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There are more atheists and agnostics entering Harvard than Protestants and Catholics

How religious are America’s best and brightest? A Harvard Crimson poll of the university’s class of 2019 provides a glimpse into the beliefs and practices of incoming freshman, including sex, politics and drug use. Some of the interesting findings included the religious breakdown, especially when compared to other millennials in the U.S.

Harvard’s combined number of atheists and agnostics among its incoming class exceeds the number of Catholics and Protestants, as Pew Research Center’s Conrad Hackett noted. The number appears to be a striking contrast with the rest of the U.S. millennial population, those from ages 18 to 34.

Pew’s survey suggested a decline in Christianity in the U.S., especially among millennials, though Harvard’s freshman still don’t appear to reflect the rest of millennials in the U.S.

Among the general population in the U.S., 52 percent of millennials identify as Protestant or Catholic, according to Pew, compared to 34.1 percent of Harvard’s incoming class. And 13 percent of millennial Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, compared with 37.9 percent of Harvard freshmen who said they were atheist or agnostic.

Part of the reason why American Christianity is on the decline is due to the number of people who don’t self-identify with a religion anymore. Pew also asks survey respondents if they are unaffiliated with faith, and 36 percent of them describe themselves as not affiliated with religion.

The Crimson’s poll and Pew’s survey are not perfect comparisons since they appear to ask about religious identification differently. Pew provides the opportunity for respondents to say they are not religious. The Crimson doesn’t appear to have a category for those who don’t identify with religion at all, except for the categories of atheists and agnostics.

In other words, if the Crimson asked about religious affiliation another way, students might respond differently.

Either way, the Crimson’s poll suggests a decline in number of Protestants and Catholics and a rise of atheists and agnostics in the three years of available data. For the class of 2017, the number of Protestants and Catholics were 42.4 percent, compared to 37 percent for the class of 2018 and 34.1 percent for the class of 2019.

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For atheists and agnostics, the trend is reversed. For the class of 2017, atheists and agnostics made up 32.4 percent of the campus, while they made up 35.6 percent of the class of 2018 and 37.9 percent of the class of 2019. Class makeups of other religious traditions appeared to remain mostly the same. Ten percent of the respondents said they were Jewish and 2.5 percent said they were Muslim.

Harvard’s poll also includes details on religiosity (asking, how religious are you?), religion by region, religiosity by income, religion by ethnicity and religiosity by region. Incoming freshman are much more likely to say they are not at all religious or not very religious than those who say they are religious or very religious.

The students who report the highest level of religiosity (for instance, those who would be more likely to say they are “very religious”) are Mormon. Those who say they are “very religious” are less likely to come from a family that makes more than $125,000 a year.

The Crimson profiled Harvard’s religious athletes last spring, writing that 22 percent of respondents surveyed in the newspaper’s survey of the class of 2018 who identified as recruited athletes also indicated that they are either “religious” or “very religious.” The paper found that 60 percent of self-identified recruited athletes indicated that they were Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, while 2 percent of respondents self-identified as Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon or Hindu, and 12 percent chose “other.”

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