In 1929, John Dietrich gave his thoughts on a prominent trend in American religion: the secularizing of college students. Almost a century later, how much of his commentary continues to ring true?

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“I sent my son to the university a Christian, and he came back to me an agnostic.”

So speaks the “broken-hearted mother” in John Dietrich’s sermon, “What Happens to a College Student’s Religion,” delivered on February 10, 1929, 94 years ago today. But the statement could just as easily emerge in the 2020s, where stories of the atheistic educational enterprise dominate the narrative surrounding young people and religion, ranging from the societal to the more…anecdotal

This is far from the only section of Dietrich’s sermon whose commentary can seem as relevant in 2023 as it was nearly a century ago. Take this section from his introduction:

…We are witnessing today an aggressive attack by these fundamentalists of all denominations upon the institutions of higher learning on the ground that they are teaching ideas that are inimical to religion—that modern science as it is taught today, is undermining faith in the Bible, that many of the foremost professors in our colleges and universities are at least skeptics if not out-and-out unbelievers, and that as a result our youth graduate from these institutions, having lost all interest in the church, if not actually hostile to religion.

The question captured in Dietrich’s sermon is not one that would easily become irrelevant. Every living generation in the United States has been less religious than its predecessor, and the older generations’ laments about the newfangled ways of the young folk are absolutely nothing new.

“We are witnessing today an aggressive attack by these fundamentalists of all denominations upon the institutions of higher learning on the ground that they are teaching ideas that are inimical to religion…”


But what exactly does it mean for John Dietrich in 1929 to be analyzing the same reactionary religious sentiment that we see today, specifically directed at centers of higher education? How does his analysis hold up in light of what we know today about the nonreligious community? And how about his solutions?

And what exactly happens to a college student’s religion?

A brief history lesson

John Dietrich (1878-1957) was a Unitarian minister and an early leader in the “religious humanism” movement. He led the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis for 18 years between 1918 and 1936, during which time he preached of a religious morality that had no need for a god or superstition or holy text, and signed the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933.

He was, in many ways, one of the founding figures of humanism as we know it today.

In 1929, when Dietrich delivered his sermon “What Happens to a College Student’s Religion,” the country was in a period of religious upheaval both inside and outside his own tradition. While he and fellow humanists pushed up against the borders of Unitarianism, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of American Protestantism was in full swing over new theories on the origin of the Bible and the Origin of Species. Modernists sought to reconcile these theories with Christianity, while fundamentalists doubled down on doctrines like Biblical inerrancy. It is against this tripartite backdrop, with fundamentalists the first cohort, modernists the second, and himself in the third, that Dietrich preached in 1929.

His sermon itself is divided into an introduction and five sections, broadly discussing the lack of religiosity among students, his explanations for the phenomenon, how different students react, why colleges do not have more religious overtures, and how a rational religion could solve the issue, respectively. This fifth section, where he calls for a humanist and scientific religion to restore students’ faith in religion, is an interesting proposition. As grounded as it may seem in early religious humanist thought, it may have a striking relevance in our day.

First, let’s see how much has changed.

A nation of fools

The state of religion in the colleges that Dietrich outlines is a grim one for believers: observers seem to universally agree that “where college chapel was compulsory the students were irreverent, and where the services were voluntary the students did not attend.” He also cites a specific survey of 500 students at New York University, where 76% professed belief in some kind of divine being, but only 2% of those believed in a “personal god.” Only 25% believed in an afterlife, and only 31% prayed even occasionally.

A strong representation of nonbelievers in colleges should be expected in the modern age. In my class at Harvard College, for example, “agnostic” and “atheist” are the two most popular religious identifiers, combining for more than 41% of the student body. But these numbers are so extreme that I think they can be reasonably discounted. A 2021 Pew survey found that 63% of Americans aged 18-29 believe in heaven and 55% believe in hell, with even more believing in some less well-defined afterlife. These numbers make them the least believing age group, of course, but they still constitute an easy majority. The idea that only a handful of students out of 500 would believe in a personal god seems to defy logic in 2023, let alone in 1929.

