Does College Make You Less Religious? April 7, 2011

Does College Make You Less Religious?

I’ve heard right-wingers say that college is a bastion of secularism — come in as a Christian, leave as an atheist. Here’s Dennis Prager explaining the “problem”:

… increasingly large numbers of men and women attend university, and Western universities have become essentially secular (and leftist) seminaries. Just as the agenda of traditional Christian and Jewish seminaries is to produce religious Christians and religious Jews, the agenda of Western universities is to produce (left-wing) secularists. The difference is that Christian and Jewish seminaries are honest about their agenda, while the universities still claim they have neither a secularist nor a political agenda.

That’s a conspiracy theory, of course. No university is out to indoctrinate students in atheism or make them left-wingers.

But it’s true that there are more supporters of Democrats than Republicans teaching at schools.

The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf, who for some reason believes Prager is “as thoughtful a voice as you’ll find on talk radio,” manages to offer an alternative explanation:

To me, there are better explanations for the fact that “the more university education a person receives, the more likely he is to hold secular and left-wing views.” One is that people who attend college leave home. That is to say, they leave their church, the community incentives to attend it, and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don’t go to services or stray in their faith. Suddenly they’re surrounded by dorm mates of different faiths or no faith at all. For many of these students, it turns out that their religious behavior was driven more by desire for community, or social and parental pressure, than by deeply held beliefs. Another reason education correlates with secularism is that secularists are more likely to seek advanced degrees, partly because they’re more focused than their religious counterparts on career.

There’s also the possibility that when you realize how much we really know about biology and zoology and anthropology and chemistry and genetics and astrophysics, the stories in the Bible just become silly and antiquated.

You can’t take religious myths seriously after you’re forced to think critically for a few years.

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  • Zeke

    I went to a Catholic university, and while there experienced the same “conversion” to atheism that Prager attributes to attending secular institutions. It’s not a product of attending college or of where you went. It’s not a hidden agenda of higher education. The simple fact is that more education makes you a critical thinker, and religion fails to hold up to critical scrutiny.

  • gsw

    Am I the only one deeply disturbed at this continuous use of the word secular to mean atheist?
    As an atheist, I suppose I am supposed to be flattered?

    Still it appears to me to be the old trick of redefining something deeply embedded in the American constitution, the bedrock of freedom and free speech, to mean something lots of Americans are dubious about.

    1st. Amendment puts secularism ahead of religion – if secularism = atheism – the 1st. Amendment = godlessness throw it away.

    OK, now tell me I am paranoid.

  • Travis

    I began to leave the church senior year in high school, and was pretty much an atheist by sophomore year of college. I’ve had both conservative and liberal thinking professors, atheists, Christians, Muslims, and I’m sure other faiths as well. The idea that universities are “leftist seminaries” is absurd. There is an admitted abundance of leftists in higher education, but it no way are universities seeking to discriminate against religious and conservative thinkers. It’s the very nature of an intellectual to be open to all points of view. When students are exposed to new ways of thinking it forces them to criticize their own, and in the case of religion, this can lead to the epiphany that one’s way of thinking may be just as flawed as another.

    I never really fit in with the “community” that well at my church, but as an adolescent, my beliefs were fairly sincere. It wasn’t until I began to question the moral and existential issues behind religion that I truly began to break from it, and that was definitely due to interactions with people of differing views, as well Introductory Philosophy, haha.

  • “No university is out to indoctrinate students in atheism or make them left-wingers.”

    Perhaps not left-wingers but if religion is defined as a type of delusion than any training in critical thought would undermine religion. College and the Sky Fairy are natural foes.

  • Alan

    College may be when more people become more secular, but I doubt that college itself has anything to do with it. You’ll hear about people railing on professors bent on making their students athiets and liberals. Those people have probably never attended a college class. Not once in my four and a half years of college did I hear a professor say anything that tried to sway my opinion. Professors are much to busy trying to get through a semester to take time out of a lecture to talk about why they feel God isn’t real or why the Democrats are always right.

