August 18, 2014

Losing Religion at College? New Study Flips the Common Wisdom

 ©2014 Religion News Service

You don’t need a doctoral degree to think higher
education leads people away from organized religion. That’s been common wisdom
for decades.

Now, a sociologist’s new generational study
upends that thinking.

Today, it’s the least-educated members of
Generation X — people born roughly between 1965 and 1980 — who are “most likely
to leave religion,” said Philip Schwadel, an associate professor of sociology
at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Millennials — Americans roughly between the ages
18 and 30 — were not included in the study because, Schwadel said, it’s too
soon to tell if they will settle on a religious identity.

Schwadel, whose study is published in the August
edition of the journal Social Forces,
found a clear historical shift. “Americans born in the late 1920s and ‘30s who
graduated from college were twice as likely to drop out of religion than people
who didn’t graduate from college,” he said. The postwar baby boomers proved to
be “the last holdout of the church dropouts.” For boomers, “a college
degree was still associated with a higher likelihood of leaving religion.”

However, for the generation born in the 1960s,
there’s no difference between those who did and those who did not go to college
in their likelihood of religious affiliation. Now, for America’s middle-aged
adults who were born in the 1970s, “those without a college education are the
most likely to drop out.”

In other words, a college degree used to mean
people were more likely to lose religion. Now, some people are losing
religion whether they went to college or not but it’s especially true for those
who didn’t go to college.

Although the study does not examine the reasons
for this shift, Schwadel observed:

* You can find God on the quad: Campus life has
also changed and now offers “a lot of room and opportunity for religious
connection. The social networks are wider,” he said.

* College is more widely accessible, no longer a
bastion of the cultural elite. What’s more, cultural trends that started with
the elite — including quitting organized religion — have become more
widespread. “Secularization has lost its elitism — moving across all social
classes,” he said.

* Churches have changed, too. As more college-educated people affiliate with
churches, those without degrees can feel uncomfortable. “I know from my other
research that people want to go to church with people like themselves.”