Does your college major affect your faith?

3827522871_bfbef9a5d9_o.jpgMaybe. A recent study by four University of Michigan researchers tracked college student for several years to see how their college experience affected their “religiosity” (basically, how often they attended religious services, and how important they view religion in their lives). We often think of science and religion as being at odds, but the study found that majoring in science had little effect on students’ religiosity. (More on that in a moment.) A different set of majors proved to be the greatest threat to students’ faith:

Being a humanities or a social science major has a statistically significant negative effect on religiosity — measured by either religious attendance and how important students consider the importance of religion in their lives. The impact appears to be strongest in the social sciences.

The humanities – majors like English, history, philosophy, religious studies – and the social sciences – sociology, psychology, political science, anthropology, economics – have sometimes been called “besieged disciplines” by Christians in higher education because of the high level of hostility to Christianity in these departments. This study appears to bear that out.

In contrast, majoring in business or education had a positive effect on students’ religiosity, perhaps because of the strong practical side of those majors. I’ve ordered a copy of the study to see if the researchers go into more detail.

Back to the sciences, the study found that majoring in biological sciences had no effect on either service attendance or the importance of religion in students’ lives, though physical sciences did seem to cause students to view religion as less important. Because of these findings, the researchers theorize that postmodernism, not the scientific worldview, is the greatest threat to college students’ religious beliefs.

A couple of things are going on here, I think. Postmodernism – especially in its more radical forms in the social sciences and the humanities – can be very challenging to students’ religious faith. Though it’s very difficult to define, and can mean very different things to different people, postmodernism is usually characterized by skepticism of all truth claims, or metanarratives. Postmodernism treats stories and language as supremely important, but as James Sire describes in his worldview catalog, The Universe Next Door

No one’s story is truer than anyone else’s story. Does the story work? That is, does it satisfy the teller? Does it get you what you want – say, a sense of belonging, a peace with yourself, a hope for the future, a way to order you life? It’s all one can ask.

Sire writes that postmodernism can lead to “radical relativism” that poisons religious belief. Though not everything about postmodernism is bad, and not every humanities or social science professor is a postmodernist, this constant skepticism about truth can wear down a student over the years.

In the sciences, though, the physical world provides a true standard by which everything else is being measured. A committed Christian and a militant atheist can agree about many things in the sciences without worldview or religious beliefs ever entering the picture, and it’s relatively easy to separate your religious beliefs from your scientific work. For this reason, compartmentalization – walling off God from the rest of your life – is a real danger in the sciences. But your core beliefs are less likely to be challenged, despite the popular image of science as an enemy of religion.

Interestingly, the Emerging Scholars Network is dominated by students and faculty from the humanities and social sciences. In our annual survey of ESN members, over half – 57% – of our members reported a humanities or social sciences background, compared with only 21% from science and engineering. The high number of humanities majors in ESN has been a constant from our earliest days, perhaps because of the greater need for support in those fields, perhaps because of our successful partnership with groups like the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Among our ESN mentors, 22 of our 30 mentors are in the humanities or social sciences. Our largest numbers of mentors come from philosophy, history, and religious studies.

Regardless of the reasons, ESN is well-placed to support students and future faculty in this besieged disciplines. If you see this study covered in the news in the coming weeks, or if you know a student going into these majors, think of ESN, and pray for God to use ESN members to influence higher education.

Image: A semester’s worth of books from miyagisan, via Flickr.

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