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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.

Young Christians are more sex-positive than the previous generation

Young Christians are more sex-positive than the previous generation

This is the fifth and probably final in a series of articles where I use data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to explore

  • Differences in beliefs and attitudes between Christians and people with no religious affiliation (“Nones”),
  • Generational differences between younger and older Christians, and
  • Generational differences between younger and older Nones.

In the first article, I looked at changes in religious beliefs and found that younger Christians are more secular in many ways than the previous generation.

In the second article, I looked at views related to law and public policy and found that young Christians are more progressive on most issues than the previous generation.

In the third article, I found that generational differences on most questions related to abortion are small and probably not practically or statistically significant.

In the fourth article, I looked at responses to questions related to priorities and public spending. On many dimensions, younger Christians are moving toward the beliefs of their secular peers, but there are notable exceptions.

In this article, I use the same dataset to explore changes in attitudes related to sex. For details of the methodology, see the first article.

When is sex wrong?

GSS respondents were asked several questions related to their attitudes about sex:

There’s been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country.

  • If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?
  • What if they are in their early teens, say 14 to 16 years old? In that case, do you think sex relations before marriage are always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?
  • What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex–do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?
  • What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner–is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

For each of these questions, I count the fraction of respondents who reply “always wrong”.

And I looked at responses to one other sex-related question:

Would you be for or against sex education in the public schools?

Here are the results:

Generational changes in attitudes related to sex.

The blue markers are for people whose religious preference is Catholic, Protestant, or Christian; the orange markers are for people with no religious affiliation.

For each group, the circles show estimated percentages for people born in 1968; the arrowheads show percentages for people born in 1993.

For both groups, the estimates are for 2018, when the younger group was 25 and the older group was 50. The brackets show 90% confidence intervals.

In almost every scenario, young Christians are less likely than the previous generation to say that sex is “always wrong”, and in the cases of homosexual and teen sex, the changes are substantial.

Opposition to premarital sex was already low and did not change as much. Support for sex education was already high and is now an overwhelming majority.

The exception is extramarital sex, where there is practically no generational change: more than 80% of both generations think it is always wrong.

Compared to their Christian peers, the non-religious are more sex-positive by 15-30 percentage points. And their generational changes go in the same direction, with young Nones less likely to think sex in these scenarios is wrong.

But again, extramarital sex is the exception; among the Nones, the small generational change is within the margin of error.

This exception suggests that both groups distinguish between actions that harm people and transgressions of divine law.

Summary

In 2007, when I started writing about religious trends, I thought the increasing number of people with no religious affiliation was hugely underreported. Now, the “rise of the Nones” is well known.

Then, for a while, the story was that people were leaving organized religion, but they were still religious or at least spiritual; that is, they were “believing without belonging”.

More recently, it has become clear that beliefs and attitudes among the Nones are getting more secular.

In this series of articles, I have looked at changes among the ones who are left behind; that is, the decreasing fraction who identify as Christian. On many dimensions, the pattern is the same: young Christians are more secular than the previous generation.

Responses that follow this pattern include:

  • Almost all religious beliefs and activities, except belief in the afterlife.
  • Opposition to sex and sex education, except extramarital sex.
  • Matters of public policy including the legalization of marijuana, pornography, and euthanasia; support for affirmative action; and opposition to the death penalty and school prayer.

Many questions related to public spending follow the same pattern, with younger Christians generally moving toward positions held by their secular peers; the only substantial exception is mass transportation, which has less support among young people in both groups [although this result is so surprising to me that I need more evidence to be confident it is correct].

The most notable exceptions are opposition to gun control and abortion, which show almost no generational changes. Maybe not coincidentally, these exceptions are probably the most politicized topics among the questions I explored.

In summary, we can describe secularization in the U.S. as the sum of two trends, changes in affiliation and changes in belief. Both trends are moving fast, and they are moving in the same direction, away from religion.

A large majority of Americans support legal abortion, at least in some circumstances

A large majority of Americans support legal abortion, at least in some circumstances

This is the third in a series of articles where I use data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to explore

  • Differences in beliefs and attitudes between Christians and people with no religious affiliation (“Nones”),
  • Generational differences between younger and older Christians, and
  • Generational differences between younger and older Nones.

In the first article, I looked at changes in religious beliefs and found that younger Christians are more secular in many ways than the previous generation.

In the second article, I looked at views related to law and public policy and found that young Christians are more progressive on most issues than the previous generation.

In this article, I use the same dataset to explore changes in opinions about abortion. For details of the methodology, see the previous article.

