Which College Majors Make You Less Religious? August 3, 2009

Which College Majors Make You Less Religious?

A new study from the University of Michigan tells us some somewhat surprising news about college majors and their effect on religiosity.

Majoring in which subjects would decrease your religiosity? (That is, make you less likely to go to church and less likely to view religion as a good thing)

According to the study: the humanities (e.g. Music, Religion, Philosophy) and the social sciences (e.g. Economics, Sociology, Psychology).

If the findings are accurate, I’m not too shocked to see those subjects on the list (though I’m slightly surprised Biology isn’t on it). In my experience, when people get exposed to other religions, they find many more similarities between them than they ever knew existed. Not just similarities, but sometimes exact stories, recycled between religions.

Philosophy might get you thinking about life beyond religion. Some of the social sciences may open a window to experiments that show the nature of human behavior — and that it has nothing to do with a god.

I don’t know if others feel this way, too, but those are some hypotheses.

Majoring in which subjects would increase your religiosity?

Education and business.

No idea about those…

Majoring in which subjects would have little or no effect on your religious attendance?

The biological sciences and the physical sciences (e.g. Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy).

(Though the researchers add that majoring in the physical sciences does make you less likely to view religion as important in your life.)

Why does majoring in Biology or Astronomy (for example) not have a significant effect on your church-going habits?

Thoreau suggests one explanation:

I think the problem with the theory is that religion as actually experienced by many people is not about miracles and strict codes written on pages. It is a combination of a personal thing and a social/cultural thing… all of these arguments miss what actually matters to many religious believers.

The actual paper is here, but I don’t have access to it.

What do you think about the results?

(via The Daily Dish)

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom

    My sweeping generalization: learning the humanities challenges how you think about the world more than the hard sciences. Often times you just spit out the info they give you for the hard sciences, while you must learn how to form and express a cogent thought or argument in the humanities.

    Education and business. Many cynics would go “Hah!” at the business major results, believing religious people are truly greedy under the skin. Maybe so, but to themselves, they are often go getters who see a way to provide for their family in a big way. Getting out into the world and doing something appeals to many religious minded folk because, well, you don’t have to think that much. You just do. And some do it extremely well.

    Education is a tougher picture to frame. I’ve already heard people who believe it to be part of a religious conspiracy to indoctrinate our children in an easy environment. To some people, this is true. To most, they just see education as a prime way to fulfill any religion’s request to serve others. What easier way to serve others than to get a teaching degree and get placed right in a school? Of course, service turns to evangelism in the most highly publicized cases

  • sc0tt

    The study measures change in religiosity during college, so perhaps biologists and astronomers and engineers already were non-religious before starting at university; and perhaps humanities people weren’t.

    Typical of such studies, one of the recommendations is probably to do more studies.

  • Ben

    This is exactly in accordance with my experiences. I was a computer science and biochemistry major, but the straw that broke the camels back was my social psychology class, which convinced me that, yes, it is possible for billions of people to be so wrong. Biology is only a problem for people who think evolution disproves god, which really isn’t the case for most people.

  • Luther

    What about going to Seminary or majoring in Religion?

    I know several ex seminarians that are now atheist. Also a former nun who directly attributes her atheism to all the classes she had where they essentially trained her on how to explain it all, she said “they all knew it was not true”.

    As a math major I would go with Science as reinforcing my existing atheism and opening one to the scientific method. It also provides one with the true information that makes religious claims so ridiculous.

  • cathy

    There’s nothing better than an intro philosophy of religion or ethics course to give fuel to destroy many mainstream religious arguments (my intro to philosophy professor actually used Pascal’s Wager to show us how to destroy a weak argument). the thing about philosophy is it is based on logical argument and, if you really look, a lot of religious arguments are just plain bad.

