January 13, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

New Survey of College Students’ Religious Beliefs Published

Theologians and ministers may want to think about results of a survey of 275 college students about their theological beliefs.

In the open-access journal PLoS One, Andrew Shtulman and Max Rattner published their findings from a survey 275 students at Occidental College last spring. The participants, taken from an introductory psychology course, responded to questionnaires on a matter of theological subjects. Here is the abstract of their paper, “Theories of God: Explanatory coherence in religious cognition.”

Representations of God in art, literature, and discourse range from the highly anthropomorphic to the highly abstract. The present study explored whether people who endorse anthropomorphic God concepts hold different religious beliefs and engage in different religious practices than those who endorse abstract concepts. Adults of various religious affiliations (n = 275) completed a questionnaire that probed their beliefs about God, angels, Satan, Heaven, Hell, cosmogenesis, anthropogenesis, human suffering, and human misdeeds, as well as their experiences regarding prayer, worship, and religious development. Responses to the questionnaire were analyzed by how strongly participants anthropomorphized God in a property-attribution task. Overall, the more participants anthropomorphized God, the more concretely they interpreted religious ideas, importing their understanding of human affairs into their understanding of divine affairs. These findings suggest not only that individuals vary greatly in how they interpret the same religious ideas but also that those interpretations cohere along a concrete-to-abstract dimension, anchored on the concrete side by our everyday notions of people.

Here’s a breakdown of the participants’ religious affiliations and the methods the authors used for the survey:

The participants were 275 undergraduates at Occidental College recruited from introductory psychology courses and compensated with extra credit in those courses. Participants were directed to an online questionnaire that took approximately 45 minutes to complete. Participants reported a wide range of religious affiliations: 26% Protestant, 19% Catholic, 11% Jewish, 3% Buddhist, 2%, Hindu, 2% Unitarian, 1% Muslim, 1% something else (Wiccan, Taoist, Navajo), and 36% unaffiliated.

Fifty-eight percent of participants (n = 160) claimed that God exists, and 42% claimed that God does not exist (n = 115). The former are referred to as “theists,” and the latter “atheists.” We report mean differences between theists and atheists on key measures, but we include all participants in analyses of the relation between God concepts and God-related beliefs and practices. Atheists provided responses to all questions, just as theists did, and their responses proved equally codable. Atheists may not have endorsed religious ideas, but they provided interpretations of those ideas nonetheless. For simplicity’s sake, we refer to the responses provided by both theists and atheists as “beliefs,” but we mean belief in the sense of mental proposition rather than personal conviction.

The authors wanted to see if the participants’ convictions “cohere,” or work together.

The next part of the survey probed participants’ beliefs about God’s role in the origin of the universe (cosmogenesis) and the origin of human beings (anthropogenesis). Participants’ beliefs about cosmogenesis were elicited with the questions “Do you believe that God created the universe?”, “Do you believe that the universe was created in the Big Bang?”, and “If you answered ‘yes’ to both questions, how do you resolve the apparent inconsistency between these two ideas?” Participants’ beliefs about anthropogenesis were elicited with the questions “Do you believe that God created human beings?”, “Do you believe that human beings evolved from other organisms?”, and “If you answered ‘yes’ to both questions, how do you resolve the apparent inconsistency between these two ideas?

Answers to the questions, and conclusions drawn, may have statistical significance using methods of scoring, but subjective bias cannot be excluded from their methods. The results may also be invalid because (1) the sample was very limited (Occidental College students), (2) students may have misrepresented their beliefs, (3) and the usual problems with surveys and psychological studies adhere in this one (29 Nov 2018, 19 Nov 2018). Another problem might have arisen if the students had been under the influence of secular psychologists before the survey, and if their theological education was a long time ago.

Preachers and theologians may wish to read this open-access paper to get a feel for what students at this college believe. They may not represent an adequate cross-section of college-age Americans, but may provide food for thought over how much church beliefs and understanding of major doctrines, as taught in church, carry over into the students’ own minds when they are on their own at a secular college. Conclusions by the authors should be considered subjective manifestations of the psychologists own views about religion, science, and origins.

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