How Education Helps or Hinders Religiosity

by on March 7th, 2015
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There is a tendency when talking about the relation between education and religion to suggest that the more educated you become, the less religious you become. The alternate tendencies would be to become more spiritual, perhaps, or to abandon much of both spirituality and religion, affirming science and philosophy as more effective and reasonable methods of attaining knowledge and wisdom respectively. The latter is the more common perspective, the former more contentious and vague. But a new study from University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Philip Schwadel suggests that education may actually increase religiosity in a certain sense. The study is from a more sociological theory of religiosity, where attendance of religious services and identification with a social group are what makes a person religious. So there will understandably be conflicts from the start of theory of religion in this discussion.

One of the important distinctions Schwadel makes about education’s affect on religious beliefs is that one doesn’t necessarily say they don’t believe in God, but instead phrases their belief as that of a higher power. In that sense, there is a more general idea instead of specific creeds or the like. With this in mind, it sounds like with more education there may be some tendency to become spiritual and not religious. The justification might be that people become appreciative of the similarities between religions as they begin to see them in engaging with people of different beliefs. But the statistics seemed to find that there was some increase in of identifying with and attending mainline churches, as well as occasionally reading the bible, as you became more educated, though the highest percentage increase was only 15% per year. But with that in mind, I wonder what that particular part of the study specifically meant. If it was every year of education beyond high school, then that would skew the data, since that would mean every person with a bachelors would have at least 60% more chance. If they mean years of education after bachelors, then I haven’t yet gotten those extra 2-3 years, which would increase the percentage by a similar amount. Some Christians agree with this idea in that the more educated a Christian becomes, the more sophisticated their faith is and thus the more they are able to engage with other religions without succumbing to apostasy or the like. There is a persistence of their own faith, but they are also able to understand that not everyone agrees and expresses their own beliefs in different ways. In this sense, the increase of religiosity leans towards Christianity in America. The study, of course, has that bent of sorts in the questions it asks, but it would be a bit too specific to say that the more educated you become, the more Christian you become. So instead, the formulation that you become more religious is more general. It’s purely incidental that most religious people happen to be Christian in America. It could be conceivably different in other countries.

An opposing voice from many atheists, including former American Atheist president Ed Buckner, claims that mere attendance in church does not make one a Christian in any sense beyond the nominal status gained from being baptized and put into the church directory, nor does it make you actually religious. The idea of religion as a purely socially oriented group creates problems of exact statistics, since even non-attendants can be included in numbers for churches. There is the option to be removed, from what I understand, but there’s always the complexity of sorts that may exist with multiple registries, since I was baptized as an infant in one church and got baptized as a teenager in another church. The point is I was never a Christian except in the sense of conformity to what I felt was a sophisticated and socially acceptable community. In that way, I wanted to conform and be part of something, which was understandable, since I was a socially awkward child, especially after having gone into junior high. Like the church I was raised in, people in school offered things that seemed to be a way to become accepted by a large and influential group of people. The notion of religiosity being based on your identification with a certain social group makes religion little more than a popularity contest of which group maintains influence and motivates people to join it. Not to mention it boils down to people associating with a religion for less than sincere or spiritual reasons. If you want to be associated with the elite, you join a church so as to keep your social connections diverse. As Buckner put it, some people just attend church to sell more insurance, they don’t actually believe any of the tenets. With that in mind, this aspect of the study creates a problematic standard of what it means to be religious, though admittedly, it’s only an indirect part of the study. I myself was one of the people Buckner speaks about as a skeptic as to whether everything being talked about was actually true. I was interested in religion even from a young age, but at the same time, my own personal beliefs made it so that I was in a conflict with the social group, since I didn’t share much of their values, especially when it came to things like politics. I wanted to be accepted, but after a time, my conversion for conformity’s sake seemed like a mistake and I slowly but surely drifted away.

Schwadel’s conclusion wasn’t about any direct correlation between education and religiosity or lack thereof. His conclusion was that religion is still important to educated people, but in a different way. He openly admits, however, that academics are moderately less religious than the general populace. But there is, according to him, a mistake in exaggerating this tendency and applying it to all educated people. When you get a college education, it doesn’t automatically make you an academic; it just means your perspective is broader. I think many people who have gone through college or are in college would agree with Schwadel’s theory that the reason why people can maintain religiosity in the aftermath of higher education is that they have exposure to people with other varying beliefs and thus are more tolerant and understanding. Not to mention humans have an amazing capacity to compartmentalize and interpret things selectively, but I’ll confront that soon with a series I hope to work on. Also with college education, people are motivated to investigate their own religious beliefs more seriously and thus have more sincere beliefs. In this sense, being educated and being more religious is not a contradiction in terms if you consider each person individually as they relate to their beliefs. A person who is more skeptical by nature with their beliefs may turn out to become less religious through higher education, but a person who is inquisitive and yet still seeks that sense of spiritual fulfillment and certainty in their beliefs may instead refine them and change affiliations to socially popular Christian denominations. Buckner notes that as people become more educated, they move into upper classes, which have a higher population of Christians and in this sense, they feel a need to identify and associate themselves with the upper class and thus join these churches. This aspect of class dynamics is pertinent to Schwadel’s overall theory, even though he denies its primacy, saying that the study isn’t about whether religion is purely a social class matter, but that there is a relation between religion, education and social class.

This study does bring up the fact you can see in engaging with religious people with higher education: they can, indeed, be both intelligent and articulate in their beliefs. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily right, but that, at the very least, they can defend their beliefs without resorting to a primarily faith based argument. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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