What these statistics can show, however, is that even if atheists had not taken over our institutions of higher learning, it certainly seemed like they had. Dietrich quotes a description from Ernest Wilkins, president of Oberlin College, saying that in a body of 1000 students, you can expect 800 to be apathetic to religion, with about 100 on either side being either specifically religious or irreligious. He cites an anecdote of Columbia University as well, which had a student population of 35,000 but a chapel attendance of only about 50.

What these statistics can show, however, is that even if atheists had not taken over our institutions of higher learning, it certainly seemed like they had.

This perspective, more than the actual statistics, bears out in our era, where conservative commentators say colleges are teaching their students to “hate their religion” and producing “a nation of fools.” This was the case in 1929 as well, where Dietrich cites many fundamentalists as arguing that the moral breakdown of society was due to declining rates of religion and blaming atrocities on “the tragic results of our present day secularized education.”

The similarities to our own day could not be more striking.

‘Simply mirrors the trend of the times

There are two main sociological claims and one moral suggestion made by Dietrich in his sermon. The first is that college is not primarily responsible for destroying faith, but is rather an accelerator of a process that would inevitably befall the young faithful in the outside world.

The college student simply mirrors the trend of the times and the views of people in general, albeit in a more intensified and more noticeable form. All of a sudden he has thrust upon him from every side new knowledge and new points of view and new stimuli. To the ordinary person this is likely to come more gradually. The change in the average person’s religion, therefore, is likely to come more slowly in the form of an evolution, while that of the college student will take place more suddenly in the form of a revolution.

This thesis seems reasonable enough, and it may well have been true in Dietrich’s time, when Christianity was so demographically dominant, but it does not hold up in our own. A 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 62% of religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised in a religion had left before they turned 18, while only 28% said that they left between the ages of 18 and 29. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s annual Freshman Survey has found that rates of religious affiliation and religious attendance are both seriously declining just among incoming college students. 

Rick Santorum even tried to prove this point in 2012, citing a study from five years earlier that found that 64% of religious college students saw declines in their religious attendance during college. Crucially, however, that study also found that 76% of young Americans who never attended college saw a decline in religious attendance, meaning that college students retained their religion at higher rates than their peers who did not attend.

Dietrich’s second large sociological thesis does bear out in our age, though, regarding who the decline in religiosity affects. In Dietrich’s view, there are three types of college students: the conscientious “idealists,” who “accept wholeheartedly the teachings of science;” the modernists, who “try to reconcile religion and science in some rational manner;” and the fundamentalists, who “cling tenaciously to the old ideas and resent any intrusions into the sacred chambers of the mind.”

Unsurprisingly, Dietrich believes that the idealists make the best students and that the fundamentalists are “not very brilliant mentally” and have “little evidence of original thought.” For these reasons, he argues that the fundamentalists are the least likely to lose their religion, and that secularization most likely affects the other two categories, who make a sincere effort to understand science and simply cannot reconcile it with the religion they were taught.

A Pew survey from 2020 largely confirms this theory. While the fundamentalist-modernist split cannot be easily mapped onto modern evangelical and mainline Protestantism, the data is nonetheless intriguing. The survey found that though most teens (in this survey, ages 13-17) tend to share their parents’ religious identity. Evangelical, Catholic, and unaffiliated parents all had a retention rate with their children of 80% or higher, meaning that 80% or more of their children identified in the same tradition. The sole outlier was mainline Protestantism, where only 55% of teenagers remained mainline, including 12% who switched to evangelical and 24% who became unaffiliated. 

The fact that the more liberal religious community saw the highest rate of defection backs up Dietrich’s claims. But again, the defections in this survey all took place before the respondents turned 18, suggesting that college does not play as large a role in that process.

‘Thoroughly imbued with the scientific spirit

Dietrich begins his final section by conceding the point to the fundamentalists: yes, our young people are in moral decline, but because we have only taught them morality in the context of religion. Once they discard religion, they discard morality with it, because they have nothing to ground it outside of their religious tradition.