  • Amber

    My own personal experience says that for me, the physical sciences worked in changing my beliefs from religious to non-religious. It was my curiosity about the physical world that ultimately helped me in letting go of my supernatural views. I consider myself to be a good student though, and rather than just “spitting out the info” I actually thought about what I was learning. Having good teachers helps too of course 🙂

  • Jack

    A find this post rather interesting, as before college I was an apathetic Catholic. I majored in history in college while taking a lot of philosophy classes. Being exposed to so many thoughts and ideas changed how I viewed the world insofar as people, especially conservatives (I think) tend to view the world black and white and that did not jive with what I was reading and learning in college; existentialism, Plato, Socrates, Marx, Descartes, Hume, Derrida, and Foucault.

    It was not a sudden change but a gradual one of 4 years and I am never going back! Marx and Camus are my favorite as they are proponents of changing the world, that one has power to do so, not through an invisible intangible force (insert metaphysical being here). My love of history and philosophy led me to atheism, and my live has been enriched immensely because of it. The world opened its doors of ideas and complexity and I left the intellectually stunted church behind (not that I cared much about it anyways, hadn’t been to church since I was confirmed in 8th grade).

  • sc0tt

    From the link:

    The study is the primary source of national data on trends in drug use among students, but the survey participants are asked many questions about demographics, beliefs and education that allow for the comparisons made on student majors and religiosity.

    So religiosity wasn’t even the focus of the study and the parameter being discussed here is changes in how often the students went to religious services and how important they consider religion to be in their lives; it is mostly silent about changes in belief.

  • The study measures change in religiosity during college, so perhaps biologists and astronomers and engineers already were non-religious before starting at university; and perhaps humanities people weren’t.

    I agree. Strongly religious people probably steer clear of science altogether. Engineering, being the practical application of scientific knowledge, may not challenge beliefs and may not be a causal factor in changing people’s mind.

    I can see how philosophy, religion, ethics, and humanities classes could make religious people think about things that they never thought about before….

  • Thoreau’s piece drove me nuts for fallaciously arguing that the incompatibility between religion and science that non-accommodationists insist on is somehow empirically refuted by the simple existence of religious scientists.

    Apparently Thoreau does not get the difference between an empirical descriptive theory of incompatibility and a normative theory that two proposed sets of ethical norms (including norms for belief formation) are incompatible. The strict norms and assumptions by which scientists assess beliefs and the assumptions and lack of epistemic standards which religious institutions at large advocate as permissible are in serious conflict.

    It would not matter if every scientist in the world participated in religious institutions, because that would not make scientific habits of thought (and the ethics of belief formation embodied in those habits) compatible with either (a) religious habits of belief formation or (b) religious institutions’ routine practices of promoting anti-naturalistic assumptions and counter-rational/counter-scientific habits of belief formation, which no scientist would tolerate in her laboratory.

    In another post, I also disputed the notion that the results of this study are somehow explained by a supposed greater prevalence of “post-modernism” in the humanities.

  • For me Philosophy and Victorian social history moved me from apatheist to atheist. Discussing Determinism and trying to reconcile these ideas with how we treat criminals, children, the mentally ill and other groups differently really made me think about how we are. We aren’t made in the image of some perfect being but develop based on our biology and our environment. From there the more I found out about everything the less likely I was ever to catch the religion meme.

  • Studying history and anthropology were the death blows to any religious feelings I may have had.

  • SarahH

    I became an atheist during my time at college, during which I majored in both Religious Studies and Philosophy, so I fit the pattern.

    I would also like to see a study that measured religious changes against the amount of time that students spend overseas – especially in cultures that don’t have the same predominant religion as their own.

    I have a friend who majored in the sciences, stayed very religious, and then was stationed in Japan. He said that it’s difficult to keep believing the rigid teachings of Christianity when you live next to a shrine for two years. He seems mostly agnostic now.

  • Tyler in SoCal

    I was a Business and Graphic Design Major. I was involved in a Business fraternity and le tme tell you, it was essentially a Young Republicans club, although as far as I could tell it was entirely secular. I grew up in a mix of lapsed Catholicism, family moved into an Episcopalian Church, and then back to Catholicism before I attended a Catholic High School. I think Ive really been an agnostic/atheist my whole life but there was a blockage not allowing me to disavow of some notion in Heaven or something. I broke free post-graduate and happier than ever. Im not sure if college really played a role. I would say Catholic HS played more of a role.

