Think higher education leads to atheism? Not so fast, study says

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September 5, 2011 - 7:00pm

College students pull out their bibles in a UNL classroom. Some flip through worn books, while others scroll on their iPads. Sidnie White Crawford stands before a white board covered in Hebrew names and Old Testament themes. She's been a professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for 14 years. She's also an Episcopal priest at a church near UNL's campus.

"I had a student who told me she'd never met a Roman Catholic before, because everyone in her small town was Protestant," Crawford said. "Most of our students have never met a Jew or a Muslim until they come to UNL And most of them are fine with it. It's just a surprise to them."



Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Sidnie White Crawford, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a an associate priest at St. Mark's on the Campus Episcopal church in Lincoln, teaches a class on the Hebrew Bible on the UNL Campus on Aug. 31.


It's long been assumed that the more education you have the less religious you become. Maybe that was true when only middle- or upper-class white males went to college, but studies have shown that those demographics tend to be less religious anyway. And a recent report by UNL sociology professor Philip Schwadel has flipped that initial assumption on its head.

Schwadel used data from the 1998 General Social Survey to examine the impact of education on religion. So far, that's the only year the survey has asked comprehensive questions about religion.

"The paper shows very strong positive associations between education and different types of religious participation," he said. "Whether you go to religious services, whether you volunteer for a religious-based group, all this kind of stuff, more highly educated people are far more likely to do these things."

But that's more a matter of correlation, not causation, he said. More highly educated people are more participatory in general, whether it's volunteering with a charity or serving on the local PTA.

Still, he found no evidence that more education means less religiosity. Schwadel added that social change comes slowly, and he expects not much has changed from 1998. He said research using more recent data supports his conclusions.

Crawford's experience, as well, echoes Schwadel's findings.



Sidnie White Crawford, professor of classics and religious studies at UNL and Episcopal associate priest


Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology at UNL


"(Students') faith may be changed in some way, and that's OK; I mean, everyone goes through that in their lives," she said. "But most students don't lose their faith.

"I think they go through a hiatus in college where they don't want to get up and go to church in the morning," she continued with a laugh, "and they sleep in, but that's a little different."

A main factor for positive associations between religion and education include the changing face of college students. Women are generally more religious, and are attending college in greater numbers than ever. Schwadel said while certain religious denominations used to be relatively unlikely to go to college just a few generations ago, like evangelical Protestants, recent research shows they're now one of the largest groups on campuses.

Take Amy Lester, for example.

"The environment has definitely changed," said the UNL senior, an evangelical Christian from McCook in southwest Nebraska. "With a college atmosphere versus high school atmosphere, small town versus big town, small church versus big church."

Lester said being exposed to the different ideas and culture of UNL has actually solidified her personal beliefs. She added that her parents talked with her extensively beforehand about certain secular teachings that she would face like evolution and helped her figure out how to navigate those.

One reason more evangelicals are attending college is because they've shifted from being largely rural and lower-income to an urban middle class, Schwadel said.

And as more join the ranks of college students and professionals, the more there are to network with, as demonstrated by the influx of campus groups centered on religion. A quick search of UNL's website revealed 30 different religious or spiritual student groups, including for Unitarian Universalist, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, Catholic, Mormon, Lutheran and even Baha'i students. A lot of schools also offer religious-themed housing.

"There's just a lot more opportunities for them to interact with like-minded students, as well as after college to interact with like-minded people in the workplace," Schwadel said, "and I think that helps people maintain their religious beliefs."

However, while Lester held fast to what her preacher father and hometown church taught her, senior Lutheran Andrew Karrmann from Des Moines said he was encouraged by his pastor to explore his options. He initially pursued a degree in mechanical engineering, but said he couldn't escape the tug he felt toward youth ministry. He switched his major to classics and religious studies.

"You learn to think critically about every type of religion, and it's brought up a lot of interesting points," he said. "You see a lot of overarching themes in religion, and you kind of realize that a lot of the arguments that people have nowadays involving such things as evolution versus creationism theories, how really inconsequential those are in the overarching picture of what a religion means to a society, and what it means to be religious."

And that's the whole point of university, Crawford said: "To learn to assimilate these new ideas, and hopefully to come out with a richer faith than you had before. Because growth in faith means wrestling with big questions, and asking why other people believe different things and coming to your own conclusions about that rather than simply accepting what you were taught as a child.

"That's all part of growing up."

Karrmann said he plans to take the lessons he's learned from the numerous religions and philosophies he's studied back to the youth he'll be working with when he graduates. And his experience is fairly typical, according to Schwadel's research. He found a positive relationship between increased education and less exclusivity in religion and less emphasis on biblical literalism.

"It makes sense to me that even if you have a definitive belief in God, even if you belong to an evangelical or fundamentalist congregation or church, you read the Bible regularly, you pray regularly, you still might say there is possibly truth in more than one religion," he said.

Schwadel controlled for race and ethnicity in the study in order to get accurate, across-the-board results, and he says there wasn't enough data to break down statistics for Jews or Muslims.

However, "We know that religion plays a significantly different role in the African-American community than in the white community, especially in the Southern African-American community," he said. "And I know from other research I've done that the effects of social class on white Catholics versus Latino Catholics are quite different. And of course the average education level varies in these communities, which is likely to mean that education would have a different impact on the individuals in those communities."

For Schwadel, the results of his analysis were pretty much what he expected. However, he was surprised to find that highly educated people are more likely to focus on the afterlife. And while they're more likely to question the role of religion in a secular society, and more likely to be against programs like forced prayer or Bible reading in public schools, highly educated Americans are also supportive of religious leaders' right to voice their opinions publicly.

"So, how does education affect religion? What's the take-home story?" he said. "It depends on what you mean by religion.' If you mean going to church, mosque, or synagogue, hey, educated people are more religious. If you mean believing that the Scriptures are the literal word of God? (Then) educated people are less religious."

Schwadel acknowledged there are many questions unanswered when it comes to religion and education - for example, the study he analyzed didn't delineate what kind of school participants attended.

But he said he expects the General Social Survey to include another religion module soon, which would allow for a longitudinal study of how the association between religion and education has changed over the last decade.

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