    Another dirty secret….a lot of my professors were conservative anyways.

  • AxeGrrl

    Prager’s agenda against secularism has become increasingly wearisome over the years.

    Sam Harris and Dennis Prager debate religion

  • Mike

    It doesn’t surprise me that someone like Prager does not even entertain the notion that this might have something to do with the general distaste that those on the right of the political spectrum have for learning and intellect, especially as it relates to scientific fields. I believe that Democrats, much more than Republicans, are willing to form or change an opinion based on evidence. They are much less dogmatic. Why is there nothing on the Republican side like the “herding cats” analogy, which I hear so often describing those of a Democratic ilk? The GOP walks in lock-step on their ideology, and that is mainly because of the fervor of those on the extreme of their political side.

    Today, the major leaders of Prager’s political right champion and encourage an anti-intellectual point of view and seek to diminish the application of scientific methodology to almost any area that does not comport with their political and ideological goals. It does not even have to be a scientifically related area. It can be economics, foreign policy or something like national transportation. At this point in history, the dogmatic tendencies are inherent in their political philosophy.

  • JD

    It really sounds like a scapegoat. Like some others, I eventually quit religion as a result of going to a religious school. I think it was Red Headed Skeptic that suggested that it was easier for Christians to keep their faith at a secular school than a Christian one. They didn’t have to take the religion classes where you learn rigorously about your religious texts and get exposed to things that your preacher and own reading didn’t expose you to.

  • JoeBuddha

    According to that consumate philosopher, Stephen Colbert, “Reality has a known liberal bias.” As one goal of University is to bring your understanding closer to reality, it’s inevitable that you’ll become increasingly “secular” (if, indeed, there’s a correlation between “secular” and “liberal”). It’s a feature, not a bug.

  • Holly

    I experienced the same thing as Zeke. I attended a Catholic university less than an hour from where I grew up. I graduated as an atheist because of the mental and emotional maturity I gained over those four years, not because it was a particularly liberal environment (it wasn’t).

  • Scott

    Here is a study detailing exactly how college majors affect religiousity. Short version: nearly all majors show a negative coorelation. Education and business majors were the most religious. The physical sciences showed the least change in faith, but they had the lowest rates overall.

    Here’s a collection of study results, all suggesting a negative coorelation between education and religiosity:

  • Mr Ed

    Correlation not causation. Maybe it has nothing to do with Universities themselves but that students drawn to secular education might also be open to questioning their faith.

    PZ Myers isn’t grabing freshman in the quad and trying to convert them any more than the Newman club or Hileal House. What is happening is the availability of ideas without dogmatic rejection.

  • ErinM

    I think the association of college with secularism involves a bit of selection bias. People who like the idea of being challenged and learning to think go to college; people who don’t stay home.

  • I went to college a born-again thumper. My whole persona started to crack right about the time I attended my first frat party…

  • Jeebus

    I’ve heard right-wingers say that college is a bastion of secularism — come in as a Christian, leave as an atheist.

    Damn straight. My first Western Humanities course in my first semester helped open my eyes and confirm what I suspected about religion all along. College didn’t make me an atheist, but the education I received along with being away from home for the first time so I could “think” for myself and form my own opinions about the world confirmed what I already knew.

  • Thegoodman

    Information is the enemy of religion, not education. However, education is the fastest and easiest path to information that will contradict the scriptures.

    I happen to agree with him. Universities do intend on educating their students and they do intend on changing them for the better. If a close minded uneducated little sheep leaves the confines of his/her intimidating bible thumping family, his/her college of choice would certainly enjoy knowing they have opened up his/her mind and made him/her a more independent critical thinking adult.

  • Most colleges expose students to people who — GASP! — might hold different views than their own. As soon as you get out of the religious coccoon where anyone who disagrees is the Other, it becomes harder to demonize those people or their views. That’s how I went from fundigelical freshman to senior crusader for gay equality. Add to that a modicum of training in critical thinking and unrestricted access to real knowledge…well, let’s just say religion doesn’t fare well in that environment.

