Field of Science

Studying science doesn't make you an atheist... but studying literature does!

Chris Mooney has an interview with Elaine Ecklund, the researcher who's been documenting the religious beliefs of academics for several years. I've blogged about her work last year.

One of the things Mooney picks up on is her conclusion that, although scientists are much less religious than the general population, it doesn't seem to be that studying science is the cause. That's because prospective scientists are mostly non-religious in the first place.

I guess that's not too surprising. There's a considerable anti-science movement within conservative Christianity, so highly religious people are less likely to go into science in the first place. And there's no reason to suppose that learning about science should necessarily conflict with liberal religion. After all, mainstream religions have successfully accommodated science within their worldviews (often reconstructing God as a remote figure who lets evolution and the laws of physics do most of the work - although see this earlier blog post for more on that).

And yet there is something odd going on here. Because college in the US is, in fact, a major non-religious epiphany for many students.

Take, for example, data from the ongoing Spirituality in Higher Education Study. This study is following nearly 15,000 students through their college years.

They've found that religious attendance plummets during college years - as shown in the figure on the right (which I nicked from the Salt Lake Tribune). According to the study organizers, this drop in attendance is closely related to an increase in "alcohol consumption and partying". A shocking indictment of college life, I'm sure you'll agree!

But it's not just the hedonism and freedom of college life that entices students away from religion. You can see this in some remarkable data from the Monitoring the Future Study (the paper is here, but behind a paywall).

They estimated how much religiosity changes for kids who do not go to college. Then they compared that with changes in religiosity over 6 years for kids who study a range of disciplines.

The data are shown in the graph at the top of this story. Basically, for the biological and physical sciences it's a mixed picture, similar to what Ecklund found. Church attendance goes up, while beliefs go down. Perhaps that's because, as they join the workforce, they feel under increased pressure to conform socially.

For vocational subjects, the effect is all positive. These folks come out of college more religious than you might expect - which may reflect the different natures of the colleges that teach these subjects.

But both the Humanities and the Social Sciences see dramatic declines in attendance and even more in religious beliefs.

Now, this might simply be because they were more religious to start with - but then, so were those who went into education. So I suspect that broadening world views is the major reason these students lose their faith - a conclusion also suggested by the fact that, in the Spirituality in Higher Education Study, participation in a "study abroad program" also created increased skepticism about religion.

In other words, humanities and social sciences, much more than biological and mathematical sciences, challenge you to imagine the world through the eyes of others. And this exercise in imagination undercuts religious dogma far more effectively than any science lesson can.

As the Michigan researchers conclude: ""Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bête noir of religiosity."

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Fits my profile perfectly. Was in a high school study abroad program, went to college abroad, studied social sciences and humanities, psychology, religious studies, buddhist studies, and voila I'm a made and bake materialist. And the world makes more sense than ever :)

  2. Interesting.

    I definitely shifted more towards atheism while studying for a degree in English lit. Doing my dissertation on the works of James Joyce probably helped a lot. :-)

  3. "The study, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, is based on long-term data from the Monitoring the Future Study conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR)."

    Can you trust this study?

  4. I would suggest that fields where critical thinking skills are emphasized (NOT vocation), a tendency toward disbelief (or lower levels of religiosity) are promoted. In vocational fields, one is not challenged to challenge the status quo (in one's thinking or behavior), but is task focused. The pre-selection bias in the sciences is reasonable, of course. One of the great flaws in education education (not a typo) is that educators are rarely taught (first!) to be critical thinkers. Literature, history and social science students are drilled in analysis, synthesis, interrogation, careful observation, etc., leading them to other ways of seeing the world.

  5. I suppose I fit in with this study as a physicist who left Christianity well before college.

    I think a critical part of that process was that I felt compelled to prove to myself that my particular religion really was correct, more than other religions like Islam or Buddhism or whatnot. In order to do this the "right" way, I had to approach the subject as if I hadn't been raised under any particular religion at all. I found that once I really assumed that viewpoint, I was neither capable nor desirous of reassuming my faith.

