Ugh, sorry about this---this post was supposed to go up yesterday afternoon, and I screwed it up somehow. So here it is, and apologies. I didn't get to it until now because I was at a panel/feminist event all night.

Hemant at the Friendly Atheist jumps into a “debate” between fire-breathing wingnut Dennis Prager and occasionally-not-a-complete-asshole Conor Friedersdorf about why kids get less religious when they go to college. (By the way, there’s no real evidence for this assertion that I can see.) Prager is all about the “don’t teach your kids to read, they’ll get ideas” argument, of course, but Friedersdorf has a different take.

To me, there are better explanations for the fact that "the more university education a person receives, the more likely he is to hold secular and left-wing views." One is that people who attend college leave home. That is to say, they leave their church, the community incentives to attend it, and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don't go to services or stray in their faith. Suddenly they're surrounded by dorm mates of different faiths or no faith at all. For many of these students, it turns out that their religious behavior was driven more by desire for community, or social and parental pressure, than by deeply held beliefs.

Hemant is quick to dismiss Friedersdorf, which is usually a wise thing to do, since Friedersdorf kicks off his post with an overt falsehood, calling Prager “thoughtful”, when the more appropriate words would be “reactionary”, “mean-spirited”, “disingenuous”, “pandering”, or “dishonest”. Hemant’s reply:

There’s also the possibility that when you realize how much we really know about biology and zoology and anthropology and chemistry and genetics and astrophysics, the stories in the Bible just become silly and antiquated.

You can’t take religious myths seriously after you’re forced to think critically for a few years.

I think Hemant is over-rating how much colleges expect undergrads to think critically, sadly. Plus, he’s underestimating how much people can compartmentalize. And again, there’s no real evidence that I see that people with bachelor’s degrees are less religious. What little effect there is is small.

Still, I think Friedersdorf has a point that shouldn’t be dismissed. He’s essentially saying that religion is social and not spiritual, and I think that’s an accurate view of why people believe. In fact, the social nature of religion is one of the strongest arguments against it. It’s clear people believe in their god mainly because people around them do, and bucking the common sentiment requires paying a social price most people aren’t willing to pay. If it was a free choice, then the faith people have wouldn’t correlate so strongly with geography, family of origin, or peer group. You choose what to believe not on the arguments, but based on what people around you need you to agree to believe to get along with them. A lot of people are natural conformists, but even people who aren’t inclined to go with the flow often choose to go with it because the consequences are so high.

In fact, just a couple posts down on Friendly Atheist, you see this play out. A woman writes Hemant for advice on how to handle the evidence in her history of her atheism now that she’s looking for jobs. She and he both acknowledge that atheism can be held against you in job-hunting. Now, some people are just stubborn bastards---or, in my case, just congenitally incapable of playing along when something doesn’t strike me as right---but most people, when faced with this sort of social ostracism that can hurt your paycheck, etc.? They’re going to believe in god. It’s just easier to do so. And if their doubts nag at them too hard, they’re going to be an “agnostic”. But straight up disbelieving creates too much tension with other people.

Which is why I think Friedersdorf has a point about even the small effect college has on belief. The main pressure to believe is conformity, and once you’re removed from the people exerting that pressure, it’s easier to quit believing. If there were more pockets in this country where atheism was acceptable, I think you’d see an even more dramatic effect. In fact, I’d bet if you broke it down by schools in more liberal vs. less liberal areas, you’d see that the more liberal areas have a lot more defectors.