College makes you an atheist, Kirk Cameron is right!

I watched this rather bizarre Kirk Cameron video today. He’s promoting a plan to distribute Origin of Species with what seems to be a scurrilous preface to college students. His argument is that college students need to know the truth about evolution. I don’t know how far he’ll get, but I suspect many people will be favorably inclined, most college students are impressionable and dumb, and a non-trivial subset will probably reconsider their nominal acceptance of evolution. I only think back to an acquaintance who was a computer science major, and raised irreligious by his anthropologist father, who began to “question what he’d been taught about evolution” after he started hanging out with some evangelical guys (it was random, his roommate was a fan of the same fantasy author).
In any case, I am posting because I was curious about something: are college students becoming more secular? Cameron offers that data in his rambling presentation. We know that young people in general are becoming more secular, but are college students disproportionately more represented in this trend? I decided to look in the GSS.
The GOD variable has 6 classes:
-Don’t Believe
-No Way To Find Out
-Some Higher Power
-Believe Sometimes
-Believe, But Doubts
-Know God Exists
I aggregated the first two as “Atheists & Agnostics. The year data is spotty, and I wanted to increase sample sizes, so these are the years I combined:
1988, 1991
1993, 1994
1998, 2000
2006, 2008
In regards to education, I created two variables, “Non-College” and “College or Higher.”
Finally, I wanted to look at young people. So I limited the sample to ages 18 to 35.
Is Kirk Cameron correct?


Tentatively, I think there’s something to what he’s saying. The two graphs below show the trends in the two extreme categories. It is clear college students are more affected. The sample sizes are small, so take with caution (the difference between the earliest and latest year classes seems statistically significant though for college educated).
atheismyoung.png
Is this because of selection effects? I’m moderately skeptical. The GSS shows that college students are getting dumber since the 1970s, probably because college is becoming necessary for even the dumb to obtain non-manual jobs. These results are plausible to me because poking around the GSS it is clear that degree attainment has a very strong independent effect on many attitudes independent of intelligence. That is, in many ways dumb college graduates resemble smart college graduates more than either do to dumb or smart high school graduates. On the other hand, it seems likely that the young were more secular to begin with (other surveys point to this) even before they reached college, and may be that secular vs. religious is sorting along college vs. non-college lines more than it did in earlier eras. Perhaps seculars are much more likely to live in areas where college is the new high school, while the religious tend to concentrate in regions where high school educations have more value in the labor market.

Posted in Uncategorized

Comments are closed.