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College Professors Aren’t Killing Religion

In a speech last week at an Alabama university, Donald Trump Jr. alternately mocked and ridiculed the culture of college campuses that teach students to “hate their religion” and “hate their country” — places where the moral teachings of the Bible are held up as “hate speech.” Trump Jr.’s impassioned condemnation of campus politics and college professors has become an increasingly common refrain in conservative politics, particularly among the conservative Christian wing. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum railed against the indoctrination occurring on college campuses (and used an errant statistic to buttress his claim). A year earlier, Newt Gingrich similarly accused college professors of undermining the Christian values of the Founding Fathers.

But it’s not a new critique.

Of all the many criticisms weathered by institutions of higher learning, none has been as difficult to shake as the claim that a college education adversely affects religiosity. Colleges and universities have long been accused of subverting the religious commitments of their students. One of the most prominent early critics of college education was the evangelical populist William Jennings Bryan. At a 1921 address at the University of Wisconsin, Bryan accused the university’s president of promoting atheism, and he suggested that a warning label be affixed to university classrooms, stating: “Our classrooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women.” Armed with anecdotes and a 1916 study — which asserted that over four years, students would “gradually abandon the cardinal Christian beliefs” — Bryan barnstormed the country decrying the malevolent forces of higher education.

But if Bryan was worried that the content of college classrooms would create a generation of atheists, his fears were largely unfounded. Though the U.S. is becoming less religious, college curricula have little or nothing to do with it. A recent study found that 24 percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, including 38 percent of young adults. But these changes are occurring at a much earlier age than Bryan or other critics imagined. Most young people who wind up leaving their religious commitments do so before ever stepping foot on campus.

UCLA’s Freshman Survey, an annual study of first-time students at 184 U.S. colleges and universities, found that 31 percent of incoming freshmen are religiously unaffiliated, a threefold increase since 1986, when just 10 percent identified this way.1 Religious attendance is also falling precipitously among incoming students.

The findings from the UCLA survey are consistent with another recent survey by PRRI, which found that most Americans who have left their childhood religion did so before reaching adulthood. Seventy-nine percent of young adults age 18 to 29 who have become religiously unaffiliated report having made this decision during their adolescent and teen years. But this was not always the case. Those age 65 or older who left their childhood religion reported doing so much later: Only 38 percent who reported leaving their religion did so during their childhood years. The majority (63 percent) of unaffiliated senior citizens left during their college and post-college years.

Americans who left religion did so before adulthood

How old people were when they no longer identified with their childhood religion, among those currently religiously unaffiliated

All 62% 28% 7% 3%
18-29 79 19 0 2
30-49 58 30 8 4
50-64 53 28 13 6
65+ 38 47 15 *

* Less than 0.5 percent

Source: PRRI/RNS August 2016 Survey

This all makes more sense when we consider that the early religious lives of young people are far different than they were for previous generations. Young people today have had much less robust religious experiences during their childhood than previous generations — only 41 percent of Millennials attended religious services with their family at least once a week, compared with 55 percent of Baby Boomers, according to a recent PRRI survey. Similarly, only 40 percent of Millennials attended Sunday school or some other religious education program weekly, a much more common experience among Baby Boomers (62 percent reported at least weekly participation).

Moreover, a bevy of recent academic work casts doubt on the idea that college experience directly undermines religious identity (even if the studies do not all come to precisely the same conclusion). A pair of University of Texas sociologists argue that “the religious belief systems of most students go largely untouched for the duration of their education.” They suggest that, instead, students’ religious lives lie dormant, “waiting to be awakened” upon graduation. Another study found that while education did seem to have a negative impact on religiosity at one point, this is no longer the case. Still other research suggests that religious values neither increase nor decrease so much as they are “reexamined, refined and incorporated” with other beliefs.

Surveys do consistently show that college-educated Americans tend to be less religious, on average, than Americans with less formal education.2 But the influence of college education on religious identity and practice is incredibly difficult to sort out. First, because religiosity includes aspects of belief, formal participation and identity, there are various ways that education might affect it. Second, higher education has a lasting impact on life choices. A college degree plays an immensely important role in determining the type of people you know, the jobs you have and even the places you live. It shapes personal priorities and perceptions of the world. So it’s hard to separate the effect of college itself on religiosity vs. those other factors.

College-educated Americans, for example, are afforded greater economic opportunity and as a result are more mobile. As The Upshot has noted, even as the overall frequency with which Americans move has declined, young college graduates are relocating at a brisk pace: “About a million cross state lines each year, and these so-called young and the restless don’t tend to settle down until their mid-30s.” This complicates the task of finding, joining and establishing roots in a religious community. College graduates are also more likely to live in diverse social settings, such as cities, which have greater religious diversity and higher concentrations of nonreligious people. This type of social context is associated with lower rates of religious adherence. As a result, unaffiliated Americans with a college education tend to have more secular people in their immediate social network, reinforcing nonreligious habits and helping maintain a secular worldview.3

Even as unaffiliated Americans are increasingly marrying their own, there is an enduring educational divide. According to the General Social Survey, religiously unaffiliated Americans with a college education are about twice as likely to be married as those with no more than a high school degree. But more importantly, secular Americans with a college education are far more likely to marry someone who shares their nonreligious outlook and identity. Seventy percent of secular college graduates have married someone who is also secular, while 49 percent of those with less formal education have a secular spouse. If marriage and having children have been the primary gateway back into the religious fold, secular coupling precludes that possibility.

Despite the steady accumulation of countervailing evidence, the stereotype of the religion-hating professor lives on in Christian culture. Nearly 100 years after Bryan set out on his crusade against the specter of coercive college education, conservative Christians still fear the secularizing power of atheist faculty. Christian films such as “God’s Not Dead” reinforce the narrative of anti-religious faculty strong-arming students into renouncing their beliefs. White evangelical Protestants remain highly distrustful of academics — a recent Pew survey found that only 33 percent of white evangelicals feel warmly toward college professors.

But fully understanding the effect of a college education on religion requires us to account for the many ways the lives of college-educated Americans differ from those without. Still, for now, it’s safe to say it’s not the professors.


  1. Because the UCLA survey is administered to students before they arrive on campus, the decline of religious identity noted in these cross-sectional studies cannot be attributed to college experience.

  2. In part, these differences can be explained by distinctive patterns of race and ethnicity — college graduates are disproportionately white, a group that is less religious than black and Hispanic Americans. The religion gap largely disappears when controlling for these differences, but not completely.

  3. A 2013 PRRI survey that measured social networks found that 71 percent of college-educated Americans who are unaffiliated reported having at least one person in their immediate network who was unaffiliated, compared with 59 percent of the unaffiliated without any college education. Social networks were defined by the respondent to include up to seven different people with whom the respondent “discussed important matters” within the past 12 months.

Daniel Cox is a research fellow for polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.