Has the religion-education gradient turned positive?

by on August 11, 2014 at 11:53 am in Education, Religion, Uncategorized | Permalink

For those born in much of the 20th century, it was true that college graduates of all ages were significantly less likely than others to report any religious affiliation.

But research just published in the journal Social Forces (abstract available here) finds that, starting for those born in the 1970s, there was a reversal in this historic trend. For that cohort, a college degree increases the chances that someone will report a religious affiliation.

“College education is no longer a faith-killer,” said Philip Schwadel, author of the paper and associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

That is for belief, observance was not tested.  The full story is here.

1 Dave August 11, 2014 at 12:00 pm

“That is for belief, observance was not tested.”

Well, one’s true “belief” and one’s “stated belief” may be different.

2 zbicyclist August 11, 2014 at 9:57 pm

That’s a big hole; religious belief in surveys has stayed relatively stable, while church attendance has declined.

There’s a brief discussion here: http://andrewgelman.com/2006/07/11/counting_church/

3 Chris H August 12, 2014 at 12:26 pm

The changed in stated belief is still surprising. If anything I’d expect more people to be comfortable calling themselves non-religious today than a few decades ago given the general rise in tolerance for non-standard life styles and beliefs.

4 Zachary Bartsch August 11, 2014 at 12:08 pm

I don’t remember where: There was a paper published recently that purported to find a decrease in abortion rights beliefs being highly correlated with abortions. In other words: The argument that abortion is “killing” the belief in abortion might be valid. Could it be that there are other views that highly correlate with abortion rights?

5 Nathan W August 11, 2014 at 2:15 pm

The belief that I am male and that I should leave such questions basically to women?

6 Govco August 11, 2014 at 6:37 pm

That’s exactly what I tried to tell the family court about those six kids a 4 women, but they disagree with you and I.

7 Thomas August 11, 2014 at 8:42 pm

Nathan’s argument, often repeated as it is, sidesteps or ignores the possibility that some people consider abortion to be murder. Would Nathan argue that murder-by-female is something that men should not pass judgement on? Of course not, and that demonstrates the disingenuous nature of the argument (and it’s proponents).

8 Kevin August 11, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Is there an obligation to alter our beliefs if there is someone, somewhere, how believes differently? That seems to be what you’re claiming. If Nathan does not believe that abortion is murder, then Nathan’s argument is perfectly valid.

Should libertarians give up their arguments because some people don’t believe in property rights to the same degree that libertarians do?

9 Adrian Ratnapala August 12, 2014 at 1:55 am

This is needlessly complicating the issue, perhaps because Thomas didn’t put his point well. There are two philosophical metaphysical, positions you can take each with its own clear consequence.

(1) Embryos enjoy no right to life, thus the decision to abort belongs to the mother as part of her personal freedom. (2) Embryos do enjoy the right to life and since that is the most important of human rights, it imposes a duty on the mother to bear with the pregnancy.

(1) means particular abortion decisions should be left to the particular women concerned. (2) means it should be banned outright, and people of any sex would have a duty to work for that ban.

10 Thomas August 12, 2014 at 3:33 am


My point was that the claim, “I am male and that I should leave such questions basically to women”, is disingenuous rhetoric because it attempts to take the moral high ground by implying that his opponent is against freedom for women, while completely ignoring that his opponent likely opposes abortion because he believes it is murder.

11 Jan August 12, 2014 at 6:55 am

Thomas, the belief many have is simply: I am male, don’t believe abortion is murder and think that I should leave such questions to women (because I don’t have a right to meddle in the personal freedoms).

It’s not a moral high ground. It’s that very first part which is obvious, but you seem to disingenuously ignore it.

12 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly August 12, 2014 at 10:02 am

Nathan’s point is probably more accurately described as question-begging than as disingenuous (I don’t really doubt that he was pithily alluding to a disingenuous argument, but he didn’t explicitly make it so in the interest of charity we can set that aside).

Regardless, the thrust of Thomas’ point stands–that the argument “I am a male so it’s none of my business” sidesteps the central question, whether through ignorance or intentional obtuseness.

(There’s also a second-order question even if one grants that life begins at conception, which is whether the embryo’s right to life outweighs the pregnant woman’s rights to bodily integrity and autonomy; I’m sympathetic to arguments that it does not and find it equally disingenuous when pro-life sorts decline to acknowledge the point, but that’s headed down the rabbit hole).

13 Nathan W August 12, 2014 at 12:22 pm

I’m not trying to take the moral high ground. I’m saying that I really think it’s not my business.

If you think it’s your business, fine. I don’t think it’s mine. Why do you think it’s yours?

For example, I don’t think it’s my business to tell you whether or not to use a condom. But if you do not wish to have children, then promoting the use of condoms is probably a better idea than preaching abstinence (a most unnatural practice).

