Does higher education experience undermine faith — or enhance it?

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Ultimately, he decided that he did not believe.

"The world we live in privileges certain forms of information and ways of acquiring knowledge," said Matthew Bowman, professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia. Scientific method and concrete evidence trump other ways of knowing, he said.

The assumption is that the "more education you have, the more indoctrinated you will be in (that) way of understanding the world," he said. If educated people are immersed in empiricism, there is "good reason to assume that they will have a difficult time with religion, which traditionally relies on subjective ways of getting data," said Bowman.

The notion that faith and reason are incompatible is a recent development, he continued. In the Middle Ages, education was closely linked with religious belief, he said. Those who were the most educated were also the most religious. Bowman cites scholars like Thomas Aquinas, who argued that faith and reason were not antithetical, but that in fact faith could be informed by study and research.

Faith augmented

Alex Walker went from a disaffected youth to an active participant in his church as a direct result of things he was exposed to as a student. During his first year at UC Berkeley, he rarely went to church meetings. He didn't tell people that he came from a religious background, and he didn't speak up when inaccurate or disparaging comments were made about his faith tradition.

But while doing course work on the history of religion in South East Asia, his attitude started to change. "We learned about how aspects of religion in Cambodia were imported from India," he said. Walker couldn't help but notice the connections between what he learned in class and his own tradition. This sparked an interest in learning more about his own religion that grew from fascination into an authentic, personal faith. He is now active in his Northern California congregation, attending services and participating in church organized volunteer work.

Walker isn't an outlier. His experience is emblematic of a larger trend in American society in which education positively impacts religious beliefs and participation.

In a study of the impact of higher education on religious beliefs and practices, Schwadel noted several interesting trends. First, the more education you have, the more likely you are to believe in God. He notes that the likelihood a person will believe in God goes up 14 percent for each year of education beyond seventh grade. Belief in the afterlife also increases with education, going up seven percent for each year of education beyond seventh grade.

Schwadel notes that education is also associated with a tendency to reject exclusivity claims and literal interpretations of scripture, although this is not universally true. According to University of Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell, studies show that Mormons, for example, unlike members of other religious groups, are more likely to adopt a literal interpretation of scripture as they advance in their education. (See related content.)

Schwadel also observed a positive correlation between education and devotional activities. "Education has a moderate positive effect on prayer," he noted in his report. The likelihood that a person prays daily increases by 9 percent for each year of education beyond seventh grade. Increases in education are also associated with increased scripture reading, with the likelihood that a person will occasionally read the Bible going up 9 percent for each year of education they receive beyond grade seven.

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