  • Gregory Marshall

    Of course it does, college teaches you critical thinking and not to mention you tend to meet many people of different cultures and see that as human.

    Actually, the military can be like this too. When I was in the military, it was the first time I ran in to proselytizing. I was so offended by their brash nature(I wasn’t a true christian because I was Catholic), compound that with the atheists I met, who were cool as hell and not judgmental.

    Then I travel over to Japan and Korea and meet a whole new culture of people that practice a different religion and live quality lives, totally makes you reexamine everything.

  • Dustin

    Critical thinking is to religion what Batman is to Joker.

  • bringyoursunscreen

    I’m not a church going Christian but did major in human biology at what is considered a very liberal school. I’m still Christian. Many of my friends/fraternity brothers took the evolutionary biology courses all pre-med students are made to take. Some of them have serious doubts or are full fledged atheists. Those who are devout atheists were all from families who had religion (specifically the kind where God is the puppeteer of every single thing in the world-which is something that scientifically is false) shoved down their throats. In my own personal experiences, people’s minds are much more susceptible to disbelief when they’ve had a troubling brand of religion crammed down their throats for 18+ years. Obviously scientific facts help aide their regression, but it’s the upbringing that I think has the biggest effect on the “turn.”

  • Adrian

    Conor is right, once a lot of those people straight out of high school leave home, deal with people who they never had any contact with before, their eyes are opened. I was certainly the same once I finished high school, its not because anyone told me to turn against the church.

  • Carrie

    While I admit that I went into college not 100% sold on religion, I left college an atheist. I attended at Jesuit college and therefore had to take several theology classes. After my first one explained the conflicting nativity stories I thought “This is all a bunch of crap.” So yes…for me, college was the exact catalyst for leaving religion and I am so thankful for it.

  • As others have said above, religion puts God first and your understanding of reality must be subordinate to the religious beliefs. Secularism puts reality first and then the chips must fall where they may. Part of this “chip falling” is that religion is often exposed as “man-made-up”. For the religious, there is always liberty university (if you call it a university).

  • In my case, yes, college did point me towards atheism (or Ignosticism)

    After taking every religion course offered, it is almost impossible to continue being a theist, that is of course, if one allows their minds to think reflectively and critically.

    I am now a professor of religion and philosophy, and have begun a blog refuting arguments by popular Christian apologists. It is

    Religion appeals to the weak, and downtrodden because it offers “false hope.” I also know that many who are clergy are also agnostic/atheists, but they stay in the profession, as it is a cushy job that gives them clout.

  • Candide

    Strangely, the opposite happened with my ex’s fundie father. He went to college in the seventies in Southern California and found himself so repulsed by everything that he saw (drug use, promiscuous sex, anti-government protests, New Age-religious practices, homosexuality) that he dug down and became the most conservative, (KJV-only) Bible-thumping man in the state.

    I imagine there’s a large percentage of people who go in as believers and come out as atheists/agnostics/people who don’t care, but there’s a smaller but sizable percentage who are so turned off of college experiences that threaten their beliefs that they hunker down, become paranoid, and come out of it WORSE than if they had never gone at all.

  • I was a deist when I entered college, and an atheist when I graduated. The only science class I took was an entry level astronomy class, and I already knew most of the material for the course. I took no sociology or history courses, and no philosophy.

  • “Hmmm, the more educated people are, the less likely they are to hold my views… b-b-but it couldn’t possibly be my views that are the problem! Down with education!”


  • I have to agree largely with the correlation =/= causation that has been said. But I can say that I affirmed my atheism in college. Now look at the things I have to say…

  • Don

    College does make you less likely to be a right-wing authoritarian follower, which is typically a right-wing Christian fundamentalist.

  • Mark C.