    I'm curious, now, how common that particular process is. Do humanities students who become more and more aware of the diversity of human beliefs start to privilege their own traditional ideas less and less, eventually moving to the epistemologically safer ground of irreligiosity?

  6. Well, sure it's the case that science can be quite compatible with liberal religion, but that doesn't mean that there aren't some anti-religious currents (both subtle and codified) in the scientific community that might have some effect on a population. There certainly are, IMO.

    Speaking from the perspective of an epistemologically agnostic and scientifically uninterested thinker on religious matters, and a working scientist to boot.

  7. You had an entry on a study showing that poor verbals skills and fundamentalism go well together, which fits well with this piece.
    It seems quite logical that people who have good verbal skills are more likely not to take a text (any text) at face value, so I'd suppose developing these skills at college by studying literature or anything else dealing with texts makes the kids more critical.
    I kind of consider religiousness to be basically based on a problem with telling truth from fiction...

  8. I think therefore I can no longer be "put down" or put in my place like religion is designed to do to the masses. Religion is no more than a means to control. To control thought and action and to keep the little uneducated man small. I am glad I went to college (majored in Science and Psychology) but I am also sad that so many are still oppressed by the great Shepherd, the HE the HIM, the One, the great presence we are to fear and to obey and submit to and spend half of our weekend off adoring and supporting with hard earned money. No thanks...I will worship nature and my own bliss.

  9. The Texas school boards would probably say that humanities and social science departments are teaching values as well as facts, and that those values are antithetical to conservative religion. In a bass-ackward way, they might be right.

    There are two common ways to dissuade the religious - either teach them to value facts and evidence (in which case, some string theorists would also fall under Occam's razor), or teach them that facts don't matter, and all beliefs are "true" in their own cultural context (which I believe is a crude summary of postmodernism, but hey, I was a science major).

    While these are both effective against conventional religion (if anything is), there can be unfortunate side effects to the latter set of values. I think they have lead us to a state where a quarter of US college graduates believed in an extraterrestrial crash landing in Roswell NM (a survey that shocked me in 1999), and a resurgence of measles and TB due to anti-vaccine paranoia. (Note that these two irrational beliefs are not particularly correlated with conventional religion the way that global warming denial tends to be.)

    We should be careful what we endorse in the educational system, because, to quote Stephen Sondheim, "children will listen". Let's teach critical thinking, not just criticism.

  10. The decline in religiosity parallels the rise in life expectancy. People fell less need to 'prepare' themselves for an eternity that is now, most likely, a lifetime away.

    When death was the familiar companion to all the living, coming more-or-less democratically to people of all ages, people were more concerned about what comes next.

    If Science is at the root of declining religiosity, its link is indirect, via public health and antibiotics.

  11. Rick, I think there's another way that people are "educated" away from conservative religion. It's not just valuing facts, and it's not just valuing everything - it's valuing specfic non-fact things that religion doesn't value. Gay rights, women's rights, animal rights, whatever - if a student is intrigued by one of these ideas, feels passionate about it, then sees that his religion ignores it or opposes it, that student's attachment to his religion will lose a lot.

  12. That's exactly what happened to me. I was raised a Catholic, which softened me up to be manipulated and indoctrinated by the evangelical Christian cult, Children of God, when I was 16 in 1972. For nearly 20 years I was a prisoner of the Christian fundamentalist worldview. When I escaped the group, now known as The Family International, in 1991 I had to reinvent my life from scratch. One thing I did was go to the local library and start reading books, which I was forbidden from doing while in the cult. I discovered an encylopedic series on the humanities called The Great Conversation. Things I read in it inspired me to apply to university, where I did a double major in Liberal Studies (Humanities) and English literature. I was in turmoil and confusion when I left the cult, but it was impossible for me to immediately abandon my faith. Instead, I decided to put my beliefs 'on ice', so to speak, while I exposed myself to as many ideas as I could, and think about all the things my indoctrination had kept me from thinking about. Eventually, however, the only logical position I could take was atheism. I describe a bit more of my journey from religious fundamentalism to atheism in this article on one of my blogs:


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