The Influence of Higher Ed

August 12, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- Higher education has always been celebrated by some (and criticized by others) for exposing students to ideas that may conflict with those with which they were raised.

Scholars here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association presented data suggesting that this shift in attitudes (a liberalizing one) applies to evangelical Protestants who either earn college degrees or live in areas with many college graduates.

Seth Ovadia of Bowdoin College and Laura M. Moore of Hood College write in their paper that evangelical Protestants make up more than a quarter of of the U.S. population, and that they have become an important political force, making it important to understand both the way they influence society (a topic much studied) and how they are influenced (a less studied topic). They note that evangelicals are not a uniform group and not an isolated group -- nor are they (as some stereotypes have it) uneducated.

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.

Moore said that the data do not distinguish -- either for the evangelicals or those in their surrounding communities -- whether the colleges attended were religious or secular, so it is not possible to measure the impact of one or another type of higher education.

The authors conclude their paper by noting that increased college participation rates -- both of evangelicals and the population as a whole -- could thus have an unexpected change in social attitudes, with potentially important impacts.

"Should college participation rates continue to increase for both evangelicals and the larger U.S. population alike, we would expect evangelicals’ less tolerant attitudes towards 'threatening' outgroups, such as homosexuals and atheists, to continue to decline. Such attitudinal shifts could make evangelicals more wary of organized attempts to restrict others’ civil rights and increase adaptation of a 'live and let live' philosophy. Increased tolerance could yield greater civil rights protections for groups such as homosexuals who have to date experienced major opposition from the Christian Right," write Ovadia and Moore.

Citing other sociologists' work about the way many religious groups define themselves in part through opposition to others, they add that as a result of higher education, "the evangelical movement may be weakened by decreasing subcultural distinction and tension between itself and relevant outgroups."

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