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Does higher education experience undermine faith — or enhance it?

Published: Wednesday, July 8 2015 1:25 a.m. MDT

Students pray in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. (Matt Cashore, Associated Press) Students pray in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. (Matt Cashore, Associated Press)

Like many parents, Sara Meldrum's mother worried about sending her daughter to college. She would be living in a co-ed dorm at UC Davis and exposed to things that weren't necessarily in keeping with their family's faith or value system: premarital sex and alcohol. Although college wouldn't be the first time Sara would be exposed to these things, it would be her first time on her own. Would she stay true to her convictions away from the family unit that encouraged and fostered belief?

Despite the social pressures of college, Meldrum's faith flourished. She managed to engage socially with friends from the dorm. She became involved with her local church youth organization, where she took religious classes, hung out with friends and played competitive games of ping pong. She was given an opportunity to plan a lunch speaker series. These experiences and the community she found stregthened her convictions. Today Meldrum is married and lives in Germany. She remains active in her faith by attending religious services as well as maintaining a private spiritual life through devotional activities like prayer and scripture study.

Students walk through the J Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Students walk through the J Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Meldrum's experience goes against conventional wisdom about the link between higher education and religious disaffection: the more education you get, the more likely you are to lose your faith. This idea, sometimes called secularization theory, informed presidential hopeful Rick Santorum's recent comments on faith and education.

Santorum called colleges "indoctrination mills" in a Feb. 26 interview with ABC. Colleges are "liberal," and "most kids who go to college who are conservatives … are singled out" and "ridiculed," he argued. He added: "You know the statistic that at least I was familiar with from a few years ago — I don't know if it still holds true but I suspect it may even be worse — that 62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it."

Santorum's comments have spurred considerable debate. Many reject them as a political tool to energize blue-collar Republicans and question the truth of his statistics. Others suggest they are right on the mark. Conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager argued, "Just as the agenda of traditional Christian and Jewish seminaries is to produce religious Christians and religious Jews, the agenda of Western universities is to produce left-wing secularists."

One researcher suggests that education impacts religious practices and religious beliefs in largely positive ways, particularly in the areas of church attendance and devotional participation.  (Shutterstock) One researcher suggests that education impacts religious practices and religious beliefs in largely positive ways, particularly in the areas of church attendance and devotional participation. (Shutterstock)

For parents who want their children obtain higher education and keep the family faith, these are worrisome assertions. But a growing number of studies suggest Santorum's presumed phenomenon does not, in fact, bear out.

"The relationship is far more complex than what most secularization theories indicate," said Philip Schwadel, professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His research suggests that education impacts religious practices and religious beliefs in largely positive ways, particularly in the areas of church attendance and devotional participation. He also found that although educated people are more likely to reject exclusivist viewpoints and Biblical literalism, they are more likely to say they believe in God and an afterlife.

The rational tradition

Tommie Shelby's hardworking single mother raised her six children to believe in God and be respectful of divine authority. "God's existence was treated as an obvious fact," he said. We "never questioned it."

During his freshman year at Texas A&M University, he joined a Bible study group, was baptized into a local church and began earnestly sharing the gospel with his friends.

But during the course of his undergraduate degree, Shelby's beliefs waned. In classes on philosophy and theology, he was exposed to arguments for and against the existence of God. As he immersed himself in the rational tradition, he wondered whether his belief in God was rooted in his fear of death and a desire for community.

"Was my attraction to Christian doctrines driven by the fact that I was a lonely, alienated, scared kid looking for something firm to hold on to?" he asked in an essay penned for The Root, an online newsmagazine. "I looked deep in myself to scrutinize my motives," he said.

Ultimately, he decided that he did not believe.

"The world we live in privileges certain forms of information and ways of acquiring knowledge," said Matthew Bowman, professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia. Scientific method and concrete evidence trump other ways of knowing, he said.

The assumption is that the "more education you have, the more indoctrinated you will be in (that) way of understanding the world," he said. If educated people are immersed in empiricism, there is "good reason to assume that they will have a difficult time with religion, which traditionally relies on subjective ways of getting data," said Bowman.