GSS respondents were asked, “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion” under different circumstances.

The following figure shows the results.

Generational changes in beliefs about legal abortion

The blue markers are for people whose religious preference is Catholic, Protestant, or Christian; the orange markers are for people with no religious affiliation.

For each group, the circles show estimated percentages for people born in 1968; the arrowheads show percentages for people born in 1993.

For both groups, the estimates are for 2018, when the younger group was 25 and the older group was 50. The brackets show 90% confidence intervals.

Before we look for generational changes, we should notice the starting point: a large majority of Americans support legal abortion, at least in some circumstances.

  • In cases of severe birth defects and pregnancy due to rape, the majority is about 70% of Christians and 90% of the nonreligious.
  • In cases of serious danger to the woman’s health, it’s almost 90% of Christians and nearly all of the nonreligious.

Under other circumstances, opinions are more divided, with support near 40% among Christians and 70% among the Nones.

Looking now at the generational changes, I see only one that is likely to be practically and statistically significant: younger people in both groups are less likely than the previous generation to support legal abortion if there is a chance of serious birth defect.

Even so, there is majority support in both groups, more than 60% among Christians and 80% among Nones at age 25.

In summary:

  • Beliefs about abortion depend substantially on the circumstances;
  • In many circumstances, a large majority of Christians and the non-religious support legal abortion;
  • Even where there is disagreement between the groups, there is substantial diversity of opinion within both groups;
  • Generational changes in these opinions are generally small and within the statistical margin of error.
Young Christians are less religious than the previous generation

Young Christians are less religious than the previous generation

This is the first in a series of articles where I use data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to explore

  • Differences in beliefs and attitudes between Christians and people with no religious affiliation (“Nones”),
  • Generational differences between younger and older Christians, and
  • Generational differences between younger and older Nones.

On several dimensions of religious belief, young Christians are less religious than their parents’ generation. I’ll explain the methodology below, but here are the results:

Generational changes in religious belief, comparing people born in 1968 and 1993

The blue markers are for Christians (people whose religious preference is Catholic, Protestant, or Christian); the orange markers are for people with no religious affiliation.

For each group, the circles show estimated percentages for people born in 1968; the arrowheads show percentages for people born in 1993.

For both groups, the estimates are for 2018, when the younger group was 25 and the older group was 50. The brackets show 90% confidence intervals for the estimates, computed by random resampling.

The top row shows the fraction of respondents who interpret the Christian bible literally; more specifically, when asked “Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?”, they chose the first of these options:

  • “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.
  • “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.”

Not surprisingly, people who consider themselves Christian are more likely to interpret the Bible literally, compared to people with no religious affiliation.

But younger Christians are less likely to be literalists than the previous generation. Most of the other variables show the same pattern; younger Christians are less likely to answer yes to these questions:

  • “Would you say you have been ‘born again’ or have had a ‘born again’ experience — that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?”
  • “Have you ever tried to encourage someone to believe in Jesus Christ or to accept Jesus Christ as his or her savior?”

And they are less likely to report that they know God really exists; specifically, they were asked “Which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God?” and given these options:

  • I don’t believe in God
  • I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out.
  • I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind.
  • I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others.
  • While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God.
  • I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.

Younger Christians are less likely to say they know God exists and have no doubts.

Despite all that, younger Christians are more likely to believe in an afterlife. When asked “Do you believe there is a life after death?”, more than 90% say yes.

Among the unaffiliated, the trends are the same. Younger Nones are less likely to believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, less likely to have proselytized or been born again, and less likely to be sure God exists. But they are a little more likely to believe in an afterlife.

More questions, less religion

UPDATE: Since the first version of this article, I’ve had a chance to look at six other questions related to religious belief and activity. Here are the results:

Generational changes in religious belief, comparing people born in 1968 and 1993

Qualitatively, these results are similar to what we saw before: controlling for period effects, younger Christians are more secular than the previous generation, in both beliefs and actions.

They are substantially less likely to consider themselves “religious” or “spiritual”, and less likely to attend religious services or pray weekly. And they are slightly less likely to participate in church activities other than services.

They might also be less likely to say they have had a life-changing religious experience, but that change falls within the margin of error.

In later articles, I’ll look at trends in other beliefs and attitudes, especially related to public policy. But first I should explain how I generated these estimates.

Methodology

My goal is to estimate generational changes, that is, cohort effects as distinguished from age and period effects. In general, it is not possible to distinguish between age, period, and cohort effects without making some assumptions. So this analysis is based on the assumption that age effects in this dataset are negligible compared to period and cohort effects.