    I’m not sure what college changed for me, except that I became much better socially, despite pretty much staying in my dorm room whenever I could. I entered college as an atheist mad at religion and its negative impact on society, and left… well, the same, but with much more tact and empathy, and with more knowledge of psychology and philosophy with which to think about religion. I also became a market anarchist, a right libertarian, and a Randian Objectivist (not all at the same time), but that anti-government, shallow, unrealistic line of thinking was tossed out the window not long afterward, thank Athe (my Objectivist period was also horrible for social interaction). Probably the last big vestige of religion that I threw away in college was the fervent desire that my partner (whoever was next) should be a virgin.

    So, lots of changes during college, but I’m not sure that college itself contributed much, intellectually, toward those changes.

  • Ian

    “Reality has a liberal bias.”

  • When someone learns to think for themselves, what do they need a priest or pastor for?

  • CanadianNihilist

    I’ve always felt the education is the answer to many problems of today. That includes religion and Republicans.

    The more educated society becomes the less pull ridiculous notions have.

  • saltyestelle

    Critical thinking skills are the natural enemy of religion. Also, the more one learns about different religions throughout human history, the more obvious it becomes that god is an invention of man, not the reverse. I attended a wonderful Jesuit university, entered and left as an atheist. I think taking all of those theology courses just cemented my non-belief.

  • Danielle

    I went to a secular private school that probably had just as many religious organizations as secular, and 5 times as much support. I became really involved in these, and so did many of my friends. When I graduated, many of the speeches explained we couldn’t succeed without god, and one told us we need to fight all the ‘isms’ – sexism, racism, and atheism. What brought me to atheism wasn’t my education, it was just how creepy all that religious stuff got. It felt like a cult, and made me step back and take a critical look at it all.

  • Mrs. Bitch

    I’ve attended 3 colleges over my lifetime, taken a lot of philosophy (ethics, logic, etc.) and sociology courses, as well as quite a bit of hard-core higher math and science. I’m with Alan on this one. The myth of the liberal/atheist/elitist college professor trying to convert the pious innocents is much like the myth of the liberal media: spouted as fact by people with an agenda. In fact, the only professors I had who made any reference to their beliefs were religious.

  • Miko

    It’s worth noting that that “more Democrats than Republicans” statistic is really looking at donations to Democrats vs. donations to Republicans from college professors. In reality, this is a very small percentage of college professors. Most professors dislike both the Democrats and the Republicans, and the percentage that would actually consider donating to one party or the other is even smaller. It’s true that almost all of us hate the Republicans more than we hate the Democrats, but that is in no way an endorsement of the Democrats.

    A couple years back there was a small kerfuffle at my university in which a professor had students write an essay in which the student, Obama, and McCain were in a crashing airplane with two parachutes and the student had to decide how to distribute them (with the implied “correct” answer being to not give one to McCain), but other than that I personally know of no instances where a professor has done anything even close to partisan in the classroom.

  • Hybrid

    I left for college a devout (though not fundamentalist) Christian. I left college as a devout Christian. My degrees are technical, science-based no less! My mental construct of God was so immune to falsification that nothing could touch it… all of the education in the world would not have changed my mind.

    Then I met and married into a fundy family. Seeing how badly others could butcher reality made me wonder if I was doing the same thing without realizing it. Needless to say, praise be to the fundys, I’m now an atheist!

  • entered college agnostic, came out of grad school atheist. i had a moment of wiccan woo for a couple of years, but i never embraced a lot of that, it was limited to a slight willingness to belive in energy transfer. then i went back to science and decided it’s all woo. i became militant in my atheism, ‘pushy’ even, after the last few years of studying the political and economic history of religions. when i realized that all religions are contaminated with evil, greedy, and even atheist people who are out to manipulate and fleece the ignorant, i realized i should spend my life pointing that out. being queer helped more than college, tho. i respond, strenuously, against people who actively state i should be killed in the name of a religious idea or script. the rise of the religious right in this country has been mirrored by a rise in atheism/agnosticism in the queer community. fine, you hate us. we won’t be nice to you, then.

