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 Perhaps they were outdated; perhaps we were never really right about it in the first place.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

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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.

Universities' investment in the humanities—which are critical to the function of asking the "why" and "what for" questions—is giving way to market-based decisions, like rewarding income- and prestige-generating disciplines (like the sciences), professional schools (like law and engineering), graduate programs, restructuring core curricula, etc.

The result is that very many young adults are no longer even asked to wrestle with issues of faith, religion, values, and ultimate beliefs. They're just in college to get good grades (for graduate school) or to earn technical or professional certification in order to boost their career start. And universities seem okay with this because it pays. All the while, humanities professors are a shrinking share of the faculty, and they're increasingly rewarded not for becoming intellectuals but for specializing in narrow areas of interest and research. Be more like the hard sciences, we're told.

CT: Postmodernism is often a bit of a bogey-man in Christian circles, yet your article suggests its impact may actually be to make the university more friendly to religious persons. Why is that?

Regnerus: Postmodernism is a double-edged sword, for sure. On the bright side, it clearly opens up space for Christianity in the academy both among faculty and students, largely because the ideals of tolerance and equality have been so successfully inculcated in the American psyche. On the other hand, this approach tends to accept things as they are and frowns on religious efforts to change belief systems. So while postmoderns tolerate Christians on campus, they're hardly friendly. This, of course, seriously hinders a key goal of Christians, which is to bring change to lives and to culture. This penchant for tolerating the status quo is quite ironic, given that it itself is a significant change in the American mind and given that many of us change our own minds about all sorts of important ideas and goals all the time. But a key finding of our research is that young Americans aren't changing their minds about religion as much as we had thought. Most of them are just putting their religious faith in the closet during the college years, only to pull it out after a time, dust it off, and put it on again.

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Footwashing and Public Funds

The New York Timesrecently highlighted the controversy of some state universities installing special footbaths in restroom facilities to accommodate the practices of Muslim students who wash their feet before prayers. Washing feet in sinks led to occasional accidents, wet floors, and damaged fixtures. The question, of course, is whether there's a church and state problem with public universities paying to install the special facilities.

Remembering the case Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has long made for maximum accommodation of religion, I asked for his opinion. Land is the recent author of a book tailor-fitted to the controversy, The Divided States of America: What Liberals AND Conservatives Are Missing in the God-and-Country Shouting Match!. He supports universities accommodating Muslim religious practice as an expression of "principled pluralism" which represents America at its best. Although he approves of the decision to accommodate the installation of footbaths, Land suggests a different funding mechanism. He believes the university should work with the local Muslim community to gain funding for the new fixtures, rather than paying for them out of the general student fund. Thus, a public university accommodates without sponsoring.

The bottom line, Land says, is that accommodation is a far wiser policy than avoidance or hostility. In this way, the United States deftly sidesteps both the "theocratic authoritarianism" of the Islamic state that requires all women to wear headcoverings and the "supreme secularism" of France that forces a student to decide whether to be true to her faith or go to public school.

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Falwell and the Liberty Legacy

When Jerry Falwell died, a number of astute commentators offered the opinion that Liberty University would be his great legacy. It turns out Falwell may have believed the same thing. Thanks to shrewd investments in personal life insurance policies, the university's chancellor provided $29 million dollars to Liberty in consequence of his death. Liberty University is now debt free. The next step, according to Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr., is building an endowment. (HT: Inside Higher Ed)

The Atheist Game

As I write this item (Aug. 13, 2007) Christopher Hitchens's book God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion are ranked numbers six and eight on the Religion and Spirituality list. The popularity of these books raises the question of what it means. Is atheism growing into a more forceful movement that will drive new wellsprings of secularization and privatization of religious belief? I suspect a different scenario drives the phenomenon. The books are reactions to the declining stock of the secularization thesis and the deprivatization of religion in public life of which scholars such as Rodney Stark and Jose Casanova have eloquently written. If anything, I think the books by Hitchens, Dawkins, and others indicate that religion is now being taken seriously enough in the public square to warrant a counter-offensive.

Other stories of interest

Colorado Christian Fires Professor for Insufficient Loyalty to Free Markets (Rocky Mountain News, Denver)

Hillsdale College Long Rejected Federal Funds, Now Rejects State Funds, Too (The Chronicle of Higher Education, subscription required)

American Faculty Don't Much Care for Evangelicals (World)

Facebook Making Life Difficult for College Housing Administrators (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Hunter Baker is special assistant to the president and director of strategic planning at Houston Baptist University. Got a tip regarding academic research or higher education? E-mail him at

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This is the second entry in our new biweekly department, Evangelical Minds, which covers developments in research and higher education. The first entry was, "Christian Higher Education Goes to Russia."