Allen Downey is an associate professor of computer science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, and the author of How to Think Like a Computer Scientist.
According to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute, students entering college are staying away from religion in record numbers. Nineteen percent have no religious preference, and more than 23 percent have not attended a religious service in the last year—a new high in the thirty-nine-year history of the survey.
In 2006, more than 271,000 students at 393 colleges participated in the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), a longitudinal study of college freshmen. The CIRP survey includes questions about students’ backgrounds, activities, and attitudes. In one question, students were asked their “current religious preference” and given a choice of seventeen common religions and Christian denominations, “Other Christian,” “Other religion,” or “None.” Another question asked students how often they “attended a religious service” in the last year. The choices were “Frequently,” “Occasionally,” and “Not at all.” The instructions directed students to select “Occasionally” if they attended one or more times, so a nonobservant student who attended a wedding and a funeral (and follows instructions) would not be counted among the apostates. Figure 1 tracks students’ responses from 1968 to 2006.
The number of students with no religious preference has been increasing steadily since the low point of 8.3 percent in 1978. The apostasy rate is also increasing, although a sharp increase in the late eighties was reversed for a time in the early nineties. Both numbers have been climbing steadily since 1997. The rate of growth from 1980 to the present has been between 0.25 and 0.35 percentage points per year, which is consistent with other observations from the sixties and seventies. Since 1997, the rate may have increased to 0.6 or 0.7 percentage points per year. At that rate, the class of 2056 will have an atheist majority. Both curves show a possible acceleration between 2005 and 2006. This jump may be due to increased visibility of atheism following the publication of books by Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.
The gap between the curves represents the number of students who profess a religious preference but admittedly never exercise it. This “hypocrisy gap” closed substantially in the nineties but increased in the last few years. The size of the gap may reflect the level of social pressure on nonbelievers to declare association with a religion.
The survey results show a persistent gender gap: 21.2 percent of men reported no religious preference, but only 17.4 percent of women did. Similarly, while 25.7 percent of men reported no participation in religious services, only 21.2 percent of women did. These gaps have been consistent over the history of the survey, but it is hard to say whether the apparent difference in religiosity is real. Women may be as likely as men to disbelieve, but professing atheism involves a tradeoff between the satisfaction of philosophic consistency and the discomfort of social stigma. Men and women might assess these costs and benefits differently.
Not surprisingly, students at religious colleges were more religious, but not as much as one might expect. For example, 9 percent of students at Catholic colleges had no religious preference, and more than 15 percent had not been to church in the last year. Students at historically black colleges are actually more religious. Only 6 percent reported no religious preference, and only 8 percent hadn’t attended a religious service.
The survey also asked about parents’ religion. Almost 15 percent of the students’ fathers have no religious preference (at least according to their children), compared to 10 percent of mothers. The generational lag tells an interesting story. Fathers now are at the level of nonpreference displayed by male students in 1998; mothers are at the level of female students in 1997.
In 1988, when these students were born, the average maternal age in the United States was a little over twenty-five. So we would expect the generation lag to be twenty-five years for mothers and a few years more for fathers. But the actual lags are only eighteen to nineteen years, which suggests either that some parents came to atheism after entering college or that their children underestimated their devoutness. Both may be true, but the hypocrisy gap supports the second explanation, assuming that children based their response on what parents do rather than what they say.
College students are hardly a random sample of the population. People with more education are less likely to believe in heaven, the devil, miracles, and the literal truth of the Christian Bible. However, contrary to many people’s expectations, educated people are more likely to attend services. So, we expect the students in this sample to be less believing than the general population but also more observant.
There is reason to think that the rate of secularization in the general population is faster than what we see in this sample. Over the lifetime of the CIRP survey, college education has democratized; the percentage of high-school graduates who enter college immediately after graduation has increased from roughly 50 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 2003. Over this time, CIRP has included more poor students, more racial minorities, and more students from families with less education. These groups tend to be more religious than the general population, so we expect their participation to increase the religiosity in the sample. Thus, the observed decrease probably underestimates the trend in the general population.
The theory of secularization—that there is a global, long-term trend away from religion—is controversial. Early sociologists, notably Max Weber, hypothesized that secularization is a predictable effect of rationalization—the increasing tendency for social actions to be based on reason rather than emotion or tradition.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many sociologists of religion defended strong theories of secularization, but, since then, several of them—including Peter Berger and Harvey Cox—have reversed their positions, arguing that religion is resurging in some areas, including the United States.
The data presented here speak directly to this debate. The CIRP survey has posed almost the same questions to a large sample of a consistently defined group for almost forty years, and the results show a clear and consistent trend away from both identification with religious sects and participation in religious services. These data make a strong case for secularization in the United States that has, if anything, accelerated in the last decade. (See also Tom Flynn’s “Secularization Resurrected,” on page 15 of this issue.)
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