Losing my religion: American freshmen least religious in half-century

photo credit: Christopher Leelum

By Sarah Kirkup and Christopher Leelum

For the first time in 50 years, atheist and agnostic options will be added to the list of religious preferences on the annual American college freshman survey.

The survey, conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, found that America’s freshmen class of 2018 is the least religious group since the study was first conducted. 28 percent of incoming freshmen in the fall of 2014 did not identify with a particular religion.


The study that was conducted for the Class of 2019 will be the first to add “atheist” and “agnostic” categories to the survey. The Assistant Director of CIRP, Ellen Stolzenberg, thinks that this might change what the students put down for their religious beliefs.

“The addition of the agnostic and atheist section might relate to people who consider themselves spiritual but not specifically religious,” Stolzenberg said.  



The percentage of nonreligious students at Stony Brook has risen in the past couple of years, going from 31.7 percent of freshmen in 2009 to 42.6 percent last year, according to a study released in February by UCLA.

“There is more than one cause for this,” Father Sean Magaldi, Catholic Chaplain of Stony Brook’s Catholic Campus Ministry, said. “Our society is becoming more secular and generally moving away from faith. But also, many people grow up now with parents that may identify [as religious] but not practice.”

Though public universities on Long Island like Stony Brook may have higher nonreligious levels, private colleges like St. John’s are well below the national average. The 2012 study from CIRP showed that 17.7 percent of SJU freshmen did not identify with a particular religion, and that number has only risen to 17.9 percent in the most recent 2014 survey.

“Erosion of religious beliefs has been a result of many factors,” Matthew Foster, a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Molloy College, said. “These include the rise of science, the desire for social peace over religious truth, and the uncomfortableness of disagreeing with people around us.”

A member of the Class of 2018 and biology major at Stony Brook, Ashley Rojas thinks it might have something to do with technology.

“I do consider myself religious; my faith is Catholic because that’s what I’ve grown up with,” Rojas said. “I think the Class of 2018 is less religious because of how much technology has advanced and I guess it distracts us from religious practices.”

Stolzenberg also added that when looking to the religious portion of the survey it is important to look at spirituality.

From 2012 to 2014, incoming freshmen at SJU rating themselves in the highest 10 percent or above average compared to their peers in spirituality grew 2 percent to 40.7 percent of the class.

“College students might be hesitant toward conforming to the rules and regulation of specific faiths,” Stolzenberg said.

About Christopher Leelum 7 Articles
Chris Leelum is a junior Journalism and Philosophy double major at Stony Brook University. He really likes the combination of writing, analysis, arguments, and ideas. But more importantly, he likes Liverpool, Blake Lively, the New England Patriots (even though he's never been to Boston), and Twix candy bars.