College freshman increasingly drop religion

Originally published on on July 13, 2017. 

College freshmen are a lot less religious than they used to be.

In the last 30 years, the number of incoming freshmen who say they are nonreligious has tripled, according to data from the annual Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP)­­ Freshman Survey.

According to the survey, 10 percent of college freshmen claimed to have no religious preference in 1986. Today, that number has grown to 31 percent. It includes those who say they are agnostic (9 percent), atheist (6 percent), or have no religious preference (16 percent).

Much of the change can be tied to the decline of Christianity among young adults. The percentage of college freshmen who identify as part of a Christian denomination fell from 81 percent to 60 percent.

Since 1987, affiliation with specific Christian denominations has also declined for many. Groups whose numbers fell include:

  • Roman Catholics, down 13 points (36 percent to 23 percent).
  • Methodists, down 6 points (9 percent to 3 percent)
  • Baptists, down 6 points (13 percent to 7 percent)
  • Lutherans, down 6 points (8 percent to 2 percent)

On the other hand, Olin College computer science professor Allen Downey noted a 10-point jump among those categorized as “other Christian.” This group rose from 5 percent in 1987 to 15 percent today, according to Downey’s analysis of the CIRP data in a blog post for Scientific American.

Today’s college freshmen also say they attend religious services less often. The percentage who say they’ve attended either frequently or occasionally in the last year fell from 83 percent in 1987 to 69 percent.

Generally, men are more likely than women to be irreligious (33 percent to 29 percent). In particular, male college freshmen are more likely than women to say they are agnostic or atheist, while slightly more women than men say they have no religious preference.

Students who classify their sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or other are more than twice as likely as heterosexual students to claim no religious preference (57 percent to 27 percent).

Today’s college freshmen are also less religious than their parents. Among those surveyed, fewer than 18 percent said they had at least one irreligious parent.

Downey found students have reported being consistently less religious each year since 1990 ­­–– at a decline of almost 1 percentage point per year.

In his article, Downey points out that while trends among college students don’t necessarily reflect those of the general population of young adults, the decrease of college students’ religiosity could be indicative of larger cultural trends.

While the religious beliefs and practices trends provide a snapshot of the current generation of young adults, he writes, “they also provide a preview of rapid secularization in the U.S. over the next 30 years.”

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