FactChecker: Does College Cause Young Adults to Lose Their Faith?

Dedicated Christian parents work hard and pray diligently that their children will develop a strong and growing faith in their years at home. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of parenting to watch this happen, and we want to make sure that faith continues to flourish as they leave our homes and go out into the world. That is why one of our greatest fears is that the secular university and its aggressively atheistic professors will lead our kids like away from the faith. Many Christian parents avoid secular schools for this very concern.

But do the years and experiences of college actually contribute to our young people losing or walking away from their faith? The answer – and the reasons for it – might surprise you.

Leading scholars have examined this question using sophisticated and reliable research methodologies, publishing their findings in premier sociological journals.

In the last few years, social scientists have “found that the religiously undermining effect of higher education . . . has disappeared.” Professor Christian Smith, a world-renowned sociologist of religion from Notre Dame University (and a faithful Christian parent himself) explains that recent investigations published in the Review of Higher Education reveal,

[T]hat among recently surveyed college students, 2.7 times more report that their religious beliefs have strengthened during their college experience than say their beliefs weakened. (1)

Research from the University of Texas-Austin delivers more good news, finding that young people who avoid college “exhibit the most extensive patterns of religious decline” compared to those who do attend college. (2) They explain the loss of faith among the non-college attending young adults has little to do with secularizing ideology, but simply results from a lack of intentionality and direction in their lives. Those who seem to drift through these formative and transitional years with no definite goals or plans likely bring this same attitude and action to their faith life.

Christian Smith explains that one careful and comprehensive review of the research literature on this question over the last few decades shows that a “clearly perceptible change appears to have begun in the 1990s” regarding the impact of college attendance on one’s faith.

Professor Smith observes three primary and very interesting reasons why the university is not the faith-shredder we imagine it to be:

1)    The increase in presence and effectiveness of campus-based ministries like Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, and Young Life.

2)    The increase of relativism and the decline of strict scientism, which allows for discussion of faith and spiritual speculation, similar to what Paul experienced at the Aeropagus.

3)    An increase in committed evangelical and Catholic faculty at secular universities in America who can serve as an encouragement and balance for Christian students.

Smith adds this interesting note of explanation,

More broadly, adolescents today are generally quite conventional, and specifically so with regard to religion – less rebellious, for instance than they were during the baby boom generation – and so are generally content to continue in the faith traditions in which they were raised, however much that faith may or may not mean to them.

He continues with a very surprising, but important observation that has great merit,

And at the very general level, American culture and perhaps Western culture seems to have shifted from a secular to a post-secular era in which secularist assumptions are no longer simply taken for granted but are rather on the table for questioning and religion is increasingly considered a legitimate topic of discussion — a cultural shift that has likely much affected contemporary youth. (3)

An important lesson we should take from findings like this is that time and culture do not remain fixed or stagnant.

What was true just a few decades ago can change today, for both good or ill, and for very interesting and unsuspected reasons. We must pay attention to the cultural changes happening under our feet and what they bring about so we are not stuck in believing truths that have, over time, transformed into myths.


(1) Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 248-249.

(2) Jeremy E. Uecker, Mark Regnerus, Margaret Vaaler, “Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood,” Social Forces, (2007) 85: 1-26; Regnerus and Uecker, “How Corrosive is College to Religious Faith and Practice?” Social Science Research Council, February 2007, p. 3.

(3) Smith, 2009, p. 249, 250.


Other articles in this series:

Does ‘Abba’ Mean ‘Daddy’?

C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton Quotes

Burning Your Ships for Jesus

Misquoting Francis of Assisi

The Cross an Electric Chair?

Divorce Rate Among Christians

Do Faithful Christians Take the Bible Literally?

Is the ‘I Only Need Jesus!’ Declaration Christian?

Who Really Started the Family ‘Culture War’?

Are Your Kids Likely to Lose Their Faith?

Are Millennials More Self-Sacrificing and Community-Minded Than Previous Generations?