For me, the moral high ground is a high quality and informative sex education program in public education, starting at an age that will make most people uncomfortable. People who oppose abortion typically also endorse counterproductive approaches to minimizing teenage pregnancy and STD transmission, such as abstinence only, or family planning approaches. They think they have the moral high ground, but the reality is that those strategies are easily demonstrated as counterproductive with respect to stated objectives, as has been done almost every time someone has researched the question (I am unaware of counterexamples).

The objectives should be a) minimize STD transmission, b) minimize teenage pregnancy, and c) communicate that abortion is not a method of contraception and should not be considered as an alternative to proven methods of contraception. No method is 100% certain, and so abortions should be available. But men do not get to make that decision. Period.

14 Brian Donohue August 12, 2014 at 5:02 pm

I used to be a fetus. Doesn’t that give me standing?

15 Nathan W August 12, 2014 at 12:10 pm

I believe that a woman’s body is a woman’s body.

I fully acknowledge the legitimacy of your counterargument.

I explicitly acknowledge that it’s 50% cop out of a complicated and generally distasteful discussion.

When it comes from the very same mouths as people who endorse farm subsidies which effectively result in starvation of children in less fortunate economies via impacts on global markets, I am unwilling to accept the legitimacy of abortion as murder unless people are willing to accept that underpricing food outputs in America means that the poorest farmers on the planet will never earn the profits needed to get started on the road of capital accumulation.

Farm subsidies are murder, statistically speaking, and if you are not willing to acknowledge that, I am unwiling to entertain the discussion of abortion as murder.

Anyways, I prefer to focus on the other 50%, in order to evade the general discussion, and simply say “a woman’s body is a woman’s body, and it is not my right to tell her which decisions she should make with regards to her body”

After all, it’s not like people argue “let’s end abortion and offer 100% guarantee of support to all mothers so their children can have a chance”, instead, the same people would force the mother to give birth and then endorse policies which would leave her unaided. Recall that infanticide was common practice in many traditional societies, often in explicit recognition of an inability to care for an additional child – better to get it a three months into term than to wait for birth (since we aren’t exactly offering the mothers a lot of help in raising her child).

I only tolerate anti-abortion perspectives from people who would offer real opportunities and real support to mothers of children, and even then, I still believe that a woman’s body is a woman’s body, and that this is not an area where men should be making decisions except to practice safe sex.

16 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly August 12, 2014 at 12:24 pm

What asinine arguments.

“Farm subsidies are murder, statistically speaking, and if you are not willing to acknowledge that, I am unwiling to entertain the discussion of abortion as murder.”

(1) If we define “murder” to include everything that has a virtual certainty of resulting that someone, somewhere, will die prematurely from otherwise preventable causes, we effectively have to cease living; this is why proximate cause and intentionality are generally elements of murder, so we can draw that line–so no, farm subsidies are not “murder,” they are at worst negligent homicide; (2) there are colorable arguments that farm subsidies create more food and better livelihoods for certain individuals, saving some lives–so there’s a tradeoff of lives rather than pure destruction, which would further differentiate the two; (3) even granting your premise that farm subsidies are murder, the old saying is that “two wrongs don’t make a right”–you are making an argument for abolishing farm subsidies, you are not making an argument for why abortion is not murder (or you’re engaging in an ad hominen fallacy that those who believe abortion is murder are stupid and/or arguing in bad faith, which in no way detracts from the argument).

“I only tolerate anti-abortion perspectives from people who would offer real opportunities and real support to mothers of children”

Replace the word “abortion” in the above sentence with “infanticide” and see whether you still buy into it. If yes, hooray, you’re at least logically consistent (if also morally repugnant to at least 90% of the population); if not, you’re falling victim to the same ad hominem fallacy without making a real argument about the rights claims at issue.

If you don’t want to engage with difficult questions that’s fine–most people don’t, and sometimes innocent people die as a result. But it’s pretty disingenuous to accuse other people of being thoughtless for failing to have moral views you consider sufficiently self-consistent when you refuse to rationalize the consistency of your own.

17 Nathan W August 12, 2014 at 6:18 pm

It’s not an assanine argument. It’s my perspective.

If you value life so highly, then surely you would value the life of children who suffer as a result of distortions in the international trading system which make it next to impossible for the poorest people on the earth to accumulate capital and afford opportunities for their children. In the meantime, in many countries 10-20% of children die before the age of five. If their parents competed on equal grounds, they would be in a better situation to feed and access medical services for their children.

I understand that it’s a little facetious to equate statistical murder with going straight over there and putting the knife in their heart yourself. But if the outcome is the same (dead babies), then what’s the difference, really?