  • People in the sciences are less likely to view religion as important, but are not likely to lose their religiosity during that time. The logical implication is that of the people who choose science majors, more of them are less religious. Might this relationship be causational? Perhaps religiosity discourages study in science. On the other hand, study science does not seem to discourage religiosity.

    So let’s just keep in mind the nature of the conflict between science and religion. It’s not that science discourages religion, but that religion discourages science.

  • adventuresofj

    As a social sciences teaching major… um… I can say I think I came out less religious than when I started.

  • Danny

    I find it pretty cool that my major, music, is on the list that makes you less religious. It’s really interesting to me since so much of the music we study, especially Bach, was written “for the glory of God”.

  • Lindsay

    I’m in the Psych-major-turned-less-religious camp, and here’s my 2 cents on the social sciences vs. “hard” sciences. When you first learn about the scientific method in elementary school, it’s usually in application to a hard science like chemistry or biology. I think kids get the idea that science only works in those domains, and people who major in those areas could continue to feel more comfortable applying scientific thinking to such topics. People who major in the social sciences, however, are taught how to apply the exact same type of scientific thinking to less “hard” areas. You get in the practice of thinking critically about everything, especially everyday life, and this skill will likely bleed over into religious thought.

  • Speaking as a biology undergrad, I know far too many biology majors who don’t believe in evolution, or believe in “theistic evolution” bullcrap. I’ve met more biologists who said learning about the complexity of life brought them toward God, rather than away from him. The thing is, unreligious evolution believing biology undergrads are the ones who go on to be professors and academics, while the religious ones all become doctors or forest rangers or lab techs. So by looking at professors you may expect Biology to be a heathen mecca, but it’s not in the undergrad world.

  • littlejohn

    I realize I may be stepping on some toes by overgeneralizing, but my observation in college was that business and education majors were unimaginative, authoritarian types who respect the system and don’t want to rock the boat.

    I also noticed that biology, chemistry and physics majors were already atheists. I majored in philosophy and communications, but I was already an atheist when I got there, so I guess that doesn’t prove anything.

  • Ryan W.

    Atheism or non-religiosity tends to be a factor in whether a person majors in a scientific field rather than exposure to scientific evidence being a reason that people become atheists.

    As a science major myself, there are a reasonable number of cases where religiously-related ideas were actually better than more atheistic ones. (The Big Bang and the assertion that complex life cannot arise, in a matter of days, from non-life to name just two.)

    Theistic creation of the universe (though not necessarily a belief in miracles) is at least as predictive as atheism if not moreso in a scientific context.

  • Arthur

    Just to put my 2 cents in, but I’m not sure this survey is telling us exactly what we might think it’s telling us. I am an English and Spanish double major about to graduate, and my experience is that although humanities departments teach their students to think critically about ideas, certainty is replaced not by evidence-based skepticism but by a kind of postmodernist relativism, an idea so vague I am still pretty much clueless as to why I should accept it and what it might do for me. However, I’m pretty sure this is not the case in Philosophy departments, which in the U.S. at least are dominated by analytic philosophy (Bertrand Russell, for example), as opposed to the continental philosophy (Derrida, Sartre, Nietzsche) that is favored in English departments. That being said, I think the element of relativism that would lead students to abandon religious belief is the rejection of the idea of absolute, objective truth. Unfortunately, this also leads some humanities students or even professors to be skeptical of or even reject the evidence-based approach used in scientific inquiry.

  • I’m surprised there aren’t any English majors speaking up. I did have an intellectual interest in religion and social sciences and could have minored in both, but my big focus was literature. And since the Bible is a great big set of books, it’s really not strange that I began applying critical thinking to each story in the Bible, keeping in mind many forms of literary criticism.

