When President Obama made his now infamous 2008 remark that working-class voters frustrated by their economic circumstances “cling to guns or religion,” his subtext was clear: Religion is a crutch for the poor and uneducated.
In fairness, the former president was articulating, however inartfully, what has been the conventional wisdom about faith in modern America — that it is, as Karl Marx described, an “opiate for the masses” and that an increase in education and scholarship erodes belief.
To a degree, that last statement has merit.
In the U.S., studies indicate that adults with higher levels of education are more likely than their counterparts with less education to identify as atheists or agnostics.
Similarly, college graduates are less likely to pray daily or to say that religion is of prime importance in their lives, when compared to people with only a high school diploma or less.
But a new analysis by the Pew Research Center challenges the notion that more education leads to less faith and shows that faith and education in many cases are not inversely related.
Indeed, among certain religious groups, higher degrees of education are associated with more religiosity, not less.
This is particularly true within the world of Christianity.
Pew’s researchers looked at data from a number of different studies and found that while educated people are generally less likely to believe in God (83 percent of college grads versus 92 percent of people with only a high-school degree), that difference all but disappeared among the various sects of Christianity.
The relationship between education and religious practice — attending services — is even more fascinating because it turns conventional thinking about faith and education on its head.
When is comes to church attendance, for example, college graduates are more likely than their less-educated peers to fill the pews.
Weekly attendance was greater among highly educated Americans than those with less education within almost every Christian tradition — 58 percent to 55 percent for evangelical Protestants; 36 to 31 among mainline Protestants; 59 to 52 for traditional black Protestants; 45 to 39 among Catholics; and 85 percent to 66 percent for Mormons.
Overall, the study found that about the same portion of Christians with college degrees (70 percent) have a high level of religious commitment (as measured by levels of worship attendance, frequency of prayer, belief in God and the self-described importance of religion in one’s life), as those with no college experience (71 percent).
Among Muslim Americans, the researchers saw “no clear pattern when it comes to the relationship between religion and education,” finding similar levels of belief, daily prayer and mosque attendance for both the highly educated and those with minimal education.
Only Americans with no affiliation and those who identify as Jewish tend to show a decrease in belief and faith practice as education rises.
The Pew analysts do not speculate as to why these patterns have emerged, but even their dispassionate writing cannot completely disguise their surprise.
Christianity in the U.S. has been in decline for decades, and the number of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion is growing — a reality many have attributed to progressive thought, which in many ways has become a religion of sorts to some on the political left.
Why then are we finding that intellectual enlightenment will in many cases enhance religiosity and not hinder it?
No doubt, the reasons are as complex as the data, but I offer one thought from a conversation with my college philosophy professor more than a decade ago.
The pursuit of knowledge, he postulated, can be a very humbling experience.
Those who approach their education with humility often discover that the more they learn, the less they know.
Knowledge, properly understood, is the acceptance of the vastness of the universe and how little about it we are capable of mastering.
What we are left with, he explained, is faith.