A new study contests the long-held notion that the more educated someone becomes, the more likely they are to question their religious beliefs.
However, the more educated an individual is, the more likely they are opposed to religion being forced on a secular society.
Overall, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln investigation discovers education has a positive effect on Americans’ churchgoing habits, devotional practices, emphasis on religion in daily life and support for religious leaders to weigh in on the issues of the day.
Researchers studied a nationwide sample of thousands of respondents to the General Social Survey, a sociological survey used to collect data on demographic characteristics and attitudes of residents of the United States.
The survey was conducted face-to-face with an in-person interview by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, of a randomly selected sample of adults (18+) who are not institutionalized.
Researchers plan to publish their findings in a forthcoming edition of the journal Review of Religious Research.
The analysis determined that education does, in fact, influence Americans’ religious beliefs and activities — but the effects are more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests.
“Education influences strategies of action, and these strategies of action are relevant to some religious beliefs and activities, but not others,” said sociologist Dr. Philip Schwadel, author of the study.
“The effects of education on religion are not simple increases or decreases. In many ways, effects will vary, based on how you define religion.”
For example, the study found higher levels of education eroded Americans’ viewpoints that their specific religion is the “one true faith” and that the Bible is the literal word of God.
At the same time, education was positively associated with belief in the afterlife. And while more highly educated Americans were somewhat less likely to definitely believe in God, it’s because some of them believed in a higher power, not because they were particularly likely to not believe at all.
The research also found that disaffiliating, or dropping religion altogether, was not a popular option for highly educated Americans — in fact, having a greater level of education was associated most often with converting to mainline, non-evangelical Protestant denominations.
The study is unique, Schwadel said, because it examines education’s effects on religion in the various ways that Americans are religious — from their different beliefs, their varied ways of participating and the nature of their affiliations with specific denominations.
Also among the study’s findings:
“The results suggest that highly educated Americans are not opposed to religion — even religious leaders stating political opinions,” Schwadel said. “But they are opposed to what may be perceived as religion being forced on secular society.”
The research illustrates the unique, voluntary American brand of religiosity, he said, and should open up a discussion about the interactions between education and religion in modern American life.
“It’s clear that though the religious worldviews of the highly educated differ from the religious worldviews of those with little education, religion plays an important role in the lives of highly educated Americans,” Schwadel said. “And religion remains relevant to Americans of all education levels.”
Source: University of Nebraska–Lincoln