On Brigham Young University’s campus stands a sundial donated by the class of 1916 with the inscription “I get my light from God.” The gift stands as a reminder of the strong religious heritage characteristic of the private Latter-day Saint university.
For BYU, in many ways not much has changed since 1916. The student body is still as religious today as it was then, with 98 percent of its students having LDS affiliation. The institution boasts being the nation’s most popular university according to the U.S. News & World Report, slightly outranking Ivy League schools Harvard and Yale for the number of people accepted to the school that opt to attend. The religious environment seems to be a strong draw to those who consider BYU.
BYU doesn’t represent the norm, however. Statistics show that most college students today are moving away from religion. According to a survey done by the Pew Research Society, today one-in-four Americans age 18-29 say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion, compared to 16 percent not affiliated in the ’90s and 12 percent in the ’70s and ’80s. Also 30-year data from the General Social Survey show age 22 as the age when average levels of weekly church attendance are its lowest at 17 percent.
The trends leave many to wonder whether higher education itself is moving young adults away from religion.
Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, helped author an article titled “How Corrosive is College to Religious Faith and Practice?” He said he wondered what effects college had on American religious life.
“I was working on a grant project to study “religious transformation” among American teenagers,” Regnerus said via email. “[I] was curious whether education equals secularization, so [I] wanted to know whether college students were the most apt to lose their faith.”
Regnerus did some research with his associate Jeremy Uecker to determine higher education’s effect on religious life. The duo found that while 64 percent of those in college slowed their church attendance, 76 percent of those who never enrolled also reported a slowing in their practice.
Regnerus said he wasn’t surprised by the findings.
“In my experience teaching, college tends to liberalize students but it doesn’t often turn them into irreligious adults,” Regnerus said. “That study seemed to reinforce that observation of mine.”
Richard Bennett, a professor of LDS Church history and doctrine at BYU, said he also believes higher education isn’t the cause for religious decline.
“I don’t see a conflict between higher education and religion,” Bennett said. “I can’t speak for other faiths but it certainly is a case for ours that the LDS Church promotes the need to continue to learn.”
Bennett did point out BYU had an advantage in promoting a religious atmosphere because the Church is still associated with the institution.
“Major universities were once sponsored by religion, like the Ivy Leagues,” Bennett said. “The fact that religions are shut off from the very institutions they created may have a hand in religious decline among college students.”
Those who attend public universities do point out the lack of emphasis on religious activities on campus. Kathryn Abbas, a recent graduate of the University of Texas, said she doesn’t really remember much religious activity by her peers in college.
“The only real religious thing that I ran into was people participating in what is called the ‘Young Lives’ by some people I worked with,” Abbas said. “There are churches on and near campus, but there isn’t a huge pull towards religion there at all. Even in classes people weren’t really religious minded and sometimes felt that it got in the way of logical thinking.”
Abbas pointed out professors and curriculum didn’t have heavy anti-religious sentiments but discussions would lean toward more liberal topics because of the preference of the students. Regnerus’ and Uecker’s study also shows students bring thoughts about religion they’ve previously obtained into the college setting, and college is “corrosive to religious faith only among those who were at an elevated risk of such corrosion when they arrived on campus.”
The progressive nature of college-aged students also can influence religious practice. Abbas said she noticed peers frustrated with how religious practice affects society.
“I think people see that some things don’t get done or taken care of government-wise,” Abbas said. “For example there are a lot of homosexuals in Austin, and they’re good people just like everyone else. But religious acts hold up reasons why they can’t get married or they get judged differently than everyone else.”
Veronique Barretto is a devout Catholic and attended school at Occidental College in Los Angeles before attending Burgundy University in Dijon, France. Wherever she went she tried to maintain her religious practice, yet said she saw some of her peers didn’t see how religion fit into college life.
“I feel like a lot of people see organized religions as having lots of rules that keep them from doing things they want to do which is part of our popular culture,” Barretto said.
Regnerus, the Texas sociology professor, agreed the college lifestyle destabilizes religious practice. The study points out people have a lull in their religious practice during the college years because of their lifestyle and picks back up when marriage and children are introduced.
“Marriage fosters religiosity, and non-marital sexual behavior undermines it,” Regnerus said. “That explains why 20-somethings tend to be less religious (in part), and why married 40-year-olds tend to be more religious.”