Christians who believe the Bible is literally the Word of God are, researchers know, less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than their less religious peers. A new study goes a step further: even for those who don’t buy that everything from Genesis to Revelations actually happened, attending church with others who do still decreases the odds of graduating from college.
In the United States at least, religion plays a big role in both public and private life. Studies suggest that religion influences mental and physical health, political and civic engagement, and education. Yet there’s been a paucity of studies that go into detail about how a congregation’s beliefs, taken as a whole, affect the lives of its members, especially when it comes to education.
That’s something of a surprise, Samuel Stroope, Aaron Franzen, and Jeremy Uecker argue in the journal Sociological Perspectives. “Approximately 31 percent of Americans are biblical literalists," the write. "Nevertheless, the effects of congregation-level biblical literalism on individual educational attainment—independent of individual religious affiliation, involvement, and beliefs—remain unexamined."
The researchers compute that 57 percent of non-literalists attending the least literalist churches graduated college, compared to just 32 percent for those in the churches most convinced of the Bible’s veracity.
Stroope, Franzen, and Uecker looked to data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, which surveyed a total of roughly half a million people from across the country about their beliefs, church membership, education, and other variables. The team homed in on one particular survey question concerning views of the Bible: whether someone thought it was “the actual word of God ... to be taken literally, word for word,” a set of fables and legends, or something inspired by God but not to be taken literally. Because the USCLS identified each survey-taker’s place of worship, the researchers could also compute the average beliefs across a congregation.
Those who took the Bible literally, the three found, were much less likely to complete a college degree—about a third did, compared with more than half of non-literalists. That’s not a big surprise, given past research. Much more interesting was the effect of going to church with literalists. After controlling for demographic factors such as age, income, and church denomination, the researchers compute that 57 percent of non-literalists attending the least literalist churches graduated college, compared to just 32 percent for those in the churches most convinced of the Bible’s veracity. There was a similar though much smaller effect for individual literalists.
Though the survey results can’t establish the mechanism underlying them, the team argues that immersion in a literalist church may discourage higher education, possibly because some would view college as lacking value or even as a threat to other goals such as starting a family. Regardless of the reason, “it is clear that involvement in a religious congregation with a higher percentage of biblical literalists is at odds with completing college,” especially for those who aren’t literalists, the team writes. That in turn suggests the powerful role religion might play in creating and maintaining socioeconomically stratified societies, they reason.