Faith findings 101

BlanchardHall.jpgTwo studies about the influence of higher education on faith have been released in the past month. One, presented by two professors at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, looked at attitudes among college-educated evangelicals about gay people and atheists. They argue that the data show that education is linked to higher "tolerance" for both groups. The second study, by researchers at the University of Michigan, is part of a larger project called Monitoring the Future. This one, which followed a group of high school seniors into college, analyzed whether religiosity changes college attendance -- and whether the choice of majors is linked to increased or decreased faith behavior.

So have you heard about either group of findings? Most likely not, unless you are an educator or read conservative or alternative publications. I haven't seen any major media coverage of the first paper -- although self-identified evangelicals in America are anywhere from 22 percent to 34 percent of the population.

The second, larger study did merit a tiny article by a writer for the Associated Press. So the best place to get information (albeit not a lot of information) on the studies is from the website Here's the core of the article:

For their study, the authors used national surveys that focused on evangelicals' attitudes about gay people and atheists, by looking at the views of those surveyed on whether members of those groups should be allowed to make a speech, teach in a local college, and/or have an authored book in a public library. They then looked at patterns in the attitudes of evangelicals and found the following:

College-educated evangelicals have "significantly higher levels of tolerance" toward atheists and gay people than do those without a college education. Evangelicals -- college educated or not -- show higher levels of tolerance based on whether they live in areas with more college-educated people. Evangelicals without a college education are more likely to show more tolerance based on the education level of their areas than are college-educated evangelicals.

We don't find out what national surveys the authors used to construct their argument. To my mind, "tolerance" is right up there with "fundamentalist" and "progressive" as one of the most abused words in our pop religion vocabulary. Was there a larger group or a more generic one to which these "evangelical" were compared? And how reliable is the label "evangelical" in this study, anyway? At any rate, from what little we are told, this is a provocative study, and it would have been interesting to have some critiques and comments from listeners and readers.

The second project, from what I can tell, is much more authoritative, involving original, ongoing research, taking a hard look at what happens to religious practice and belief among high school and college students. The article from includes these conclusions (and a few others):

The odds of going to college increase for high school students who attend religious services more frequently or who view religion as more important in their lives. The researchers speculate that there may be a "nagging theory" in which fellow churchgoers encourage the students to attend college.

Being a humanities or a social science major has a statistically significant negative effect on religiosity -- measured by either religious attendance and how important students consider the importance of religion in their lives. The impact appears to be strongest in the social sciences

So there is a positive correlation between religious observance and education? On the one hand this probably won't come as news to some religious groups, given the tremendous emphasis these groups put on education. But it's a fascinating and important finding. The "nagging theory" (what a visual), while speculative, would be a great potential subject for a reporter looking at religious environments in which a premium is put on higher education.

This project puts statistical meat on the bones of an issue that has occupied the realm of anecdote and speculation among students and parents: does the popularity of a "postmodern" (relativist) framework in academia, specifically in the humanities and social science, lead to a decrease in religiosity? Apparently, the answer is yes. Here's the kicker quote from the Michigan researchers:

"Our results are thus consistent with the overall theoretical framework guiding this research. We believe that there are important differences among the college majors in world views and overall philosophies of life....," they write. "[O]ur results suggest that postmodernism, rather than science, is the bete noir -- the strongest antagonist -- of religiosity."

Like any generality, this one could be taken apart. But few in the media seem to have considered the Michigan study worth of lots of space. I suspect the reasons are more complex than ignorance or discomfort on the part of reporters. It may be that because this story is complex, doesn't involve overt conflict, and does require a knowledge of two diverse disciplines that it presents a challenge to many journalists. Let's hope that a reporter finds the time, and has the interest, to explore this topic further. You gotta believe that in a country which still considers both a college degree and religious practice integral parts of our national fabric, someone's going to be reading.

Photo of Blanchard Hall, Wheaton College (Illinois), used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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