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Educated belief

Religion | Study upends the crude stereotypes about the religiously observant

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

A new analysis of the religious lives of Americans explodes the stereotype that the most educated are the least devout.

Sociologist Philip Schwadel, analyzing data from the General Social Survey (the gold standard of social science statistics), challenges the "almost unquestioned belief" among scholars of religion "that education and other aspects of modernity are detrimental to religion." The facts are far more complicated.

First, by many measures the more educated are more religiously observant. They are more likely to engage in worship and devotional activities, and to affirm the importance of religion in public life. With each year of education past the seventh, for instance, a person is 15 percent more likely to attend religious services.

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The increase of education also shapes specific beliefs in specific ways. The more educated, although they are no less likely to believe in God and the afterlife, are less likely to believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God, or that there is only one true religion. This suggests that the educational establishment is averse not to religiousness in general, but to particular forms of faith. Thus, as people grow more educated, they are more likely to switch to mainline denominations.

Finally, different religious groups are affected by education differently. Evangelicals, for example, are especially likely to grow more devout and more observant with more education.

The right interpretation of this data is up for debate. D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College and a scholar of the evangelical elite, says the more educated are "more open-minded" but "no less faithful." Yet when Ed Bucker was confronted with the evidence that highly educated individuals are more likely to attend church, the former president of American Atheists suggested some might attend services "so they can sell more insurance."

Conformity cops

Kevin P. Casey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A renowned chief executive was scheduled to speak to Willow Creek's Leadership Summit on Aug. 12. He delivered something less than a profile in courage.

The annual training event has featured prominent leaders in various fields, from Bill Clinton to Jack Welch to U2's Bono. Yet Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, slated as one of this year's biggest speakers, never came.

The reason? A gay activist posted an online petition promising to boycott Starbucks if Schultz associated himself with Willow Creek. The petition describes the famed church's association (until 2009) with Exodus International, a ministry to gays and ex-gays, and its "own 'outreach' programs to the LGBT community," as evidence of "a long history of anti-gay persecution." Although the petition at Change.org only had 717 signatories when pastor Bill Hybels announced the change of plans, Schultz also received vitriolic emails. When the Starbucks team decided not to risk their business interests, Willow Creek released Schultz from his contract.

It's hard to blame Schultz. Shareholders expect him to do what is best for the company, not to fight cultural and theological battles. Yet Willow Creek's teachings on homosexuality are the same traditional beliefs professed by most Christians around the world. And no reasonable person would interpret Schultz's appearance to mean that he agrees in every particular with the teachings of the host church.

Conservative Christians are often told that the normalization of homosexuality and gay marriage will not impact their families, their churches, and their religious freedoms. Yet conflicts like this show that gay activists will continue to raise the social costs of beliefs they find undesirable. The message is: Continue teaching that sex is intended for a married man and woman, and we will remove you from the rest of society.

Listen to Tim Dalrymple discuss this article on The World and Everything in It.

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