  • P.S. Milton’s Paradise Lost did more to shatter my religious foundation than any of my religion classes.

  • My own personal experience was one of enrolling in a hardcore fundamentalist Evangelical Christian college as a hardcore fundamentalist Evangelical Christian and through the study of philosophy and religion coming out an atheist.

    Draw whatever conclusions you will 🙂

  • weaves

    I’m majoring in Ecology, Zoology and Evolution.

    I wonder how that would affect ones level of religiousity

  • Anthrogeek

    I just graduated with a BA in Anthropology with a minor in Religious Studies, before that I was a Biology major. While a biology major I could mentally separate my faith from my science.(I actually don’t think I made any connection between the two believe it or not)

    When I started taking classes in anthropology and religious studies that ended pretty quickly. It just felt hypocritical not to apply the knowledge I gained through these classes to my own life. I also think that eventually I learned far too much about religion to ever believe in it.

  • Chelsea

    Studying Medieval history and the development of Christianity certainly did nothing to help my Freshman year spiritual crisis!

  • Dr.Bruce

    Two points: First, correlation is not causation. In other words, it may be more reasonable to say the data shows the choice of majors of people from different backgrounds, rather than presuming a change in college.

    The second and more important point is that research shows that a small amount of education just increases conformity. Americans with only a grade school education are more likely to make up their own minds. As people here get more educated, they become less and less likely to think independently, and more likely to conform to the majority opinion. This phenomenon peaks with undergraduate education. After the bachelor’s degree, the trend reverses again, and people with more graduate education are more likely to think independently. While getting a PhD and becoming (say) a biology professor does make one less likely to correlate with being religious, it is not 100%. It is only at the highest levels (e.g., National Academy of Science) that education and/or life stability and self-confidence are high enough that we see the maximum independence from such trends as religious views.

    So I would expect that graduate education in biology or astronomy or geology would begin to show some effects due to correlation with specific major field. But before the graduate level, I think both religiosity and choice of major are both merely reflecting degree of conventional upbringing. But then, I’m just guessing. But it makes sense to me to see it this way.

  • Gabriel G.

    I’m gonna be majoring in Psychology and/or Creative Writing and I hope to take at least some classes in Philosophy. If I wasn’t already an atheist, I wouldn’t be surprised if I became one in college.

    Also: WOO.

    Also also: whether or not the study is full of crap, it’s still pretty funny. (in a good way)

  • I think there’s probably a fairly simple explanation.

    Here’s one conjecture:

    Consider that people contemplating tertiary studies are all across the spectrum in religiosity, but the ones who are most likely to lose religious belief by doing (say) biology (because their strict interpretation of the bible is at direct odds with basic biology) are keenly aware that this is a likely outcome, so they’re more likely not to consider it in the first place.

    They don’t realize that many other subjects can have the same effect…

  • Christina C

    I actually can attest to being a recent art education graduate who is an atheist. However it is just a bit of common sense involved in that reasoning, schools are historically based around a religious seeped education being fed to our students, i.e. horn books having the “Lord’s prayer” etched on them as a way for students to learn reading. Also most of our schools, as we can tell by the rampant idealist creationists, are manned by people who go to church and who have this social group stemming from that. I must say though that even in my student teaching all of the art teachers I have met have been non religious, one even raising her children as free thinkers. From personal experience I know that out of all the people I was in my student teaching seminar with just myself and the other art education girl were the only ones who did not seem to just leave their job luck “in the hands of god”. Part of me wants a study done to see which subject teachers are the most religious, my hypothesis would be that science and art will be on the lowest tier of religiosity.

  • Neon Genesis

    The only reason I can think of as to why music might lead to someone being less religious is maybe it’s going back to that whole argument from beauty Dawkins referenced in The God Delusion? When Dawkins was arguing against it, he made the point that maybe people who used this argument were just jealous and were using God to explain why somebody could make such beautiful music but they couldn’t. So maybe when they go to music class and learn how to play an instrument themselves, they realize that the beauty comes from the person themselves and not from God and they can make beauty too, so they realize the argument from beauty no longer makes sense? Or maybe it’s just that when you take a music class, they spend so much time practicing their instruments for concerts that they don’t have the time to think about religion and so their belief just gradually falls away from lack of interest?

