Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why Are the Educated Less Religious?

Dennis Prager thinks university education is killing religious faith. He actually offers four reasons why "God is not doing very well these days", but the first is
that increasingly large numbers of men and women attend university, and Western universities have become essentially secular (and leftist) seminaries. Just as the agenda of traditional Christian and Jewish seminaries is to produce religious Christians and religious Jews, the agenda of Western universities is to produce (left-wing) secularists. The more university education a person receives, the more likely he is to hold secular and left-wing views.
It seems a little strange, as Conor Friedersdorf points out, that university professors should have this amazing power to shape the thinking of their students. Prager himself thinks that the universities are not teaching anyone very much:
The secular Left argues that this correlation is due to the fact that a college graduate knows more and thinks more clearly and therefore gravitates leftward and toward secularism. But if you believe that the average college graduate is a clear and knowledgeable thinker as a result of his or her time at university, I have more than one bridge to sell you.
But the foppish professors who can't teach logic are, it seems, fiendishly effective at spreading their anti-religion agenda.

If we discount overt indoctrination, what is the reason why people who go to college are more secular? (They are.) I would start by asking why people are religious, and the two explanations I always come up with are 1) to help us cope with the pain of life, and 2) to explain the astonishingly complex world we live in. One of my favorite academic books is Lucien Febvre's The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century. Febvre explains that it was not possible for a thinking person to be an atheist in 16th-century France, because the intellectual equipment needed to explain existence in material terms was not available. Not until after the scientific revolution was underway do we meet any intellectual atheists in Europe. (One of the key concepts of the modern world is the coincidence, a statistical notion that did not exist until the 17th century.) In this sense there is a clear relationship between education, especially scientific education, and unbelief; the more we learn about how the universe works, the less we need God to explain its operation.

But I think the question of suffering is even more important. Prager and I agree on how this works:

A third reason God is not doing well is that most of the men and women who are products of this secular left-wing education (meaning a large majority of Western men and women) are theologically, intellectually, and emotionally ill-prepared to deal with all the unjust suffering in the world. I will never forget a Swedish pastor’s reaction to the 1994 sinking of the Estonia, a ferry that capsized in the Baltic between Estonia and Sweden leaving 852 passengers and crew dead. He said he could not believe in a God who allowed such injustice to take place. . . .

Of course, none of us has a fully coherent solution to the problem of theodicy. But the problem is not exactly new. Every great religion has dealt with it, and most of the brilliant minds in history retained their faith in God despite all the unjust suffering they saw. The difference today is that life has been so good for most Westerners that suffering is no longer regarded as part of life, but as an aberration that can be done away with.

Modern, middle-class life offers us an existence free from much of the pain that troubled our ancestors, from tooth-ache to high death rates among children. College-educated people are more likely to be from stable, middle-class homes, and are more likely to achieve stable, middle-class lives themselves. They believe less because they suffer less. One might imagine that the more blessed people feel, the more they are disposed to thank God for their lives, but the exact opposite is true. For those of us whose lives are pretty good, extreme suffering is not just the way things have to be, but a grim fact in need of explanation, and a kind and loving God doesn't seem like a very good answer.


Unknown said...

I don't see that your explanations for why people believe in God, or godlike things, really touch the matter at all. They might explain why people embrace doctrine, but they're far too clinical, rational, and frankly tepid to account for the intense emotion that people invest in these beliefs or the intensity of the religious experiences they have or claim to have. They don't account for the variety of religious content, for the role of ritual and taboo, or the intense devotion and/or fear that people can invest in ritual-like or taboo-like things. It seems to me the god-experience, or the desire for it, must be something much more elemental and irreducible--indeed, in the first instance, it is an experience, not a thought. Note that I am not claiming that these experiences describe or result from an objective supernatural reality; but I think the subjective experience transcends rational needs for explanations and suchlike.

The difference I'm talking about is, I suppose, the difference between taking the message of the bible to be a set of postulates about how the world works and how humans should behave, and taking the message to be "I am."

Indeed, of course, both messages are present. But I think the second message is the reason religion persists.

Having not read his piece, I do wonder if Prager is even interested in the level of religion I'm talking about. I suspect he's more interested in religion as doctrine and as social cement anyway.

John said...

I agree that an emotional experience is the core of religion. And yet we know that strong faith is more common among poor societies with no knowledge of science than among the well-educated and comfortable. There is a sociology of religion as well as a psychology. The prevalence and intensity of religious faith has faded greatly in the west over the past 300 years. Has our psychology changed? I have no model at hand for how the variables I have described -- education, wealth, safety -- are connected to the deep emotional experience of faith, but I submit that somehow they must be.

Unknown said...

You are right, and perhaps the sociology of religion is a deeper and more mysterious matter than its psychology. Perhaps one factor is that modern western education does instill qualities like detachment, irony, and thinking before acting. Universities teach these things, not as a set of doctrines (although they try to do that too), but by example and osmosis; arguably they've been teaching them since the twelfth century, when universities could hardly have been accused of secularism in Prager's sense (though Bernard and others railed against the schoolmen for destroying real faith). These are also the qualities of a society's managers, in the broadest sense, and most students in going to college are doing so in order to join the managing class. I say all this is by way of hypothesis (which demonstrates my own praiseworthy detachment).

John said...

Are modern middle-class people emotionally different than the poor, or than medieval aristocrats? Does a life of safety, food security, self-control, moderation, and ironic detachment shape the deep centers of our brains and make us less susceptible to powerful faith? We were just talking in my class about how Germanic epic celebrates people who let their emotions run wild, even when that leads to death and disaster. How different are we, emotionally, in terms of personality, from people in the Middle Ages? or from fundamentalists today?

Unknown said...

I've long wondered what portion of a population has to demonstrate a certain trait (or set of beliefs/behaviors, proclivity, etc.) for an observer (depending on the observer's characteristics) to conclude that that trait etc. is characteristic of the group as a whole. If members of the modern upper middle class are 10% more likely to be ironic secular liberals than medieval peasants, is that enough for a more or less casual observer (such as a person making remarks on a thread like this) to conclude that the modern upper middle class is secular and liberal? I'm not saying that the observer is wrong; perhaps 10% is enough to give a group a definite tendency that leads it as a whole in a certain direction.

In general, I think human groups probably display similar ranges of ways of being, but the percentages for each calibration along the range will be different. So I don't think one can say "we're differently emotionally from medieval peasants." It's more likely that "we" are X% more likely to display a certain set of characteristics, and "they" were X% more likely to display another set. And so on for all sets of characteristics.

John said...

Whatever the difference in the number of religious Europeans now, vs. in the Middle Ages, it is enough to produce a gigantic fall in the public importance of religion and the church. Perhaps it really is only a matter of 10 or 20 percent of people turning secular, or maybe the importance of the medieval church was as much a matter of the weakness of other institutions as the faith of the people.

I think we agree that the relationship between the personal experience of faith and the political or institutional importance of religion is complicated.