This Just In: College Will Make You an Atheist

Like for Halloween and Christmas, the sales pitches arrive well before the actual event. Television, radio, newspapers, piles of merchandise in stores you visit, and blogs all announce: Back to School! For some it’s kindergarten, for others, the very first day of college. School is starting soon. And that may mean losing your religion. And no, not the R.E.M. song. Nor, indeed, most of the definitions of the phrase out there—losing your temper, giving up civility, or flying off the handle, for example—though some people do see loss of religion and loss of morality or civility as entangled.

What do I mean? I mean losing your religion in a not-so-subtle way. I mean secularizing; closer to what the founders of mean than, say, R.E.M. (what was Michael Stipe really singing about anyway?) And, this sort of fear of lost faith may be the reason that a recent study from the University of Michigan has elicited such attention across various news media. Can your choice of college major mean… losing your religion?

For many of those heading off to college, choosing a major is a critical step along the way to graduation. At some point, “undecided” is not enough; decisions are called for, choices, declaration of major forms. This whole process is sometimes thought of as peculiar to higher education in the United States, which is unlike other systems where college or university students know their area of specialization well before heading off to university. For US students, declaring a major is a ritual almost as recognizably undergraduate as, say joining a fraternity, supporting sports teams or, these days, engaging in community service even when not forced to do so by the legal system. Indeed, there are books on choosing your major, Web sites filled with advice, and even quizzes to take online to figure out what major would be best for you.

Postmodernism as Gateway Drug to Atheism

And, now, there has been an explosion of reporting on choice of college major—and religiosity—in the higher education press and the blogosphere. Both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education reported on the ways this ritualized choice may (or may not) relate to losing one’s religion. In an article entitled “Connecting College Majors and Religion,” Becky Supiano of the Chronicle drew on a paper entitled “Empirics on the Origins of Preferences: The Case of College Major and Religiosity,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Paper authors Miles Kimball, Colter M. Mitchell, Arland D. Thornton, and Linda C. Young-Demarco (all of the University of Michigan) investigated both the impact of major on religiosity and vice versa: the impact of religiosity on major. When Inside Higher Education took up the topic, their writers (or at least their headline writers) made the rhetorical leap from “religiosity” to “God.”

Beyond the higher education press, the blogosphere erupted with responses ranging from simple re-postings to a response entitled “atheism is freedom.” Not to be left out, the more traditional news media in the United States and beyond took up the topic as well; from Texas to India and back to New Hampshire, the notion that college major and religiosity are linked seemed to require attention. A lot of attention.

Of course, all this probably resulted from the well-executed press release issued by the University of Michigan, where the co-authors work. Here’s how the press release opened:

College students who major in the social sciences and humanities are likely to become less religious, while those majoring in education are likely to become more religious.

But students majoring in biology and physical sciences remain just about as religious as they were when they started college.

Of course, the article itself is not really about a causal link between either religiosity and choice of major or the impact of college major on religiosity. The article is about a set of correlations, developed through a study of 26,200 people and, as one odd assumption, the choice of business as a “culturally neutral” major. Despite this, some fearmongering headlines announced, for example, that the humanities lead to loss of religion.

In articulating the reasons for the decline of religiosity among various majors, the authors identify several culprits: science, “developmentalism” (by which they mean a belief in progress), and postmodernism (by which they mean a belief that everything is relative). As quoted in the press release, Miles Kimball says:

Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not science, that is the bête noir of religiosity. One reason may be that the key ideas of Postmodernism are newer than the key scientific ideas that challenge religion. For example, religions have had 150 years to develop resistance or tolerance for the late-19th century idea of Evolution, but much less time to develop resistance or tolerance for the key ideas of Postmodernism, which gained great strength over the course of the 20th century.

Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, this work stands over against, for example, the notion that college is good for faith (see here) or points to the central importance of the religious engagement of American undergraduates (see a study funded in part by Teagle). Such efforts to examine the relation of particular disciplines to religiosity also link, perhaps, to various studies of faculty and faith which examine both correlations and possible causal relations (see here or here).

Religious Leaders of the Future?

Why do we care? Depending, of course, on your stance, religion can be seen as a potential savior of American society (not to mention individuals). In this regard, the Heritage Foundation has been adamant that religion is of critical importance to sustaining social stability. Others note that the spiritual lives of American undergraduates are both important to them (perhaps increasingly so), and nurturing that spirituality critical to higher education’s public responsibility. (See AACU 2005 report here.) UCLA’s HERI Institute has reported, too, that there is a positive relationship between students’ spirituality and achievement. Still others, including those who commented on a recent description of this study at the Friendly Atheist site think all this important because, hey, atheism is a good thing and college majors may be a way to increase atheist demographics.

For all of these folks, whether you are a helicopter parent or not, a college student about to declare a major or not, it matters how education and religion are related—it matters for our future. Today’s undergraduates are, almost every higher education institution claims, tomorrow’s leaders. As UCLA’s HERI has noted, political engagement among first-year college students has hit a 40-year high. So: do we, or do we not, want religious leaders? If so, what sort of religious leaders? Turns out, college major (may) matter.

Remember that… because it’s Back to School!