  • @sc0tt
    Good point. Perhaps those majors attract the least religious to begin with.

    Agreed. Many theists, myself included, have no issue with cosmological theories or common descent.

    I too know several people who have learned to question religion by studying religion. In my own experience, my biggest questions come from the Bible itself.

    Many religious people would say that some social sciences are not valid because one should not apply the scientific method to all areas of life.

    @Daniel Fincke
    I’d like to know what school you attended.

  • World Religions and Anthropology are what did it for me.

    I majored in Business, though, and have to admit that I see what they mean. I encountered some very conservative attitudes there, such as to conform, to trust in the “invisible hand”, and it was basically pounded into my head that America was a great place that helped other countries out, which was the complete opposite from what I was being told in some of my liberal studies classes.

  • absent sway

    Something the humanities are good at is dismantling an authoritarian worldview, which certainly was a blow to my conservative evangelical framework. Also, coming from said framework (at least in my experience), even when facts are suspect, the human condition is moving and others’ testimonies/experiences are generally trusted and taken seriously. My various humanities and social science courses bombarded me with a multitude of others’ experiences and ideas which challenged my own, and I was desperately contorting myself to fit these truths into my worldview somehow. Bio and Astronomy were a welcome respite from agonizing over the problem of evil, institutional oppression, etc. I’m not saying that my science courses didn’t challenge me, too, but it was on a less personal level.

  • K

    Luther said: “What about going to Seminary or majoring in Religion?”

    I know, for myself anyway, that studying other religions is what guided me towards atheism. I’ve tried a few religions and they all seemed too alike to me.

    I grew up Mormon, and during high school I was urged to attend seminary classes every morning. Yup… I got up at 5:15 every weekday to attend. We’d study a book of scripture every schoolyear: Book of Mormon, Old Testament, New Testament and then Church History including the lesser-known LDS scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price the final year. I credit those years with urging me towards atheism, too, or else I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did about the Bible and the LDS scriptures and church history.

    Many Christians will say that atheists never read the Bible, and that if they would, they’d all have a change of heart. That’s not true at all. I know lots of atheists who study that book hard, and many of them say that reading it is what contributed to them finding out for themselves that there is no God.

    Also, in regards to Education and Business leading to an increase in relilgiosity? Could it have anything to do with “Please GOD make my students behave!” or “Please GOD bring me customers!”

    Incidentally, today I saw a lot of little small businesses owned by Asians that have those lucky cats in them. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing or a superstition. They’re cute, but do people actually believe they’ll bring in more customers and more money? *scratches head*

  • I went to college to major in religious journalism. (Religion meant Christianity).
    The first book assigned in my Religion 101 class treated all religions, even Christianity, as myths. I had never thought of my own religion as myth. What a mind opener. I changed my major to world religions. That along with classes in logic and propoganda led me to athesim snd freedom.

  • Drew

    As an engineering major, the sciences keep me busy with scientific thought and most of my professors are atheists/agnostics/humanists. But as a a religious studies minor I am surrounded by Christians who don’t know a damn thing. My reason for my minor is to understand more than just the few half dozen religions that I know and to really understand the basis and history of the worlds religions. But Hemant is right. The reason I left Christianity was because I found flaws in the religion I had too much faith in upon studying it.

  • Drew

    Mr. Camp what do you with your World Religions Major? I am minoring in Religious Studies because I cant find a real use for it as a Major.

  • Dariel MIller

    I’m with you. I have a hard time believing that the physical sciences doesn’t take people farther away from religion and god. For me Astronomy just crushed the remaining sliver of possibility in my mind that someone creator could actually watching over our little planet when we are merely a sand speck in infinite space. Astronomy is mind opening.