The solution, therefore, is to give them that grounding. In place of their old religions, he proposes this:

I think the best way would be to have in each college a special department for this purpose, equipped by men who are thoroughly imbued with the scientific spirit, entirely aware of the results of scientific investigation, specially trained in the history of religions and philosophy, and who at the same time have a native religious equipment and an appreciation of the purposes and benefits of a purely scientific religion.

Dietrich’s proposal is clearly a product of his time for a number of reasons, not the least of which being his description of this new department as being equipped solely by men. Many proponents of the system that Dietrich called “a purely scientific religion” would hesitate to call it a religion today, and the notion that the solution to religious decline is a new religion may seem rather dated to modern audiences.

What stands out to me as the most archaic of his suggestions is that any religious (or even quasi-religious) system is necessary for morality. Judgments of religious groups’ relative morality are nearly impossible to measure, but the data proves one thing: nonreligious people are, at the very least, no less moral than religious ones. The decades of social progress that brought Dietrich’s highly religious society to our own secularized one should be an indication of this.

So if college students do not need the moral guidance of religion, are there other benefits they may receive from a religious structure adapted to a “more rational system of religion?”

I believe the answer is yes. College is a uniquely transformative time for students, and I say this confidently as someone well in the midst of that transformation. I am a committed (one could even say devout) nonbeliever, and I have found that having spiritual advisors and communities with whom I do not need to sacrifice that part of my identity has been tremendously helpful.

Our solution, as Dietrich argues, cannot be to force students to choose either the old “folklore superstition” and “dogma” or nothing at all.

Our humanist chaplaincy has been a major source of that community and advice for me. Through their programming, I have been able to develop a humanist community on campus that I would not have had without them. I have also come to rely heavily on my Unitarian Universalist communities and their mindfulness activities, strong community building, and openness to all shades of nonbelievers. Nor am I alone; nonreligious students regularly seek out and create these spaces specifically for this purpose.

Religion-adjacent institutions and support structures will not be a catch-all for nonreligious students. But for the newly nonreligious, who have often been taught to find spiritual grounding or community or self-worth only in religion, such resources can be a critical lifeline.

I disagree with Dietrich that defection from religion untethers young people from their moral core. But I do believe that for many, leaving (or just living without) religion often means losing access to spiritual practices, communities, and opportunities for self-reflection that can be intensely grounding. Our solution, as Dietrich argues, cannot be to force students to choose either the old “folklore superstition” and “dogma” or nothing at all.

So what happens to a college student’s religion?

John Dietrich’s conclusion in 1929 was that colleges, in teaching the truth, exposed their students to science and reason, something which cannot be reconciled with the old religions. From his sermon and the data in our modern day, I have a slightly different thesis.

What happens to a college student’s religion? Nothing.

It seems that most young people who defect from religion “in college” either had already defected or would have defected anyway. Our secular society and the easy access to the sum total of humanity’s scientific knowledge is secularizing our young people just fine.

I am not suggesting that we recreate 1920s-era humanist Unitarianism to provide our young people with moral direction. They don’t need it, and our society doesn’t need it. But thrusting newly nonreligious children together into an institution of higher learning (not to mention personal independence) requires resources to be dedicated to their personal advancement, resources that do not ask them to sacrifice their critical minds in the process.

The backlash from fundamentalists, in Dietrich’s time and ours, is inevitable. But to truly capture the possibility of our freethinking young people, we must provide our students with the scaffolding they need to succeed. As Dietrich says:

I have every confidence in the intelligent youth of today, and I believe that with the proper leadership and guidance they will meet the supreme challenge of this age in the spirit of genuine heroism, and will lead the world on to better things.

On that sentiment, at least, we absolutely agree.

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Aidan Scully is an atheist and Unitarian Universalist from southeast Massachusetts who writes about religion and politics in antiquity and the modern age. He is currently pursuing an AB in classics, comparative...