Among U.S. college students, religious attendance is at an all-time low

Among U.S. college students, religious attendance is at an all-time low

In the last 30 years, college students have become much less religious. The fraction who say they have no religious affiliation tripled, from about 10% to 30%. And the fraction who say they have attended a religious service in the last year fell from more than 85% to less than 70%.

I’ve been following this trend for a while, using data from the CIRP Freshman Survey, which has surveyed a large sample of entering college students since 1966.

The most recently published data is from “97,753 first-time, full-time students who entered 147 U.S. colleges and universities of varying selectivity and type in the fall of 2018.”

Of course, college students are not a representative sample of the U.S. population. And as rates of college attendance have increased, they represent a different slice of the population over time. Nevertheless, surveying young adults over a long interval provides an early view of trends in the general population.

Religious preference

Among other questions, the Freshman Survey asks students to select their “current religious preference” from a list of seventeen common religions, “Other religion,” “Atheist”, “Agnostic”, or “None.”  

The options “Atheist” and “Agnostic” were added in 2015.  For consistency over time, I compare the “Nones” from previous years with the sum of “None”, “Atheist” and “Agnostic” since 2015.

The following figure shows the fraction of Nones from 1969, when the question was added, to 2018, the most recent data available.

Percentage of students with no religious preference from 1969 to 2018.

The blue line shows data until 2015; the orange line shows data from 2015 through 2018. The gray line shows a quadratic fit.  The light gray region shows a 90% predictive interval.

Since 2015, the total fraction of atheists, agnistics, and Nones has been essentially unchanged. The most recent data point is below the trend line, which suggests that the “rise of the Nones” may be slowing down.

Attendance

The survey also asks students how often they “attended a religious service” in the last year. The choices are “Frequently,” “Occasionally,” and “Not at all.” Respondents are instructed to select “Occasionally” if they attended one or more times, so a wedding or a funeral would do it.

The following figure shows the fraction of students who reported any religious attendance in the last year, starting in 1968. I discarded a data point from 1966 that seems unlikely to be correct (66%).

Percentage of students who reported attending a religious service in the previous year.

About 68% of incoming college students said they attended a religious service in the last year, an all-time low in the history of the survey, and down more 20 percentage points from the peak.

In contrast with the fraction of Nones, this curve is on trend, with no sign of slowing down.

In previous years I have also reported on the gender gap in religious affiliation and attendance, but the data are not available yet. I will update when they are.

Data Source

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2018
Stolzenberg, Eagan, Romo, Tamargo, Aragon, Luedke, and Kang,
Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, December 2019

This and all previous reports are available from the HERI publications page.

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