By Bob Smietana
In America, education and faith have a complicated relationship.
One out of 10 college graduates identifies as an atheist. Fewer than half say religion is important in their lives. And only about half of college grads pray daily.
A new report from Pew Research shows the average college graduate is less religious than Americans with a high school degree or less. Unless that college graduate happens to be a Christian.
Self-identified Christians with a college degree go to church more often than Christians with less education, according to Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center. And they frequently show as much commitment to faith.
That’s especially true when it comes to churchgoing, and particularly among evangelicals.
Almost 7 in 10 evangelicals who graduated from college (68 percent) attend services weekly. By contrast, only 55 percent of evangelicals who have a high school degree or less go to church weekly.
Most evangelical college grads also pray daily (83 percent), say religion is very important in their lives (81 percent), and believe in God with absolute certainty (90 percent).
Greg Jao, a longtime national staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said Christians who go to college are likely to find a great deal of support for their faith.
Some attend faith-based schools, he said. Many others attend colleges where there is likely an active Christian ministry.
And going away to school may also help faith grow, he said, as students leave behind the churches of their childhood and begin making decisions about faith on their own.
“By leaving and going to college,” he said, “they have to decide, ‘Do I still believe this and how will I continue to engage in this faith?’”
They can also learn how to apply their faith out in the world, said Jao, and develop habits to sustain that faith when it conflicts with cultural values.
Jao suspects there’s another reason Christian college grads have faith that sticks with them.
More than a few come to faith while in college, he said. InterVarsity, for example, saw more conversions in their campus chapters in recent years than ever before, he said. Other campus groups have had similar experiences.
Jao said students often come to college open to learning about faith and asking big questions. So they may be open to hearing about Christianity, even if they weren’t Christians before arriving.
“We may be losing some people—like other faiths are—but we are still attracting new people,” he said.
Losing their religion
Pew found that other religions had mixed results when it came to levels of education.
Muslims, for example, showed little difference in their level of religious practice whether they had graduated from college or not.
Forty-nine percent of Muslim college grads say they attend services each week. Fifty percent of those with a high school degree or less also attend services weekly.
Ninety-five percent of both groups say they believe in God. Two-thirds of both groups pray daily.
Among Jews by religion (a category Pew uses to distinguish between secular and religious Jews), 12 percent of college grads attend services weekly, compared with 17 percent of those who did not attend college.
Twenty-five percent of Jewish college grads say religion is important to them, compared to 39 percent of those who did not attend college.
One of the most striking changes was seen among the so-called “nones,” those who have no religious affiliation.
Many nones aren’t nonbelievers, said Smith, even though they don’t claim a faith tradition.
About a third (36 percent) of nones who have a high school degree or less, for example, say they believe in God with absolute certainty. One in 4 (25 percent) prays daily, while 25 percent say religion is important to them.
Most of that disappears among college-educated nones. Fifteen percent believe in God, 12 percent pray daily, and 6 percent say religion is important to them.
College-educated nones are also three times as likely to refer to themselves as atheist (11 percent) as those with a high school education or less.
Something about going to college solidifies their disbelief, said Smith. For Christians, it tends to strengthen their faith.
Overall, said Jao, Pew’s report was encouraging.
Christians seem to be faring well in college, he said, despite concerns among some that colleges are hostile to faith. And other students are open to rethinking their religious identity.
“People who walk in the door are very open to talking about matters of faith,” he said.
BOB SMIETANA (Bob.Smietana@Lifeway.com) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.