Anyways, we disagree on some things. I never tried to argue that there is anything “right” about abortion. I argue that it is not my business to tell a woman what to do with her body. It’s a terrible situation, and I refuse to make ethical judgment on people who proceed with that choice … unless perhaps if they literally consider it as a means of birth control – better that we offer high quality sex education so that people more reliably access better methods of contraception.

18 Hadur August 11, 2014 at 12:13 pm

One hypothesis: college encourages the adoption of contrarian viewpoints, and in a religious society this means atheism. In an atheistic society this means religion.

19 Brian August 11, 2014 at 6:07 pm

In an atheistic society?? Uh…, if by “atheistic society” you mean a society where atheists are de facto ineligible for public office and where 3/4 of the population say they believe in god, then yes, I guess we have an atheistic society.

20 zbicyclist August 12, 2014 at 8:42 am

We don’t have an atheistic society. We might have an apathetic society, or a secular society, but hardly an atheistic society. Are most of the people you know atheists? I doubt it.

21 Brian August 12, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Why are you responding to my comment? As an atheist myself, I was clearly arguing that we do not have an atheistic society by pointing out the facts that would tend to counter Hadur’s labeling it an atheistic society.

22 Thomas August 11, 2014 at 8:43 pm

I’m not sure that college encourages the adoption of “contrarian viewpoints” unless by “contrarian viewpoints” you mean progressive viewpoints.

23 Axa August 11, 2014 at 12:17 pm

The author mentioned one hypothesis: it may just be that universities today are more diverse than before and are representative of the beliefs of the general population.

24 Ed August 11, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Anecdotally, among educated acquaintences and looking at comments from educated people on the internets, my impression is that educated people now are likely to be less religious, or at least less churched, than when I was growing up.

However, I think my superficial impression is correct, not the scientific study. This is because I know that the percentage of the population that went to college went up sharply over the last few decades. Essentially college became what high school was in 1970. So you now have the sort of intelligent middlebrow people who would have graduated from high school and not gone to college in the 1970s now going to college, often colleges where the quality of the education is pretty much the same as a 1970s era high school. And these are exactly the sorts of people who tend to be religious.

I’ll admit I am wrong about this if the study compared graduates of the same exact college or set of college over time, so what was being tracked are the same sorts of people who would have actually gotten a higher degree forty years ago.

25 JJ August 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Immigrants from the Middle East, Blacks, Latinos, Jews: all more likely to be religious, all more likely to attend college now than four decades ago.

26 dan1111 August 12, 2014 at 4:21 am

Are Jews attending U.S. universities more likely to be religious than the general student body? Not in my anecdotal experience. The point about other ethnic groups is a possibility, but it is not so clear when you think about all the demographic changes in college attendance. What about Chinese? They are less likely to be religious.

27 randomworker August 11, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Perhaps not necessarily religion of the Creflo Dollar (et al) variety.

Which pope was it that started the astronomer? Religion is not incompatible with science. Just not the children’s story (Noah’s Ark) style of religion which, sadly, is what most Christian religions in this country have descended to.

28 randomworker August 11, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Make that *office of the papal astronomer

29 Keith August 11, 2014 at 12:37 pm

More women going to college, and women have higher rates of religious affiliation?

Another hypothesis is college is expensive, intact families are the best able to afford college, and intact families are typically more religious.

30 Engineer August 11, 2014 at 12:46 pm

There’s the “idiocracy’ effect – though it may be too soon for it to be showing up among college students.

Educated religious people do a lot more reproducing than educated secular people do.

31 ed August 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Why do you say it’s about “belief” when the excerpt says it’s about “affiliation,” which is different from belief (and also different from observance).

32 John Thacker August 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Indeed, a lot of the “unaffiliated” in these surveys (and many “agnostics” and even some “atheists” in surveys) profess a belief in some sort of God, just often some kind of syncretism. The sort of “spiritual, but not religious” type people.

33 Brian Albrecht August 11, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I’d be interested to see how much social capital is built at college and church over time.

I have a hypothesis that I would love to be able to test that both areas are substitutes for building social capital. As more college goes online or at larger schools with less community, graduates might need to supplement this with the community built at a church. I’m not sure how to go about testing…

As I said, this is only a hypothesis.

34 Urso August 11, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Heck, who needs college or church? You guys are my community!

35 Nathan W August 11, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Probably students in the 60s were caught off guard by questioning attitudes from earlier social revolutions, but by now faith communities have become more resilient to these questioning attitudes, and for example are able to study in the sciences while treating science and religion as essentially different areas of enquiry. While they can overlap in a lot of ways, perhaps it is less anti-establishment to try to poke holes in faith, and so perhaps some people are less inclined to go for the throat and simply accept contradiction where a person can simultaneous learn from both scientific and spiritual/religious sources of knowledge.

What I don’t get is why many people treat things in such mutually exclusive manners, and often feel that faith is required to learn from one or more areas of spiritual knowledge, practice or tradition.