Data from the General Social Survey goes back to 1972; it includes data from almost 65,000 respondents.

To measure current differences between people born in 1968 and 1993, I could select only respondents born in those years and interviewed in 2018. But there are not very many of them.

Alternatively, I could use data from all respondents, going back to 1972, fit a model, and use the model to estimate generational differences. That might work, but it would probably give too much weight to older, less relevant data.

As a compromise, I use data from 1998 to 2018, from respondents born in 1940 or later. This subset includes about 25,000 respondents. But not every respondent was asked every question, so the number of valid responses for most questions is smaller.

For most questions, I discard a small number of respondents who gave no response or said they did not know.

To model the responses, I use logistic regression with year of birth (cohort) and year of interview as independent variables. For questions with more than two responses, I choose one of the responses to study, usually the most popular; in a few cases, I grouped a subset of responses (for example “agree” and “strongly agree”).

I use a quadratic model for the period effect and a cubic model of the cohort effect, using visual tests to check whether the models do an acceptable job of describing the trends in the data.

I fit separate models for Christians and Nones, to allow for the possibility that trends might look different in the two groups (as it turns out they often do).

Then I use the models to generate predictions for four groups: Christians born in 1968 and 1993, and Nones born in the same years. These are “predictions” in the statistical sense of the word, but they are deliberately not extrapolations into cohorts or periods that are not in the dataset; it might be more correct to call them “interpolations”.

To show how this method works, let’s consider the fraction of Christians who answer that they know God exists, with no doubts. The following figure shows this fraction as a function of birth year (cohort):

Fraction of Christians who says they know God exists, plotted over year of birth

The red dots show the fraction of respondents in each birth cohort. The red line shows a smooth curve through the data, computed by local regression (LOWESS). The gray line shows the predictions of the model for year 2008.

This figure shows that the logistic regression model of birth year does an acceptable job of describing the trends in the data, while also controlling for year of interview.

To see whether the model also describes trends over time, we can plot the fraction of respondents in each year of interview:

Fraction of Christians who says they know God exists, plotted over year of inteview

The green dots show the fraction of respondents during each year of interview and the green line shows a local regression through the data. The purple line shows the model’s predictions for someone born in 1968; the pink line shows predictions for someone born in 1993.

The gap between the purple and pink curves is the estimated generational change; in this example, it’s about 3 percentage points.

In summary, the model uses data from a range of birth years and interview years to fit a model, then uses the model to estimate the difference in response between people born in different years, both interviewed in 2018.

The results are based on the assumption that the model adequately describes the period and cohort effects, and that any age effects are negligible by comparison.

You can see all of the details in this Jupyter notebook, and you can click here to run it on Colab.

Backsliding on the path to godlessness

Backsliding on the path to godlessness

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 85% to 70%.

I’ve been following this trend for a while, using data from the CIRP Freshman Survey. The most recently published data is from “120,357 first-time, full-time students who entered 168 U.S. colleges and universities in the fall of 2017.”

One of the questions asks students to select their “current religious preference,” from a choice of seventeen common religions, “Other religion,” “Atheist”, “Agnostic”, or “None.”  

The options “Atheist” and “Agnostic” were added in 2015.  For consistency with previous years, 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 over the 50 years of the survey.

Percentage of students with no religious preference from 1968 to 2017.

The blue line shows actual data through 2017; the gray line shows a quadratic fit.  The light gray region shows a 90% predictive interval.

For the first time since 2011, the fraction of Nones decreased this year, reverting to the trend line.

Another question asks students how often they “attended a religious service” in the last year. The choices are “Frequently,” “Occasionally,” and “Not at all.” Students are instructed to select “Occasionally” if they attended one or more times.

Here is the fraction of students who reported any religious attendance in the last year:

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

Slightly more students reported attending a religious service in 2017 than in the previous year, contrary to the long-term trend.

Female students are more religious than male students. The following graph shows the gender gap over time, that is, the difference in percentages of male and female students with no religious affiliation.

Difference in religious affiliation between male and female students.

The gender gap was growing until recently. It has shrunk in the last 3-4 years, but since it varies substantially from year to year, it is hard to rule out random variation.

Data from 2018 should be available soon; I’ll post an update when I can.

Data Source

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2017
Stolzenberg, E. B., Eagan, M. K., Aragon, M. C., Cesar-Davis, N. M., Jacobo, S., Couch, V., & Rios-Aguilar, C.
Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Apr 2019

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