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Presidentiality: Are colleges encouraging atheism?

Presidentiality” is Need to Know’s series that dissects what the candidates are saying, doing and promising on the campaign trail. Each episode takes the language of the 2012 election out of the political realm and deconstructs it through the lenses of historical precedent, economic theory and science.

Since the 1960s, there’s been a widely accepted orthodoxy that colleges are hotbeds of liberal activism. Opposition to the Vietnam War rocked campuses across the country, and the works of atheist philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Emma Goldman were influencing anti-establishment thought.

Conservatives have long argued that academia unfairly tilts left — and they have stats to back it up. A controversial study in 2005, for example, found that more than two-thirds of college professors described themselves as “liberal.”

So when President Obama says he wants every kid to have the opportunity to go to college, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum says he knows why.

“It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America,” Santorum said at a rally last month in Florida. “As you know, 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.”

And Santorum isn’t the only presidential candidate who thinks college is anti-religion. Newt Gingrich shared some of the same concerns in a speech to a group of pastors in Florida last year. “I for one am tired of the long trend towards a secular, atheist system of thought dominating our colleges, dominating our media,” Gingrich said.

It may be true that many college professors are liberal. But does that mean that colleges, as Gingrich claims, are encouraging atheism? That number Santorum threw out — that 62 percent of kids who go to college with religious beliefs leave without them — would seem to prove his point. The number comes from a 2007 study published in the journal Social Forces looking at the relationship between education and religious faith.

But as it turns out, later in that same study, the authors came to the complete opposite conclusion: They found that 76 percent of kids who don’t go to college end up attending church less often, a higher percentage than those who do go to college. “Higher education,” as they put it, “is not the enemy of religiosity.”

Another study published in The Review of Religious Research last year, found that kids who went to college were slightly more likely to pray and read the Bible more often.

So campuses have changed a lot since the ’60s and ’70s. But why?

For one thing, with the job market as tight as it is, students these days are much more focused on preparing for their careers than pondering big questions about life and religion. In the ’60s and ’70s the typical college experience involved a broad range of courses in the humanities and liberal arts. Statistics show that, today, larger numbers of students are enrolled in pre-professional programs for careers in finance, medicine and law. Secular indoctrination isn’t exactly on the syllabus.

Students these days, it seems, are less interested in Emma Goldman and more interested in Goldman Sachs.