College freshmen less religious than ever — just like their parents

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This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

Over a quarter of college freshmen say that they have no religion. This makes them the least religious cohort in four decades of the surveys conducted by UCLA.

Researchers at the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA survey college freshmen each year on a range of topics, including religion. The 2014 survey results were released last month (read more here). They show that college freshmen in 2014 had the highest percentage of students identifying with no religion and the lowest percentage who saw themselves as spiritual.

The survey also asks freshmen the religion of their parents. Each year, college freshmen report being less religious than their parents. As go the parents, so goes the child. Parents, too, have increasingly left religion.

Until about a decade ago, however, freshmen tended to be just slightly less religious than their fathers. The gap between children and their fathers was in the single digits. Today, that gap has widened. Freshmen are much more likely to see themselves as one of the so-called “nones” than their parents are. College freshmen are twice as likely to identify with no religion than are their mothers.

A word of caution in reading too much into these results. This isn’t necessarily a harbinger of doom (for religious people) or delight (for secular folks). Only four-in-ten young adults enter college. The CIRP is a fantastic study of these students, but it is limited to those in four-year programs; community colleges are not part of the study. The rise in freshmen who are not religious is just part of the story for how religion is changing in America.

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