The Decline of Religion in American Higher Education

% No Religion among College Educated under Age 25 by Decade

A representative of the Templeton Foundation recently produced a vile little screed claiming that scientists and other college professors need to start paying attention to Jesus in the classroom, or else there is going to be an explosion. No doubt, she refers to the impending Palin-Bachmann presidency, when all non-Christian college professors (the vast majority) will be fired or forced to accept baptism in the blood of Christ. In the course of this obnoxious piece of misguided propaganda, she makes many false claims, one of which has to do with the supposed growing religiosity on college campuses, which she claims is indicated by an increase in the number of religious studies departments, growth in professional organizations devoted to religious studies,  burgeoning enrollments in religion courses, and increased Christian religiosity among students. All of this is bullshit.

First, religious studies is at its nadir, I can’t put a firm statistic on this (nor can Templeton) but most universities have cut or gutted their religious studies departments, and the academic job market for religious studies people has been in the toilet for four decades. Oh, sure, you can get a job at Gordon or Houghton or Wheaton or Baylor or Oral Roberts or Notre Dame—if you are just a jesus freak instead of an actual scholar studying religion. But, for REAL scholars who study religion, jobs are slim pickin’s and I bet if you charted the membership of the AAR it would show a strong linear decline starting in 1970.

In the social sciences, things looked good there back in 1999 when Ellison and I were surveying the field, now….things look like they are spiraling back downward. I’m no longer a member of the Religious Research Association and I used to co-edit their journal! I’m tempted to relinquish my membership in the ASA religion section (which I helped found, primarily to keep it separate from religious interests in the ASR–to which I no longer belong). If all that these groups do is promote the superiority of Christianity, I have no reason to remain involved. If those organizations have grown, it is because of this new generation of minor league conservative Christians. I suspect that membership is tanking, as people like me, the new religion people, comparative religion people, and others vote with their feet.

Religious student unions have declined to the point of closing for most denominations on most campuses. Once vibrant organizations are now often empty, and our Baptist Student Union here on my humble campus has closed twice. One is now a Music Dept Building, and the smaller one they built later now houses minor level administrators. Oh, sure, the place is crawling with fundies trying (unsuccessfully) to convert our students, but that is because we no longer have respectable religious professionals who can kick them off of campus.

Back to the real world, our students are not increasingly interested in religion. In fact, the opposite is true. In the 197os, GSS data show that about 19% of college educated people under age 25 held no religious identification. As Wilson and I showed long ago, many of those came back to identification later in life–however returning to the fold is much less popular in later cohorts. Non-identification waned in the 1980s, but bounced back in the 1990s and hovers close to 25% among the people who constitute the majority of our undergraduates. Non-Theism also abounds among these younger non-identifiers—and even among many who claim a religious identification. 23% of the college educated under 30 are non-theists in the 2000s GSS, up from 17% in previous decades. And, there is a growing non-Christian segment of our student population, fostered mainly by Asian immigration. Do you really think they want to hear you spout off about your filthy virgin boy-god in class? No, and neither do the nearly 25% of your students (no doubt more at elite universities) who don’t give a rat’s ass about religion. It is the NON-RELIGIOUS who are increasing on college campuses, unless you teach at Jesus U, in which case I’m sure you preach the word of the lord in your classes, whether or not it has anything to do with the subject matter.


4 Responses to “The Decline of Religion in American Higher Education”

  1. Ryan Says:

    May as well post this here:

    I reviewed Elaine’s book for JSSR. The link above is to my first draft of the review, before I toned it down for JSSR.

  2. Darren Sherkat Says:

    Cool! I’m really glad you got to review that. I’ve been steaming about the handjob reviewers picked for most of these books. I should add that studying religion and teaching it are important, very important. Religious studies should not have been shitcanned. But, what the Templetonians want is not study, it’s religious contemplation in class. Students neither want nor need that. But, every time I offer Sociology of Religion or Religion and Politics I have a full class. And, what they want to know is exactly what Ecklund and her ilk claim we shouldn’t teach!!! They want to know about crazy religious fuckers! They want to know why people believe ridiculous shit! They want to know why people give away their retirements to jackleg preachers, blow up buildings, and vote for Sarah Palin! Religion is a social problem, and students do need to understand it. And, yes, motherfuckers, I understand it better than most people lumpin’ around on this rock.

  3. Ryan Says:

    I shouldn’t admit it publicly, but that’s basically how I teach my class: What is religion, why are people religious, and what are the problems with it (e.g., religion and money, religion and violence, religion and racism, religion and gender discrimination)? If students want to contemplate religious ideas, they can go to church… 😉

  4. Darren Sherkat Says:

    Excellent review! I missed that in print! I’ll have to look up the short version.

    And, I should add, teaching religion as an object of study also means having a section on social support, Durkheim, and shit like that. You wanna know why people blow up buildings? First you need to know something about how religion operates in communities and for individuals to provide positive benefits for members and for religious communities. Then, you can understand the happy little Christian-Muslim-Hindu-Buddhist-Jewish terrorist…..That’s why Durkheim always has to come first.

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