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Religious Belief and College Attendance PDF Print E-mail
Written by Christina Stephens   

Recently I read here that a study [1] had been conducted which looks at the trends between the study of certain subjects in college and religious observance. The study concluded that very religious high school students are more likely than less religious high school students to attend college.

This may surprise the skeptical world. I've heard many times that people with high levels of religiosity tend to be less educated and less intelligent whereas people with low religiosity tend to be more educated and more intelligent. Typically people cite an article published in nature as evidence for this phenomenon [2], if they cite an article at all. So why is this study saying that people who are more religious are more likely to attend college?

The authors first rightfully point out that there is a pressure in the United States toward being religious, yet despite this pressure (especially from families), religiosity is remaining more or less steady and even swinging downward as the years go by. One common culprit blamed on this is college, given that college tends to be the first time people are separated from their families for an extended period of time.

The goal of the study was to look at how contents of college curriculum affect student values and to distinguish these effects from patterns of selection based on already-held values. The study hypothesizes that college students are confronted (in varying degrees) to three streams of thought in college that have certain negative attitudes toward religion, and that these streams of thought may have an effect on religiosity. Those streams of thought are:

Science - consisting of a commitment to truth, the scientific method and open-mindedness toward evidence. Natural science fields have a strong scientist content.

Developmentalism - consisting of a commitment to freedom and progress. Economics and business have a strong developmentalist content.

Postmodernism - consisting of a commitment to relativism of truth and morality and the idea that truth and morality are determined by those who are most powerful. The humanities and social sciences have a strong postmodernist content.

The article delves much deeper into exactly what these three streams of thought are and how they come into conflict with religiosity (in a refreshingly impartial manner), but for the purposes of this article I will leave them simply defined. If one accepts that different majors are tied to different streams of thought, it is possible to test whether any of these three streams of thought contribute to reduced religiosity by looking at initial choices of major and changes of major over time in concordance with any changes in religiosity. They specifically examined the changes in religiosity from high school and into college, using a sample size of literally thousands of students in Michigan from high school and through college.

Here are some of their findings:

-compared to business majors, social sciences and humanities have a statistically significant negative effect on both attendance of religious services and the rating of the importance of religion.

-education majors were more religious than other majors and their religiosity increased over time.

-religiosity increases over time for business majors

-religious attendance decreased for students who are undecided about college major.

-religious attendance decreased for respondents who did not go to college.

-students in science and engineering have less trust in god than people who have not gone to college or business majors (as measured by asking the respondents, "if we just leave things to god, they will turn out for the best [disagree, mostly disagree, neither agree nor disagree, mostly agree, agree]").

-students who were social science, humanities or engineering tended to think religious organizations should have less of an effect on society, whereas subjects who had not gone to college thought religious organizations should have more influence on society.

The study was fairly well-designed, so I was quite surprised to find that students who were more religious were more likely to attend college, given that it seems to contradict other studies (such as the one reported on in Michael Shermer'sHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God [3]) which indicate that atheism increases with education level.  Religiosity was rated on a 1-4 scale ("how often to you attend religious services? [1=never, 2=rarely 3=once or twice a month 4=about once a week or more]"), and each point on the scale corresponded with a 14% increases in the likelihood of going to college. A change in the rated importance of religion by one point amounted to an 8% increase in the likelihood of going to college.

I think that a weakness in the study lies in the fact that they did not take into account the different denominations of college attendees, and rather used "religious attendance" and "importance of religion" as their measures of religiosity. As such, the study ignored the positive or negative impacts of particular denominations or religious schools of thought, especially Sectarianism (the belief that religious rewards will be given exclusively to the adherents of a particular faith) and fundamentalism (finding value in sacred texts, especially the belief in the inerrancy of biblical texts). Studies have shown that sectarianism and fundamentalism in particular has a negative impact on educational attainment [4], and especially the educational attainment of women [5]. Sectarian and fundamentalist individuals are also more likely to choose a religious college.

One other interesting thing to note is that the reported amount of time people spend at religious services does not seem to correlate with actual religious service attendance - studies show the actual number is about half of what people report - suggesting that many people overestimate (or lie about?) how often they attend [6]. The best this study can say with regard to religious service attendance is that the people who likely overestimate how often they attend are more likely to go to college.

1. Kimball MS, Mitchell CM, Thornton AD, Young-

2. Larson EJ, Witham L. Leading scientists still reject god. Nature 1998:394;313

3.Shermer, M. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: William H Freeman. 1999:76-79. ISBN 071673561X.

4.Sherkat DE. Religion and higher education: the good, the bad, and the ugly. 2007: Online at

5. Sherkat, DE, Darnell A. The Effect of Parents' Fundamentalism on Children's

Educational Attainment: Examining Differences by Gender and Children's Fundamentalism Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1999:38;23-35.

6. Hadaway CK,Marler L,Chaves M. what the polls don't show: a closer look at U.S. church attendance. American Sociological Review 1993:58;741-752

Christina Stephens, OTD/s, blogs at