  • Craig

    I went to a public university and had very few professors express political opinions in class. I had a poly-sci prof who was conservative and didn’t hide it, but wasn’t pushy at all and respected any opinions we had. I had a quite liberal English teacher, but she wasn’t critical of the anti-abortion paper one of my classmates wrote. I had two engineering professors express their views on global warming. One was skeptical of it (but only really talked about it once) while the other (who does a lot of pollution control work) pretty well embarrassed one student who used ridiculous PRATT arguments against global warming. I don’t think ANY professor, ever, told me their religious beliefs.

  • Nakor

    I think that the classes that you take can have a pretty big impact on this too. Math (my intended major) I’m not sure would necessarily have a direct effect on someone’s religiosity at all. On the other hand, even without taking sides on religion, the fact that we studied The Confessions and got a bit of history in my first year English lit class on early English (Christian) authors could easily nudge someone away from religiosity. I imagine that other arts courses (history, religious studies, etc.) could have a similar inherent effect.

    Sciences (and math) of course promote logical thinking, but don’t necessarily drive one to apply that thinking to their religion, which I think is an important difference.

  • Just speaking for University of Oregon, we have only one secular student group and at least 6 Christian groups and full on student unions for Muslim and Jewish students, including a prayer room across the street for the Muslim Student union, which get IFEE money to spend as they see fit.

    Remember, this is at the evil liberal mecca of Eugene OR which has one of the nation’s lowest church attendance at roughly 25% even beating out Portland, Berkley and other super secular areas. Religion is prevalent on campus even in this godforsaken town.

  • Ian Welch

    I went into college as a doubtful Catholic, leaning towards agnosticism, then by my second year of school I was a firm agnostic, and then by my fourth year I was an atheist. I don’t think that going to a university ENCOURAGES atheism and secularism, but rather it is simply a byproduct of being an intelligent human being. College teaches you to think critically and be a more open and rational individual- and I sincerely think that if you come in with a tinge of doubt to your faith, college WILL force you to examine your own set of values and beliefs.

    Where I attend school, students are required to study at least four humanities courses- a lot of which are philosophy-based; does this mean the students are exposed to the “secular menace?” Not really. Those humanities classes encourage the students to objectively view themselves as humans- hence “the humanities”… if it makes them re-evaluate their faith, it’s their responsibility to either rise to the occasion and KEEP asking questions, or they can chose to bury their heads and move forward. Either way, it’s not the fault of the college.

  • martha

    I went to college a bit conservative and barely religious. I came out a socialist and continued to be barely religious. I boycotted lettuce in support of farmworkers. I had an FBI file on me. I was a member of a counter protest (maybe 15 people) when Roe v. Wade was decided and the whole town hit the streets protesting the decision. Even kids got out of school.

    There were so many more important issues than religion.

  • I think Conor is right, actually. But his argument exposes ultimately what religion is—a big club where you have to pay tribute to the delusion to get in. When the social pressure to be in the club is relieved, the emotional argument for playing along with the lie is removed.

  • Sinfanti

    How about this? Universities’ true agenda is to teach people to think for themselves. This sort of cerebral activity is the first nail in the coffin of religious belief.

  • Twin-Skies

    Theology classes were mandatory in our college (Jesuit-run).

    What I did appreciate was that our professors challenged us to deconstruct the doctrines they were teaching, and enjoyed having open debates with the students on how these teachings should be applied in real life.

    There were occasions our proffs gave good grades to students who were clearly opposed to the theology, on account that they displayed a thorough understanding of them, and gave excellent arguments during the exams.

    Between this and the philosophy classes, I’d like to think this is what caused me to eventually leave my faith after graduating – I’d understood the theology enough to know it just didn’t add up, and I thank my SJ professors for setting me on this patch 😀

    I hope they’re doing well. They were really decent guys…despite being priests XD.

  • cat

    I suppose I am the exception, because I have had classes where politics were discussed. However, those were women studies and queer theory related, so it is not really a secret that these discussions pop up more. I do remember learning the Marxist theory of gender construction in an upper level course (it was not that we were forced to believe it, we had a discussion on essentialist feminist models of gender vs. constructionist ones).

