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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 Perhaps they were outdated; perhaps we were never really right about it in the first place.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 ...

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