  • http://fivesolasreformation.com/ Nicholas J. Gausling

    Fundamentally we also need to remember that if someone abandons the faith completely, that’s proof that they were never saved to begin with (1 John 2:19).

    • James P

      Yeah, as someone who is no longer a Christian, I’m gonna have to disagree with you there. I believed wholeheartedly while I was a Christian, and I’m now an atheist. It’s sweet of you to assume that I was insincere as a Christian, but I think I’m better equipped to judge what was going on in my head back then.

      I will agree with the article though, college in and of itself certainly isn’t the sole cause of folks losing faith. I’ve known people who lost their faith shortly before college and “came out” after leaving their Christian families. Personally, my faith died a few years after I left school, around my mid-20’s. Of course some things in school did help me to start looking at things from a different point of view, but I’d say the church itself played a greater part in me losing my faith.

      • AndyB

        I’m not sure what was going on in your head, but the bible is very clear on what was going on in your heart.

        1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

        The reality is you may have been very religious but you’ve never experienced the new birth. Once a heart is turned from stone to flesh there is no going back.

        FWIW: this is one of the cornerstones to reformed doctrine of which this site affirms. It’s the P in TULIP.

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  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    In today’s culture, the biggest threat to faith, regardless of one’s location, is materialism.

  • Dillon

    I’m always happy to embrace good news about shifting trends such as these. But I must also confess myself a bit skeptical, being close to university culture. I preface all of my comments by saying a) I have not myself read any of these studies, but do plan to, and b) my comments pertain specifically to confessional Christianity, which may not have been the aim of these studies. (Thanks for the citations!)

    A follow-up question: How particular were the studies regarding Christian respondents?

    I can imagine a decline in faith loss in a generic sense because of the relativism (and also, as you mention, thanks to campus Christian organizations and some increase in Christian faculty). And yet, I’ve seen a shallowing of that same faith, where students come out the other side with “least common denominator” theology–going to church, but without any robustness in their professions–or evangelizing less, since the culture still breathes a postmodern atmosphere where those same students can be heard affirming either liberalized theology or the equality of faiths as means to eternal salvation (if eternal salvation be still on their radars).

    Something similar happens, in my limited experience, with Christian faculty, who are permitted to teach at such institutions on the premise (often explicitly forbidden under “proselytization” contract clauses) that they will not teach one faith as superior to another. Did these studies include filter questions to weed out respondents who would affirm the intrinsic equality of faiths?

    On the other hand, something like the growth of campus-based ministries is encouraging indeed, because these are organizations broadly within confessional evangelicalism, with explicitly Christian foundation documents to be adhered to by everyone in the organization. But even these are under assault in the courts (atheistic/LGBTQ leadership, for instance).

    I do hate to be a downer, and maybe I’m showing a bit too much cynicism. I’ve just seen too many peer-reviewed sociological studies whose conclusions either attack confessional Christianity, or encourage us to let our guards down. And not having yet read any of these studies, but sniffing out very generic language use of categories like “belief” and “religion/religious experiences,” my suspicion here is the latter. But again, maybe that’s too skeptical…

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  • Travis

    And maybe Youth Ministries aren’t doing as bad a job as some people have tended to believe.

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  • http://www.raisinggodlychildren.org Bryan

    In Ken Ham’s book “Already Gone” reasearch tell us that about 80% of kids “abandon their faith” before they even enter college. Around 40% in middle-school and the remainder in high-school.

    • http://glenntstanton.com glenn stanton

      there is simply no good data to support Ham’s conclusion as you state it. The “leaving the faith” story is not near as bad as so many make it out to be. And it is not bad at all from kids who come from families who seriously – though not perfectly – practice and teach their faith.

    • Ryan

      That’s because Ken Ham defines “abandoning faith” as “questioning Young-Earth Creationism.” I’ve read through his study and while he does raise some good points that need to be addressed, most of it is shrill alarmism over the fact that not everyone conforms to his particular breed of evangelicalism.

  • http://www.collegetransitioninitiative.com Derek Melleby

    Dillon: Your comments and questions are very wise and perceptive.

