Thursday, February 5, 2015

Godless freshmen: now more Nones than Catholics

This article is an update to my annual series on one of the most under-reported stories of the decade: the fraction of college freshmen who report no religious preference has more than tripled since 1985, from 8% to 27%, and the trend is accelerating.

In last year's installment, I made the bold prediction that the trend would continue, and that the students starting college in 2014 would again, be the most godless ever.  It turns out I was right for the fifth year in a row.  The number of students reporting no religious preference increased to 27.5%, a substantial increase since last year's record-high 24.6%.  Also, for the first time in the history of the survey, the number of "Nones" exceeds the number of Catholics (25.3%).

The number of people reporting that they never attended a religious service also reached an all-time high at 29.3%, up from 27.3% last year.

Of course, we should not over-interpret a single data point, but generally:

1) This year's data points are consistent with previous predictions, and

2) Data since 1990 support the conclusion that the number of incoming college students with no religious preference is increasing and accelerating.

This analysis is based on survey results from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) of the Higher Education Research Insitute (HERI).  In 2014, more than 153,000 students at 227 colleges and universities completed the CIRP Freshman Survey, which includes questions about students’ backgrounds, activities, and attitudes.

In one question, students select their “current religious preference,” from a choice of seventeen common religions, “Other religion,” or “None.”

Another question asks students how often they “attended a religious service” in the last year. The choices are “Frequently,” “Occasionally,” and “Not at all.” Students are instructed to select “Occasionally” if they attended one or more times.

The following figure shows the fraction of Nones over more than 40 years of the survey
Fraction of college Freshmen with no religious preference.
The blue line shows actual data through 2013; the blue square shows the new data point for 2014.  The gray regions shows the predictions I generated last year based on data through 2013.  The new data point falls at the high end of the predicted interval.

The red line shows a quadratic fit to the data.  The dark gray region shows a 90% confidence interval, which quantifies sampling error, so it reflects uncertainty about the parameters of the fit.  The light gray region shows a 90% confidence interval taking into account both sampling error and residual error.  So it reflects total uncertainty about the predicted value, including uncertainty due to random variation from year to year.

Here is the corresponding plot for attendance at religious services:

Fraction of college Freshmen who report no attendance at religious services.

Again, the new data point for 2014, 29.3%,  falls in the predicted range, although somewhat ahead of the long term trend.

Predictions for 2015

Using the new 2014 data, we can generate predictions for 2015.  Here is the revised plot for "Nones":

Predictive interval for 2015.
This year's measurement is ahead of the long-term trend, so next year's is likely to regress, slightly, to 27.1% (down 0.4%).

And here is the prediction for "No attendance":
Predictive interval for 2015.

Again, because this year's value is ahead of the long term trend, the center of the predictive distribution is slightly lower, at 28.6% (down 0.7%).

I'll be back next year to check on these predictions.


1) As always, more males than females report no religious preference, and the gender gap appears to be growing.
Difference between men and women, fraction reporting no religious preference.
Evidence that the gender gap is increasing is strong.  The p-value of the slope of the fitted curve is less than 1e-6.

2) I notice that the number of schools and the number of students participating in the Freshman Survey has been falling for several years.  I wonder if the mix of schools represented in the survey is changing over time, and what effect this might have on the trends I am watching.  The percentage of "Nones" is different across different kinds of institutions (colleges, universities, public, private, etc.)  If participation rates are changing among these groups, that would affect the results.

3) Obviously college students are not representative of the general population.  Data from other sources indicate that the same trends are happening in the general population, but I haven't been able to make a quantitative comparison between college students and others.  Data from other sources also indicate that college graduates are slightly more likely to attend religious services, and to report a religious preference, than the general population.

Data Source
Eagan, K., Stolzenberg, E. B., Ramirez, J. J., Aragon, M. C., Suchard, M. R., & Hurtado, S. (2014). The American freshman: National norms fall 2014. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

This and all previous reports are available from the HERI publications page.

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