  • Tina

    I was a biology and psychology major during college, which made me more religious probably because I always ended up praying for a miracle during exams. I always find it funny when atheists try to use the scientific method to prove God doesn’t exist. First of all, there is a reason why religion requires you to have faith. Faith is the belief in the unseen. You either have it or you don’t.

    Science does not explain everything. Science is just a series of theories that are constantly undergoing revision. Some scientific “facts” that we thought were true before (and were proven using the scientific method) have now been deemed false. If the scientific method is so flawless, then how could this have happened? Are we all so arrogant to think that our current knowledge of the world and universe are sufficient to explain EVERYTHING? Don’t get me wrong. I think science is a great tool at gaining understanding of the world, but it cannot explain everything. Can science explain how a tumor can disappear suddenly from a patient without any medical treatment? Can science explain how some people apparently die and come back to life 15 minutes later? I haven’t heard any decent scientific explanations. The world is not always what it seems. Not everything is tangible and can be figured out by performing some calculations. That’s where religion or spirituality comes in.

  • Nina Lee

    Based on Godel’s theorems, it’s not possible to have a complete and consistent explanation of everything. And just b/c professional scientists can’t explain everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our own brains to figure things out, instead of relying on given explanations, religious or not.

    Tina’s post is an example of this phenomenon: when humans don’t perceive supposedly scientific explanations to be useful enough, their brains automatically turn to other explanations they’ve been exposed to, unless they’re philosophers or non-professional scientists who’ve done their own analyses (see Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations).

    Similar to the results of the study on college majors and religiosity are the results from an analysis of Al Qaeda terrorists (w/ a note added by me):
    “Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate. [Note: practices based on findings from science; such as engineering, architecture, or medical care; are not the same as scientific study.] Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, Zawahiri is a physician, Mohammed Atta was, of course, an architect; and a few members are military, such as Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, who is supposedly the head of the military committee.”

    It seems that when a person doesn’t understand humans (including himself/herself) in light of what humans have learned through the sciences or humanities, the person’s brain is more likely to accept and think in terms of given religious/political memes.

  • Beth

    I was a Visual Arts major in college. The art history courses that touched on religious art through the ages put the nail in the ‘religious’ coffin for me. The overwhelming evidence that Christian art and symbols (as well as ideas)were borrowed from ancient pagan religions slapped me awake. I also had taken a course on evolution in freshman year which gave me pause about my beliefs, however I still maintained that perhaps God was responsible for evolution. I was still holding on. Evolution hammered the nail halfway in and Art History was the final blow.

  • Ian

    I’m a sociology major in my second year of University at the moment. I was actually an Fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian until around the time I was starting my senior year of High School.

    However, I wasn’t a very informed non-Theist. I still had very little knowledge of scientific principles and for the first year or so, I retained the belief that Intelligent Design “Theory” and Naturalistic biology were a legitimate scientific controversy, thus I relied on logic and philosophy to use in debates. (Which still worked quite well, long story short I once embarrassed my still-evangelical dad at a party where we made a spectacle of debating the validity of the Christian religion, but I digress.)

    Once I got to college however, I began learning about European history, world religions, the natural sciences that I was until then very ignorant of, the philosophy of humanism and so on. Now instead of acting like the angry little dissenting teenager who hated waking up early on Sundays regurgitating old (although effective) atheist philosophy, I felt like I could actually think INDEPENDENTLY on these subjects, and has increased my atheism ten-fold.

    I chose to major in sociology for a multitude of reasons, one of the biggest being understanding religious fundamentalism as a social structure so I could come up with some idea on how subvert the dangerous ideas that are taken so seriously by people in the United States and elsewhere. Such as that Global Warming isn’t happening, or that the destruction of the earth is a good thing because it signals the return of the messiah to judge the earth. (I’m generalizing I know, but it is honestly what my parents espouse.) Thanks for reading, I realize my comment is long I just had a lot to say. =]

error: Content is protected !!