - and many others would never take it up in the first place. If Prager wants to reverse the trend, he should focus more on root causes and less on the American university, a perennially convenient whipping boy that is denigrated by conservatives as ineffective, and simultaneously thought to be imbued with ill-defined, superhuman powers to shape the minds of its charges.


Image via Flickr user Lux.Musica.Khaos
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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