Education May Not Dilute Religious Beliefs

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It’s often said that the more education one has, the less religious one is.

But one researcher believes the relationship between education and religion is more complex, arguing in a paper that reality may not support the long-standing notion that education constrains all facets of religious beliefs.

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher Philip Schwadel examined data gathered from the General Social Survey, looking at the “effects of education on religious beliefs, devotional activities, the importance of religion in daily life, switching religious affiliations, religious participation, views of religious authority and views on the role of religion in a secular society,” according to the paper. Most of the surveys — including roughly 20,000 responses to questions — were conducted in person or over the phone before Schwadel’s project. He starts the baseline of education at 7 years since most people complete elementary school. Schwadel also controlled for sex, race, age, southern residence, income, children and marital status in his analysis.

He also cites research over the past decade showing that attending college does not affect students’ religious identity nor participation as much as previously thought.

Schwadel hypothesizes that education does not limit people’s belief in God or the afterlife because scientific concepts, as they’re learned and practiced in person — partaking in chemistry lab in college, for instance — do no directly challenge God’s existence. He found that exposure to diverse ideas and cultures through education does, however, result in believing in a higher power rather than a “definite belief in God.” Though education doesn’t result in less prayer among respondents, it did negatively affect the amount of time spent reading the Bible.

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The data also support that education increases people’s emphasis on the importance of religion in daily life. In addition, it increases prayer and devotional activities among people who are already religious, too. In fact, among Evangelical Protestants, education bolstered religious participation the most. More educated people reported that people should respect religious leaders, but did not support the idea that leaders should influence how members of their communities voted.

Still, there are components of the previous theory that ring true. For instance, more educated people are less likely to hold a literal interpretation of the Bible — an idea other scholars further supported this week; they’re also less likely to have an exclusivist view of their own beliefs (thinking their religion is the only truth), which was more common among Evangelical Protestants with fewer years of education.

Schwadel told Discovery News that education’s perceived effect on religion has exacerbated culture wars and other left-right clashes.

“Much of the social scientific literature suggests that Americans are not as divided as the culture war proponents in our media and political institutions suggest we are,” he said. “I think that my findings support this conclusion, showing that highly educated people are not as opposed to religion as popular culture suggests they are.”

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