    I have read the research cited, years ago (!) when it was first published by “leading scholars” and appeared “in premier sociological journals” using “sophisticated and reliable research methodologies” in 2009 and 2007. First let me say that I have benefitted greatly from the National Survey of Youth and Religion and the books written by Christian Smith and his associates. But I am also concerned that the way this blog poses the question and the research used to support the answer does not actually help us (the Church) in the end. What we should care about is “faith development” during the university years. The questions that should drive us is not whether or not someone “loses” faith/religion in college or even experiences a weakened faith, but rather, what kind of faith is developed and pursued? What are Christian college students putting their faith in? And, what difference does faith in Jesus make for college student/young adult decisions regarding learning, career, family, community, church involvement, etc.?

    Ironically, while Christian Smith (and some others) seem reluctant to “sound the alarm” regarding whether or not students “lose” faith in college, the rest of his writings should scare the heck out of us regarding what young adults actually believe. According to Smith’s research, using sophisticated and reliable research methodologies, most “Christian” students arrive on college campuses as “moralistic, therapeutic, deists,” and they exit college as Christian moralistic, therapeutic, deists. And this is good news?

    I highly recommend reading Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith or Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean. After reading these books the question about whether or not college causes young adults to lose their faith doesn’t seem to be that pressing. In fact it might be good if they lose the faith they came to college with!

    Students may not change their Christian “status” on Facebook during their four years in college and the majority of students may say that they are “still” a Christian for a sociological survey or interview, but that doesn’t really tell us much. Here’s what we do know: (1) the years between 18-25 are formative; (2) students have a tendency to disengage from faith/religion or put their faith in an identity lockbox during this time (see Tim Clydesdale’s The First Year Out); and (3) the content of one’s faith matters. Thank God for Churches and parachurch ministries that continue to provide resources for this critical stage in life.

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  • Suzanne

    While the students self-identify as leaving college with a stronger faith, how is this defined or quantified? I know of several who would claim to have a stronger faith, while they have actually become more comfortable living a sinful lifestyle because their new, stronger faith is more liberal and accepting.

    • Lou G

      Great points. And I will also add that the overall trend in academia is away from straight up secularism and toward eastern spiritualism. This spiritualism has infiltrated a lot of the campus ministries as well. In addition, this opens the students up to neo-paganism masquerading as Christianity. It’s appealing because it allows them to embrace liberal stances on ethical issues and to be more accepting of traditionally anti-Christian views.

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  • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com Esther O’Reilly

    Smith’s thinking strikes me as wooden and naive. An increase in relativistic thinking doesn’t necessarily result in more open-mindedness. Relativists are happy to be open-minded only until you disagree with them. This has been my experience, and I’m quite confident many students and former students would agree with me.

  • Russ

    I found a similar report by Bradley R. E. Wright (“Christians are hate-filled hypocrites…and other lies you’ve been told”). His 1st chapter (Why do we hear so much bad news about Christianity?) and how he relates questionable statistical usage – oh how I wish every speaker would read it before boldly proclaiming the next crisis of the church (which they had the foresight to see and will make available to you…).

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    The greatest problem is sending the unconverted to denominational colleges. I spent 3 years speaking online with atheist young men and women. Most of them were from ”christian homes’ and they said that having heard the profession of parents and then seeing the hypocrisy of their parents the children concluded there was no Eternal Almighty and walked away.
    Those that went to the denominational colleges felt that the obvious statements were untrue. eg God loves everyone.
    It is the role or office of the Holy Spirit to apply salvation and teach the heirs of salvation. Man has denied the Holy Spirit and taken on the work themselves. It is not a true work, but a work of man who in himself is governed by Satan. Unconverted people teaching unconverted people cause much heart ache. Seek the truth of this matter and cry out for repentance.

  • Ray Jones

    I am encouraged by your article. Our oldest daughter is a Senior in high school and we’re seeking God’ face for where He wants her to pursue her education. My wife, daughter and I are currently weighing the pros and cons of attending a Christian college versus a secular institution.

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