God and Majors

National study tracks changes in religiosity by students in various courses of study and finds positive link between religiosity and going to college.
July 28, 2009

Some parents of faith have long worried about the possible impact of (secular) colleges on the religious observances of their children.

A new national study that looks at trends between study of certain subjects and religious observance provides some evidence to back up those worries, but also may surprise members of some disciplines and some faiths. And the research also finds that religious students are more likely than others to attend college. The study is by four scholars at the University of Michigan and was released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract and ordering information available here).

Among the findings:

  • 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.
  • Students in education and business show an increase in religiosity over their time at college.
  • Majoring in the biological or physical sciences does not affect religious attendance of students, but majoring in the physical sciences does negatively relate to the way students view the importance of religion in their lives.
  • Religious attendance is positively associated with staying in majors in the social sciences, biological sciences and business majors. For most vocational majors, the researchers found a negative relationship between religious attendance and staying in the same major. The researchers compare this finding to their data about how students who attend services are more likely to enroll in college in the first place: "In both cases, religious attendance encourages a shift toward a higher status path."

The study also pays attention to those who switch majors in college, noting that initial majors may reflect in part students' pre-collegiate values (or parents' values and religiosity). Here the study students with high levels of religiosity are significantly more likely than others to switch into education majors, and more likely than others to switch into the humanities and biology.

The data in the study are from the Monitoring the Future Study, a University of Michigan research project that conducts surveys of a nationally representative sample of high school seniors, following a representative sample of them into college. The study is the primary source of national data on trends in drug use among students, but the survey participants are asked many questions about demographics, beliefs and education that allow for the comparisons made on student majors and religiosity.

The Michigan scholars who wrote the study -- Miles S. Kimball, Colter M. Mitchell, Arland D. Thornton and Linda C. Young-Demarco -- write that they were interested to see whether a scientific mindset would discourage religiosity, or whether postmodern ideas associated with the humanities and some other fields would.

"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 bête noir -- the strongest antagonist -- of religiosity."


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