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College Kills Religion, Santorum Says

Is Santorum right about education?

That is what Rick Santorum claimed in a This Week interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired on February, 26. Santorum cited research for his conclusion. Or rather, a hazily recalled impression that some study had found that 60 percent of students lose their religious affiliation during the college years.

Intrigued by the Santorum claim, I did a little fact checking. According to religious sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker (1), "64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their [church] attendance habits." This may be the research evidence that Santorum remembered.

This is a substantial majority and might appear to bolster the view that students are heavily influenced by free-thinking college professors who challenge religious views by encouraging rational skepticism, or even promoting atheism.

Yet, there is one ugly fact that destroys Santorum's theory. When one looks at young people who did not attend college, the decline in church attendance is even greater with 76 percent saying that their religious attendance had fallen.

(Incidentally the numbers actually losing their religious affiliation are much smaller with 13 percent of four-year college students renouncing their religious affiliation compared to 20 percent of those who did not pursue college).

Taken at face value, the data might appear to suggest that going to college promotes religion. This is unlikely, however despite the proselytizing efforts of some religions on American campuses. All that we can reasonably say is that the sort of people who go to college are different from those who do not to begin with.

Either way, Americans who attend college resemble other young people in going to church less often. For many, particularly those who marry, or raise a family, church attendance subsequently picks up implying that loss of attendance during the college years has little to do with loss of religious belief or affiliation.

While it may seem surprising that exposure to liberal college professors has no discernible effect on religion, it may be that many students have formed stable religious identities by the time they complete high school.

In an earlier post, I argued that the real reason for the decline in religion in modern life is not indoctrination by liberal professors, or atheists, but an improved standard of living.

When nations become highly developed, and when individuals feel secure in the sense of having a reliable income, high life expectancy, little fear of violence, and so forth, they lose interest in supernatural solutions to their problems, focusing instead on practical improvements to the quality of life.

This view of secularization has long been controversial in academic circles but has recently survived rigorous scientific tests. The precise role of education in the loss of religious belief remains unclear but college education, as such, cannot be a large factor.

Despite current uncertainty over whether education kills religion, there are many tantalizing clues. We know that more intelligent people, and more educated people, are more likely to be atheists. Moreover, countries enjoying a high general level of education are much less religious.

Atheism is probably not learned in school - or in college. Instead, it is the improved quality of life prevailing in highly-educated countries that turns people off religion. Try explaining that to Rick Santorum!

1. Uecker, J. E., Regnerus, M. D., & Vaaler, M. L. (2007). Losing my religion: The social sources of religious decline in early adulthood. Social Forces, 85, 1-26.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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