Why the spread of public education is unlikely to yield a secular world

Jordan church
Editor's note:

This piece is based on recent research published in Theory and Society. The full article is gated, but you can read the abstract here.

When newly arrived international graduate students want to experience American culture beyond their invariably hyped-up Hollywood image, I always suggest attending both a local school board meeting and a religious service at any of the many local places of worship. To this day, enduring religion and public education reveal some of the cornerstones of American culture.

This begs the question: How can the U.S. be both so educated and so religious at the same time? Why does explaining America from this paradox enlighten? After all, education promotes science and social science, equality of cultures including their many religions, and general humanist and liberal ideas to kids from the get-go—all the ingredients needed for people to be secular. Theology and God as an explanation for human progress would seemingly have no place in today’s society.

But even with all of this transformative education, religion does not die. If he were still among us, Mark Twain might quip like he did about his own premature obituary, “the death of religion is greatly exaggerated.” Survey after survey finds that most Americans—often as high as 90 percent—claim to believe in a God, and currently 20 to 40 percent of Americans attend weekly religious services. They pray, worship, and gain positive insights from their churches. Old denominations decline, but new sects sprout up, and some become successful. Complexly organized, large independent churches (some with tens of thousands of worshipers) now provide for the daily spiritual needs of millions of mainstream Americans.

The usual answer to the paradox is: The U.S. is just unique, an anomaly, end of story. But that doesn’t really cut it. In fact, the U.S. is not alone, but it’s likely on the leading edge of a new societal arrangement that is spreading globally. A post-secular society—where secularization (a fancy sociological term for religious belief and authority leaving society) is greatly enabled through mass education, science, and secular governments—lives with enduring mass religion, albeit sometimes in great conflict. More and more societies are blending secular features with religious ones; a purely secular society is not emerging, and mostly religious societies are being secularized. Education and religion are meeting more in the middle than expected.

Even in the most liberal, fully educated societies in the world, such as Iceland, where attendance at state-sanctioned church services is very low, 80 percent believe in life after death, the human soul, and a supernatural being; only 2 percent say they are “convinced atheists.” Contemporary religious revivals, such as among the world’s Muslims and organizationally sophisticated American and Latin American mega-churches, attest to the endurance of public religion.

“God is dead,” the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche boldly claimed about 150 years ago, and just about every major social theorist since agreed: Religion would inevitably become extinct. But as a prediction, it is spectacularly incorrect, even as post-secondary education is booming worldwide. So, attendance at both the local school board meetings and religious services is perhaps more our future than a truly secular world.

But why? Why did spreading public, secular education yield this unpredicted post-secular pattern?

This question led me to examine a lot of original research, some of mine included, on a journey to a new paper just published in the journal “Theory and Society” titled “The great antagonism that never was: Unexpected affinities between religion and education in post-secular society.” Rather big title, I know, but the phenomenon and the evidence are sweeping. The paper illustrates three major points about how education and religion have become intertwined.

First, education indeed transforms and secularizes (this is not a story about yet another supposed deficiency of education). But the college-educated don’t so much turn away from God and religion as they adapt an image of a “distant God” that is more abstract, cosmic, sexless, mysterious, and forgiving of human weakness (the less-educated stick to the older, reverse image). With more education, people tend to believe in a God that is, yes, supernatural and the creator of a moral code for life, but also with fewer qualities that present major cognitive contradictions in holding core scientific and secular ideas about society.

Second, from at least the medieval period, religious organizations and their leaders often supported growing education (though later the reverse was true). This unintentionally infused religious ideologies within the logic for spreading education, and education now reinforces the former. For example, except for reference to God and salvation, the often repeated message of secular, multilateral agencies—such as the World Bank, OECD, and UNESCO—is not very different from earlier Christian revivalism. Namely: Formal education saves the worth of individuals; it is a moral process as much as technical; education transcends mere utilitarian goals; and collective progress stems from these educationally-saved individuals. In addition, greater education raises tolerance for religious pluralism, which in turn can stimulate expression of religions within society.

Lastly, as societies gain more educated people, they lift the total capacity to organize for all kinds of activities, including religion. Much of the success of massive new religious organizations and revivals depends on the skills of educated believers. Even aspiring MBAs at major universities now study the organizational innovations developed by American mega-churches.

For better or worse, a highly educated, post-secular society is here, and it will likely spread globally.