The notion that faith and reason are incompatible is a recent development, he continued. In the Middle Ages, education was closely linked with religious belief, he said. Those who were the most educated were also the most religious. Bowman cites scholars like Thomas Aquinas, who argued that faith and reason were not antithetical, but that in fact faith could be informed by study and research.

Faith augmented

Alex Walker went from a disaffected youth to an active participant in his church as a direct result of things he was exposed to as a student. During his first year at UC Berkeley, he rarely went to church meetings. He didn't tell people that he came from a religious background, and he didn't speak up when inaccurate or disparaging comments were made about his faith tradition.

But while doing course work on the history of religion in South East Asia, his attitude started to change. "We learned about how aspects of religion in Cambodia were imported from India," he said. Walker couldn't help but notice the connections between what he learned in class and his own tradition. This sparked an interest in learning more about his own religion that grew from fascination into an authentic, personal faith. He is now active in his Northern California congregation, attending services and participating in church organized volunteer work.

Walker isn't an outlier. His experience is emblematic of a larger trend in American society in which education positively impacts religious beliefs and participation.

In a study of the impact of higher education on religious beliefs and practices, Schwadel noted several interesting trends. First, the more education you have, the more likely you are to believe in God. He notes that the likelihood a person will believe in God goes up 14 percent for each year of education beyond seventh grade. Belief in the afterlife also increases with education, going up seven percent for each year of education beyond seventh grade.

Schwadel notes that education is also associated with a tendency to reject exclusivity claims and literal interpretations of scripture, although this is not universally true. According to University of Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell, studies show that Mormons, for example, unlike members of other religious groups, are more likely to adopt a literal interpretation of scripture as they advance in their education. (See related content.)

Schwadel also observed a positive correlation between education and devotional activities. "Education has a moderate positive effect on prayer," he noted in his report. The likelihood that a person prays daily increases by 9 percent for each year of education beyond seventh grade. Increases in education are also associated with increased scripture reading, with the likelihood that a person will occasionally read the Bible going up 9 percent for each year of education they receive beyond grade seven.

There is also a positive relationship between education and religious participation. "The odds of attending religious services in the last 7 days increases by 15 percent for each year of education beyond 7 years of education," he writes. And the numbers are even greater for religious activities and religious volunteering. The likelihood a person will attend weekly religious activities increases 20 percent for each year of education beyond seventh grade. Each additional year of education is associated with a 23 percent increase in the odds of volunteering for a religious group.

Schwadel's study is the most recent addition to a growing body of work suggesting a positive relationship between education and faith. According to a 2002 study by Jeffery Jensen and Lene Arnett published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, college education has little effect on religious participation and belief among samples of young adults. Other studies have found that while religious participation declines during the college years, it increases as graduates marry and have families, said Mark Regnerus, an assistant professor of sociology at the university of Texas at Austin.

The results of these studies have a lot to do with how religiosity is measured. "The relationship between education and religion rests on the measures we are looking at," said Campbell. "It is generally the case that educated people are less likely to be orthodox … but this doesn't seem to impact their behavior," he said. "Educated people are more likely to be religiously participatory."

Explaining trends

Why this positive connection exists is not entirely clear. One explanation may be that educated people have the time and resources to worship. In America, church attendance is a "middle-class" activity, said Campbell. Middle-class people, who as a subsection of society are well educated, are better able to deal with the way religion encroaches on their time and financial resources, he said.

But propensity to believe may also be a function of education itself. As people get more education they learn more "sophisticated ways of thinking," said Campbell. Students can use the skills they acquire in college to come up with rational explanations for the things they are taught in church, he said. The list of scholars who went from atheists to believers includes C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Bowman suggests that stages of education and stages of faith may be linked. Children take everything they are taught at face value, but as they mature they naturally move away from "dogmatic faith to metaphorical ways of believing," he said. Education opens people up to humility, he argues, as they realize the universe is immense and the answers to questions may be beyond human beings' limited perspective. "We start to question the premises of our questions," said Bowman.

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