    The philosophy department (my major) leaned heavily atheist, but the focus was more on the arguments themselves (as in, we don’t care what your religion is, bad arguments are bad arguments). So things like Euthypro’s dilemma, the problem of evil, Pascal’s Wager, did come up for evalution or discussion. My major seminar (senior major students only) professor apparantly made some borderline derisive remarks about religion. I missed that class, but there was an apology, where the students in the room discovered that only one of us had even noticed and none of us had cared. It turned out all but one of us was an atheist, and that one was agnostic. Ah, people who have philsophy as their sole (or primary) major, so not a representative sample in regards to religion, apparantly.

  • If colleges’ and universities’ primary mission is to teach “critical thinking”, then judging from most of the comments here none of you went to college.

  • Barbara

    Of course, the fundies have it right: if you want to keep people religious, keep ’em away from education. Homeschool the kids and Liberty University or similar for college (or none at all).

  • Justin

    I’ll add myself to the list of readers that attended a Christian university. Went in an evangelical, came out an atheist.

  • Temi

    So many comments here seem grossly mistaken. The constant reference to becoming more intelligent and thinking critically is funny to see as well. Do any of you realize that Atheism is not a-religion? Religion does not dictate God and a religion being valid or not is not what determines if there is a God. Atheism says there is no God, and so many of you seem to be atheists simply because you don’t like religions.

  • Temi

    Oh, There is another mistake that’s going around that shows its not quite being smarter but thinking you are and the way information is presented. Evolution is a significant part of this, but the sciences can almost never tell you whether there is no God or if there is. The other areas of study even less so. So saying “we know so much now” really means not a thing. Saying something is not possibly biologically or physically and therefore what a religion said is wrong is a mistake in thought if the particular claim of the religion was supposed to be a miracle or otherwise act of the deity. It would not be such a special occurrence if it was naturally possible, would it. I think what would really twist a persons faith is the theory of evolution, which is p resented at schools as fact. That is the major thing that could be said to lead to atheism.

  • Actually, I’m an atheist because I don’t see a shred of evidence that deities exist. Religion has nothing to do with it.

  • Jhecter

    That’s the challenge; to believe in something that isn’t able to be seen (besides visions). If you can do this, your life will be changed forever.

  • ColinRose

     I can’t even understand what your trying to say. Astronomy alone tells me that the universe is far older than the bible claims it to be. I don’t even want to get into anthropology and geology.

  • ColinRose

     Keep feeding yourself what you want to hear. Of course atheism is not a religion… the very definition is a lack of belief in any deity. The reason that atheists, such as myself, are so bothered by religion is because it’s painful to see those in our community thinking in ways that seem to be, in our minds, clearly flawed.

    I think that if a god did exist, there is no way that any human could ever know of it’s true nature or form. It’s insane for any human to think that they know what or who god really is. Think about that.

    I’m sick of people assuming that atheist are somehow bad people. Why can’t I be a good person without the fear of hell?

    People always tell me, “the universe had to come from somewhere, so there must be a god”. Okay, so where did god come from? Who created the creator? Who created the creators’ creator? How far down the rabbit hole do we go? Or should we only worry about the things that we CAN know, like family, friendship, and loving one another.

    One more observation: The states that are the most religious are also the states with the highest pornography website subscriptions. I think religious people are just as human as everyone else, and the more guilty a person feels, the more they use religion as a way of saying “look, see, I’m a good person”. I think people who aren’t religious watch just as much porn, but they can think critically enough to get it for free instead of paying for it.

  • ColinRose

    People who can think critically will agree with this article. Those who cannot, will disagree.

    This is why religion still exists and why there are people who defend it. Apathy combined with lack of critical thinking. It’s easier to just have faith and put your life in “gods hands” than it is to think for yourself.

  • Sfishman888

    What is your evidence?

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