Study: College freshmen leaving faith soars

Monday, May 29, 2017
Michael F. Haverluck (

college scene (CalState-Los Angeles)A recent nationwide survey found that the number of freshmen attending America’s colleges who have left their faith over the past three decades has skyrocketed.

After analyzing the religious affiliation trends of first-year college students, Computer Science professor Allen Downey – who teaches at Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts – disclosed that the statistics from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s (CIRP) 2016 Freshman Survey conducted at UCLA indicate that the number of students identifying as “nones,” who do not belong to a religion, has dramatically increased.

“The number of college students with no religious affiliation has tripled in the last 30 years – from 10 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 2016 – according to data from the CIRP Freshman Survey,” Downey reported in the Scientific American. “Over the same period, the number who attended religious services dropped from 85 percent to 69 percent.”

Conducting the survey since 1966, CIRP annually asks incoming freshman about their beliefs, backgrounds and attitudes concerning their religious preference, as well as their attendance at religious services and other behaviors. In 2016, researchers surveyed more than 137,000 first-time students arriving at 184 colleges across the United States to find that students are increasingly falling away from their faith.

“These trends provide a snapshot of the current generation of young adults,” Downey noted. “They also provide a preview of rapid secularization in the U.S. over the next 30 years. [T]he number of students whose religious preference is ‘None’ has changed over time. The retreat from religion starts around 1990 and accelerates, averaging almost 1 percentage point per year.”

Not a total drop

Even though many large drops in numbers have been witnessed in freshmen who proclaim to be Catholic, Baptist and Methodist, a rise was seen among those from nondenominational churches.

“Most of this growth comes at the expense of Catholicism, which dropped from 32 percent to 23 percent, and mainstream Protestant denominations including Baptists (from 17 percent to 7 percent), and Methodists (from 9 percent to 3 percent),” Downey divulged. “At the same time, the number of students choosing ‘Other Christian’ increased from 5 percent to 13 percent.”

Other trends were discovered when comparing differently grouped colleges and universities from coast to coast.

“The fraction of ‘Nones’ is higher at universities (36 percent) than at four-year colleges (26 percent), mostly because more colleges than universities are religiously affiliated,” Downey revealed from the study. “Not surprisingly, religious colleges are more religious, with only 17 percent Nones; and historically black colleges even more so, with 11 percent Nones.”

More and more freshmen are placing themselves in categories that disenfranchise them from any particular faith.

“Starting in 2015, the CIRP survey includes ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Atheist’ in the list of religious preferences, along with ‘None,’” Downey noted. “In 2016, the breakdown of students with no religious affiliation is 8.5 percent Agnostic, 6.4 percent Atheist, and 16 percent None, with all three categories up slightly since 2015.”

Breaking it down further

The numbers show that men are more likely to ascribe to secular beliefs than women on college campuses.

“Men are more likely than women to identify as Agnostic (10 percent versus 8 percent) or Atheist (8 percent versus 5 percent),” the scholar pointed out. “But it is not clear whether these differences are based on divergent belief or willingness to identify with stigmatized labels like ‘Atheist.’ Overall, more men than women report no religious affiliation, by about 4 percentage points. This gender gap has increased over time, but the rate of growth may be slowing.”

Race has also been shown to influence freshmen’s belief systems.

In their 2015 report, researchers at CIRP broke down the Nones by race: Asian students are the most likely to report no affiliation, at 40 percent; Black students are by far the least likely, at 14 percent,” Downey recalled. “Fewer Hispanic students are Nones, at 26 percent, than non-Hispanic Whites, at 30 percent.”

Those belonging to the LGBT community were shown to reject religious beliefs at much higher rates.

“Students whose sexual orientation is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, or Other were more than twice as likely to be Atheist, Agnostic, or None, compared to heterosexual students (57 percent versus 27 percent),” he added. “Many religions have negative attitudes toward homosexuality; apparently the feeling is mutual.”

