Why College Doesn't Turn Kids Secular
Journal Watch: Another Blow to Secularization Theory?
For years the running assumption has been that higher education secularizes students. Christians have typically believed that secularization of the young results from the promulgation of a secular agenda, while those of a more secular bent have preferred the explanation that more education naturally exposes the irrationality of religious faith. A new study by Mark Regnerus, Jeremy Uecker, and Margaret Vaaler in the Spring 2007 issue of Social Forces suggests both sides are wrong from the outset. Their conclusion is that higher education doesn't secularize students. I asked Mark Regnerus, also the author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2007) to explain.
CT: You point out in the article that James Davison Hunter, a man with no hostility toward faith, once argued that the claim that higher education secularizes is "well-established." It seems almost like common sense. What led you to investigate the question and then to dispute the traditional reading?
Regnerus: We began by pursuing the question of what types of young people were more or less likely to "stay Christian" in college by continuing to attend church, value the faith, etc. As the analyses of the data unfolded, however, it became clear that the standard assumptions of faith erosion were wrong. Perhaps they were outdated; perhaps we were never really right about it in the first place. One thing that we're quite convinced of is that most of the seeds for "secularization" are planted well before college, but it's only during college that the diminished participation in organized religion emerges and becomes evident.
CT: You observe that those who never enroll in college are the most likely to stop attending church and to not return. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?
Regenerus: This is one of the most interesting aspects of the study, and is the reason why we're now convinced that it's not higher education that secularizes, but rather the freedoms that young adults experience during this period of life. We think the story is in what kind of young people avoid college today: They're largely not the familial types from previous generations who would rather marry and start families than pursue higher education. Instead, they're more troubled, they're more likely to come from broken families, exhibit a lack of planfulness about the future, and struggle with substance use and abuse. And we know from plenty of social science research that the most religious Americans tend not to exhibit these traits. As a result, an increasing number of devout youth are pursuing higher education (though largely not growing in faith during those years).
CT: You argue that the campuses of today are different than the ones filled with the revolutionary ferment of the '60s and '70s and that today's schools are less likely to secularize kids. C. John Sommerville has suggested that active secularizers in higher education have largely lost their opportunity as schools have become much more career-oriented and less tuned toward inculcating a philosophy. Do you think there has been a change in the things we emphasize at the university?
Regnerus: Absolutely. But it's been a process that is far earlier in its development than the 1960s. Christian Smith's book The Secular Revolution makes that clear, documenting how industrial and economic interests and powers have long paved the way to not only diminish the role of religion in the university, but also the humanities in general. And it's accelerating as economic considerations continue to weigh heavily on colleges and universities.