College Freshmen Are Less Religious Than Ever

Chapel, Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts Credit: Daderot Wikimedia

Data from a nationwide survey shows students who list their affiliation as “none” has skyrocketed

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. Over the same period, the number who attended religious services dropped from 85 percent to 69 percent. These trends provide a shapshot of the current generation of young adults; they also provide a preview of rapid secularization in the U.S. over the next 30 years.

Since 1966 the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) has surveyed incoming college students about their backgrounds, beliefs, and attitudes, including questions about their religious preference and attendance at religious services. In 2016, they surveyed more than 137,000 first-time students at 184 colleges and universities in the U.S.

Figure 1 shows how the 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.

Credit: Courtesy Allen Downey

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). At the same time the number of students choosing “Other Christian” increased from 5 percent to 13 percent.

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. Not surprisingly, religious colleges are more religious, with only 17 percent Nones; and historically black colleges even more so, with 11 percent Nones.

Starting in 2015, the CIRP survey includes “Agnostic” and “Atheist” in the list of religious preferences, along with “None.” For consistency with past data, Figure 1 shows the total of these categories. 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.

Men are more likely than women to identify as Agnostic (10 percent versus 8 percent) or Atheist (8 percent versus 5 percent). 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. Figure 2 shows that this gender gap has increased over time, but the rate of growth may be slowing.

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SOURCE: Scientific American
Allen Downey

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