Freshman stepping foot inside churches has also been on the decline for decades.

“As another indicator of the national retreat from religion, attendance at religious services has decreased sharply since 1990,” Downey pointed out. “Since 1990, the fraction of students reporting that they attend religious services ‘Frequently’ or ‘Occasionally’ has dropped from 85 percent to 69 percent; that is, the number of students skipping services has more than doubled.”

Families falling apart a factor

Experts on the topic of faith in American families, Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez – who co-authored Abandoned Faith: Why Millennials Are Walking Away and How You Can Lead Them Home – emphasize that the home is where a major breakdown in children’s faith begins.

"As a pastor, as a researcher, as an educator, as just a Christian who cares, the single greatest contributor to the attrition rate [of the Christian faith] has been the breakdown of the family," McFarland told The Christian Post (CP).

Institute on Religion and Democracy Evangelical Program Director Chelsen Vicari noted from statistics provided by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that parents divorcing also plays a critical role children abandoning their faith.

"Divorce is a key contributor to religious disaffiliation, found PRRI researchers,” Vicari explained last September, according to CP. “About 35 percent of Americans raised by divorced parents were more likely to be unaffiliated with a religious tradition than those whose parents were married during childhood."

It was also stressed that only 7 percent of nones return to their faith, but speaking from her own experience, the Christian pro-family advocate said that there is always hope with God.

"I wasn't 'looking' to join a religious group before I encountered the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Vicari shared. “And I'm willing to bet that neither were you, reader friend. It was thanks, in part, to the sorrow of sin, the witness of a pastor acting as marriage counselor, and the Holy Spirit that I eventually chose to identify as 'religiously affiliated.'"

More education, more faith?

Taking another research approach, Pew Research Center set out to find how greater levels of education affects one’s faith, and it was discovered that the higher the level of evangelicals’ education, the stronger their religious commitment becomes.

“Evangelicals who graduated from college are more likely than those who didn’t enroll to attend religious services at least weekly (68 percent vs. 55 percent), to pray daily (83 percent vs. 77 percent), and to believe in God with absolute certainty (90 percent vs. 87 percent),” Christianity Today (CT) reported. “They’re also more likely to say religion is very important to them (81 percent vs. 79 percent).”

Expanding on the issue, researchers found that the trend extends to pre-grads and post-grads.

“Evangelicals who earned a graduate degree after college are the most committed to their faith; those who dropped out of high school are the least committed,” CT’s Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra explained. “For example, 55 percent of evangelicals who didn’t finish high school now attend church at least once a week. Among evangelicals with a postgraduate degree, that number shoots up to 70 percent. Evangelicals with a graduate degree are more likely to pray every day (83 percent vs. 77 percent of high school drop-outs), to believe with absolute certainty in God (90 percent vs. 81 percent), and to say religion is important in their lives (84 percent vs. 82 percent). On Pew’s religious commitment index, 87 percent of postgraduates scored ‘high,’ compared to 81 percent of those who didn’t graduate from high school.”

The same trend of more education, more faith, occurred with blacks, as well.

“The gap was smaller among historically black Protestants (two-thirds of whom are evangelicals),” Zylstra stated from Pew’s findings. “Even so, more black Protestants with a postgraduate degree reported attending religious services once a week (62 percent vs. 56 percent of high school drop-outs), praying at least once a day (83 percent vs. 78 percent), and believing firmly in God (91 percent vs. 89 percent).”

One inconsistency did pop up in the research, but the discrepancy was found to be marginal.

“The only category where those who went to graduate school lagged behind high school drop-outs was claiming that religion was very important in their lives (84 percent vs. 89),” Zylstra pointed out. “That trend is reflected in the larger Christian category – which includes mainline Protestants, Catholics and Mormons along with evangelicals. The importance of religion was the only category where Christians in general saw a drop as education levels climbed, as about [two-]thirds of Christian college graduates said religion was very important (64 percent), compared to 70 percent of those who topped out at high school.”

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