Leading Indicators: College Student Religious Identification
According to the ARIS results, free thought is on the rise. About 8% of the USA in 1990; 15% in 2008. A Pew study in 2007 corroborates the ARIS numbers somewhat, giving the “nones” 16.1%.
But sociologists are curious folk, especially about easy-to-measure populations like college freshmen. So in 2010, 21.9% of 219,864 incoming freshmen surveyed claimed they had no religion. Not “other” or “refused to answer” but “none”. For comparison, only “Catholic” had a higher percentage, as specific denominations go. The majority are Christian, still: If you add all the Christians together and include Mormon, Eastern Orthodox, Quaker and Unitarian, that’s 70.1%. Still the majority, but closing.
The survey has been around for 32 years. In 1978, when it started (“when your mom was in college”), 8.3% of respondents claimed no religion. In 2005, it had more than doubled to 17.4%. Comparing “The American Freshmen” to ARIS, it seems that college students are about 6 years ahead of the general population.
College Students are often more aware of religions other than the one their minister and parents told them about, and exposure to new ideas without hard proselytization leads to reasoning freely. They often learn that other famous “nones” include Thomas Jefferson (who edited his own Bible to remove the miracles), Abraham Lincoln (who is known to be a deist), Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes (“I am not a subscriber to any creed. I belong to no church.”).
Nonbelievers aren’t exactly taking over the country, though. Much like those presidential “nones”, many of the college students surveyed may have theistic beliefs such as deism; philosophical theism; or just vague, pragmatic or apathetic theism. That’s fine by me; they’ve given it some thought and rejected patently supernatural assertions from religious authorities. Atheism or agnosticism is not a guaranteed outcome of reasoning freely, after all. And despite the steady rise, the United States is a very religious country, compared to Western Europe and Scandinavia (For instance, Germany 42% nonbelievers, Sweden 64%).