See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

2. Report Card: “A” for Atheist?

Photo: Franco Origlia

How Does College Affect Students’ Religious Beliefs?

For decades, many scholars and religious leaders subscribed to the viewpoint that higher education was, as Caplovitz and Sherrow wrote in 1977, “a breeding ground for apostasy.”  The college years were seen to represent a time of intellectual exploration and uncertainty, where long-held beliefs are challenged and absolutes undermined. In this context, some say, it becomes difficult for students to reconcile their religious beliefs with the call to critical thinking.

Sociologist James Hunter asserted in 1983, “It is a well-established fact that education, even Christian education, secularizes.”  

Recent research, however, calls this conventional wisdom into question. As several studies in our forum suggest, the idea that higher education poses a threat to religious faith appears to be more “myth” than measurable fact.

College of New Jersey professor Tim Clydesdale proposes that the religious beliefs of most college students neither increase nor decline while in college. Rather, students adopt a totally different set of priorities. Caught up in the tides of relationships, grades and finances, Clydesdale says, students tend to approach their education not as “intellectual explorer” but as “practical credentialist.”

“They focus on degree completion…and see the rest of their education as little more than a necessary nuisance,” he says. In this setting, undergrads make use of what Clydesdale calls “an identity lockbox.” This lockbox “protects religious identities, along with racial, gender and civic identities, from tampering that might affect their holders’ future entry into the American cultural mainstream.”

University of Texas sociologists Regnerus and Uecker agree. “The religious belief systems of most students go largely untouched for the duration of their education,” they say. One explanation they offer is that while education broadens intellectual horizons, these horizons frequently do not conflict with their religious outlooks. Some students feel that college does not present a threat to their established beliefs.

Another argument in favor of the “lockbox” theory is that the social requirements of campus life prevent students from engaging in open discussions of their religious commitments. To be religious, in some settings, is to be profoundly “uncool.” As Regenerus and Uecker explain, sometimes “to appear overreligious can be the social kiss of death.”

According to these studies, the college experience is less “faith-killer” than “spiritual prophylactic.” After college, many students pick up their religious beliefs where they left off.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Some scholars are starting to find that organized religion is alive and well on campus – just not in traditional forms. In this sense, college campuses have mirrored demographic trends – an increasingly diverse student body has started to transform a once-narrow religious landscape.

Discussing the increasingly visible presence of evangelical students on his campus, Harvard reverend Peter J. Gomes says that this visibility is in part due to increased religious diversity. Seeing new entrants to the campus religious landscape – including Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus – practice their faith on campus has normalized open demonstrations of faith traditions.

 “It’s very chic to be a believer now,” Gomes told the Boston Globe in 2003. “In a place which is so dispassionate, so rational, and in many ways so conformist intellectually, if you want to break out of the pack, you say your prayers in public. It is the example of religious practice elsewhere that has emboldened American evangelicals to exercise their own practice.”

Another important argument against apostasy on campus comes from studies that note that while the content of student beliefs does change over time, their commitment to their faith does not. “Evidence is mounting to suggest that students’ commitment to religious values during the college years may not so much increase or decrease as become reexamined, refined, and incorporated in subtle ways with other beliefs and philosophical dispositions,” say researchers Pascarella and Terenzini.

But perhaps the most convincing argument that college is not the faith-killer it was once thought to be comes from a surprising finding. Studying data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent HealthRegnerus and Uecker  found that while it is true that some college students tend to decrease their religious involvement while in school, young people who never enrolled in college reported a greater decline in religious service attendance. In other words, college students are less likely to lose their religion than young adults who never went to college in the first place.

Though research continues to investigate the relationship between religion and higher education, it is safe to say that in the current picture, at least, the common assumption that college undermines belief appears to be more of a misconception. “Simply put,” Regnerus and Uecker conclude, “higher education is not the enemy of religiosity.”

Futher Reading:

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Bryant, A. N. and J. Y. Choi, et al. 2003. “Understanding the Religious and Spiritual Dimensions of Students’ Lives in the First Year of College.” Journal of College Student Development 44(6): 723-745.

Cherry, C. and B. A. DeBerg, et al. 2001. Religion on Campus: What Religion Really Means to Today’s Undergraduates. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Clydesdale, T. 2007. The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hartley, H. V., III. 2004. “How College Affects Students’ Religious Faith and Practice: A Review of Research.” College Student Affairs Journal 23(2): 111-129.

Harvard University Institute of Politics. 2005. Redefining Political Attitudes and Activism: A Poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Institute of Politics. (Available online at http://www.iop.harvard.edu/pdfs/survey/fall_2005_execsumm.pdf)

Hunter, J. D. 1987. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lee, J. and A. Matzken, et al. 2006. “Understanding Students’ Religious and Spiritual Pursuits: A Case Study at New York University.” Journal of College and Character 2.

Lee, J. J. 2002. “Religion and College Attendance: Change among Students.” The Review of Higher Education 25(4): 369-384.

Pascarella, E. T. and P. T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, C. and M. Denton. 2005. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Uecker, J. E. and M. D. Regnerus, and M. Vaaler. Forthcoming. “Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood.” Social Forces.