36 Millian August 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm

This is credible. The college completion rate among the population before 1970 was usually around 20%. Around 1970, it went to 30%, more than double the rate of that cohort’s parents’ cohort. That implies a big change in who goes to college. If religion is basically middlebrow, for neither the alienated nor the recherché, the extra 10% could tip the balance.

37 Millian August 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Worth noting, too, that these effects are yet to be felt in non-USA countries. There is a wealth of comparative data out there, and American scholars could exploit their competitors’ insularity.

38 prior_approval August 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm

The founder of Virginia’s largest university is pleased – ‘Liberty University is a private, non-profit Christian university located in Lynchburg, Virginia, United States. Liberty’s annual enrollment includes 12,600 residential students and over 90,000 online students as of May 2013.[4][5][6] When including the number of people taking its online courses, LU is the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world, the nation’s largest private nonprofit university and 7th largest four-year university, and the largest university in Virginia.


The university was founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, who was also Senior Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. The name was changed to Liberty Baptist College in 1976 before settling on its current name, Liberty University, in 1984, when it obtained university status.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_University

As is one of his best friends – ‘Regent University is a private coeducational interdenominational Christian university located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, United States. The university was founded by Pat Robertson in 1978 as Christian Broadcasting Network University, and changed its name to Regent University in 1989.[1] A satellite campus located in Alexandria, Virginia, was sold in 2008. Regent offers an extensive distance education program in addition to its traditional on-campus programs.[3] Through its eight academic schools, Regent offers associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in over 30 courses of study.[4] Regent University is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools[5] and The Association of Theological Schools.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regent_University

Do note the dates when both institutions were founded, and the size of their student bodies – because in Virginia, it was an explicit goal of several major political figures to increase the number of students with particular religious affiliations. A goal that both figures were able to meet, successfully.

39 Dave August 11, 2014 at 2:53 pm

The subject of this post seems to be at odds with the CIRP Freshman Survey:


40 John Thacker August 11, 2014 at 3:15 pm

No, not at all. The CIRP Freshman Survey is not comparing data with 18 year olds not attending college. Even look down at the bottom of the very link you linked to:

Data from other sources indicate that the same trends are happening in the general population, but I haven’t been able to make a quantitative comparison between college students and others. Data from other sources also indicate that college graduates are slightly more likely to attend religious services, and to report a religious preference, than the general population.

41 Dave August 11, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Ah yes, good point. Thank you.

Of course, over time, an increasing percentage of the age cohorts were graduating college each year, so it’s maybe not so appropriate to make comparisons over time.

42 bjartur August 11, 2014 at 3:47 pm

This is consistent with Dan Kahan’s research: the smarter you get the better you become at justifying your pre-existing beliefs (or beliefs that you naturally gravitate towards): http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/12/ideology-motivated-reasoning-and-cognitive-reflection-an-experimental-study.html

And the more complicated (or unknowable) the subject (God > global warming > evolution > vaccination), the more likely it is that we’ll see this effect.

Also, college admissions have become more merit-based over time (a smart high school student will now likely find his or her way into college regardless of family demographics) so the previous urban selection bias has probably been reduced.

43 Ricardo August 12, 2014 at 4:33 am

As mentioned above, the underlying survey (GSS) does indeed measure affiliation and not belief or observance. When Pew did a survey that included a question on religious affiliation, they included four sub-categories of “unaffiliated”: atheist, agnostic, secular unaffiliated and religious unaffiliated. If GSS’s question is similar to Pew’s, it is not clear from the summary or article what this paper is measuring. Atheists and agnostics have higher levels of education than the general American population (for instance, 21% of atheists have a graduate degree compared to 11% of American adults overall). “Secular unaffiliated” people, on the other hand, look like a cross-section of America in terms of education while “religious unaffiliated” have lower levels of education than the general population.

All this is to say it is very important to be clear on how a survey question is asked and how the answers are coded when dealing with religion. The underlying academic paper may well do this but the article is not clear.

44 Birbo August 12, 2014 at 10:15 am

This seems like a classic error of thinking correlation is causation. There are many demographic changes in education which could have produced the results the study referenced:
-More women than men attend college now and women have always been more religious in Western society
-More racial minorities are attending college now than before and, with the exception of Asians, they tend to be more religious than whites
-Religions (well many of them) have become more tolerant toward those who are not fundamentalists. It is now much easier to continue to attend a Methodist congregation and not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, for instance.
-Along with the above, there are more categories into which people might classify themselves. Note that the term “religious affiliation” was used. In the olden days, if you believed in God but not Jesus, Christians would tell you you couldn’t be a Christian.
-It’s been widely documented that the child-to-adult maturation process is now taking longer as lifespans have increased. Part of that process, in my opinion as an agnostic atheist, is discarding nonsensical beliefs about magical people who live in the sky.

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