From Campus Bullies to Empty Churches

By Mary Eberstadt

The question of secularization—or how it is that societies once markedly religious become less so, particularly the societies of what’s known as Western civilization—has been much studied in modern times. Urbanization, rationalism, higher education, industrialization, feminism: these are just some of the possible causal agents debated by sociologists when they try to figure out why some people stop going to church.

Yet one highly significant social fact that rather obviously bears on the question of secularization has gone unnoticed. That is the relationship between the well-documented decline in Western churchgoing, especially among Millennials, and the simultaneous rise of a toxic public force on campuses across the Western world: the new intolerance.

“The new intolerance” is shorthand for the chilled public atmosphere in which religious believers now operate. Many people of faith face unique burdens that would have been unthinkable even a couple of decades ago: burdens of ostracism, of losing the good opinion of their neighbors, of being trash-talked in the public square. Some even face the loss of livelihood or the constant threat and reality of litigation; for a primer, see the hounding last spring of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich for his donation years earlier on behalf of traditional marriage.

Although this new intolerance has begun to attract attention and debate, the connection between that phenomenon and the rise in unbelief among twenty-somethings remains to be explored. And the scrutiny is overdue. It is well known, and well documented by social science, that many students, not only in America but all over, lose their religion in college. The interesting question is why.

The New Intolerance

An atheist or other nonbeliever might say students lose religion because college is where they learn higher reasoning, and higher reasoning drives out the superstition of faith. That kind of answer might seem to make perfect sense—except that it’s refuted by the facts. In fact, social science points to the opposite conclusion: better-educated people are actually more likely than those with less education to be found in church. (See my book How the West Really Lost God for a roundup of the empirical evidence demonstrating this pattern across a range of societies, from Victorian England to the modern-day United States.) So the answer from sophistication just doesn’t hold up as an explanation for what happens to religious commitment during the college years.

No, something else is going on in the numbers about faith and people in their teens and twenties. For starters, we might focus in on this fact: the campus these days is ground zero of the new intolerance…

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From Campus Bullies to Empty Churches | Intercollegiate Review