Those liberal atheist professors are coming for your sweet Christian babies!

Via Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf asks why so many Americans come out of higher education with their religious faith considerably eroded. Apparently, Dennis Prager is all concerned that the university system is ruled by an evil cabal of liberal heathen professors using their vicious mind-controlling powers to churn out whole generations of left-wing secularists.

To me, there are better explanations for the fact that “the more university education a person receives, the more likely he is to hold secular and left-wing views.” One is that people who attend college leave home. That is to say, they leave their church, the community incentives to attend it, and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don’t go to services or stray in their faith. Suddenly they’re surrounded by dorm mates of different faiths or no faith at all. For many of these students, it turns out that their religious behavior was driven more by desire for community, or social and parental pressure, than by deeply held beliefs. Another reason education correlates with secularism is that secularists are more likely to seek advanced degrees, partly because they’re more focused than their religious counterparts on career.

Here we have two (not incompatible) theories: one, it isn’t necessarily the university that makes young people less religious, it’s the removal from the student’s sheltered home environment and sudden access to a diversity of beliefs. Two, the causal relationship is in the opposite direction. It’s not that education causes secularism, but that secularism on the individual level leads to more education.

There is further insight in the comments. For example:

Conor – you’re trying too hard! The negative correlation between education and religious belief holds up across countries, and the American phenomenon of traveling away home for college is much more prevalent here than in most other western countries where the same correlation can be observed.

The answer is much simpler. Education is a proxy for intelligence, and the more intelligent a person is, the less likely they are to hold religious beliefs.

Since education is a profoundly imperfect proxy for intelligence (particularly higher education in a country where attending university is prohibitively expensive for many people), I’m going to disagree with the second paragraph and instead focus on the first. It has indeed been observed that there is a very obvious negative correlation between educational attainment and religiosity, but it’s bigger than educational attainment. There is a major positive correlation between poverty/inequality, low educational attainment, and a whole host of social dysfunctions…with high religiosity. This is not to say that religion causes social problems (although one does have to wonder about the socioeconomic effect of teaching whole countries full of people that using birth control makes Baby Jesus cry), just that they tend to go hand-in-hand at the population level. I’m more inclined to think that poverty leads to social problems, and the insecurity of living in the midst of those problems leads to higher religiosity.

Thus, could it be (at least partly) that Americans who attend university are more affluent to begin with, and therefore tend to be less reliant on religion? It would be interesting to compare the data on the relationship between educational attainment and religious participation between wealthier students (whose parents can afford to send them to college), and poorer students (using scholarships and need-based aid to pay for school) and see what patterns emerge. It would also be interesting to investigate Friedersdorf’s first hypothesis and compare the data between students who attend school far away from home and those who either live close enough to commute or who go home every weekend. It would still be necessary in that case to control for household income, as out-of-state tuition and out-of-home living quarters both make higher education much more expensive.

Furthermore, there’s also the power of critical thinking; other commenters have described how their post-secondary educations gave them the tools to start thinking for themselves, whereas their religious upbringings focused on believing what they were told, even if it didn’t make sense. Those are the “ill-defined, superhuman powers to shape the minds of its charges” (in Friedersdorf’s words) which Prager apparently fears our university system wields.