As college students begin to return to campus, a new study suggests that some could be in danger of losing their religion. Economics professor Miles Kimball and researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research determined that certain academic majors can influence students’ religiosity—positively or negatively—over time.
More than 26,000 U.S. students responded to questions regarding importance of religion and religious attendance over a six-year period, beginning in high school and continuing through the year after college graduation. Compared to survey participants who did not attend college, education majors showed the most dramatic increase in religious attendance and religious importance, followed by students in vocational and clerical programs, then business majors. Biology, engineering, physical science and math majors all show an increase in religious attendance and a decrease in religious importance. Humanities and social science majors’ religious attendance dips slightly, and religious importance plunges.
Kimball said college is an appropriate setting for measuring religious trends because a campus acts like a microcosm, with each academic major representing a real-world profession. “College is one of the few times you have a neat little label about the sorts of ideas a person has come in contact with,” Kimball said. “Professions can have a profound effect on people’s attitudes.” Although the findings illustrate a relationship between college majors and religiosity, some think the statistics are more coincidental than representative of faith journeys on campus. Nadia Economides, a junior business major at University of Southern California, said religion is not necessarily more important to her now than it was in high school, contrary to the researchers’ expectation that business majors become slightly more religious. And while Economides attends church services less frequently than a few years ago, she said it’s not a matter of her major; it’s simply because the nearest Greek Orthodox church is a 20-minute drive from campus. Economides noticed less religious activity among her peers too, which she attributes to the stress of a demanding major and the fast-paced nature of college life. “Other things have become more immediate or important,” she said. “If I have a paper due, that’s what I’m worrying about.”
Kimball said the findings may more accurately reflect students’ contact with “science, developmentalism and postmodernism” than religious experience. He noted that social science and humanities majors—which generally employ the scientific method, are committed to truth, freedom and progress, and probe questions of truth and morality—are more likely to prompt students to question their religious upbringings and ultimately become less religious than other majors.
The Rev. Joe Carey, a campus minister at the University of Notre Dame, said he agrees college is a time when students’ faith can be challenged, but he doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Religious exploration, he said, can also bring students closer to a higher power. Carey, who directs a program for Catholic converts at Notre Dame, sees students from all academic areas joining the church—even former atheists and agnostics—during their college years. “We have law students that come in, physics majors,” Carey said of would-be converts. “You name the major and there’s someone.”
Sam Speers, director of religious and spiritual life at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said studies often assume that students’ religious identity should be static. Looking at students five years after college, he said, would paint a more accurate picture of their religious identities. “Just as students are questioning lots of things about who they are, they are also asking questions about religious identity,” Speers said. “Religious faith and practice is also something that’s evolving and changing.”