Earlier this month, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria introduced new curriculum guidelines for schools under its control. History, literature, and music were all out. The theory of evolution was specifically banned, the latest manifestation of the long and complicated relationship between religion and education. Religious schools are still a major source of learning worldwide, even while learning is often considered a threat to belief.
A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Naci Mocan and Luiza Pogorelova gives ammunition to anti-education zealots. In a study of the impact of compulsory schooling reforms in the 1960s and ’70s in Europe, they find an associated decline in the number of people who claimed to be very religious and the number who went to religious services. Specifically, they suggest that one additional year of schooling in Europe was associated with a 10 percent reduction in the propensity to attend religious services once a week or more.
The choice between schooling and faith may not be so stark, though. Globally, we’ve seen a massive rise in education, without a uniform change in religious beliefs. In 1970, only about 40 percent of children worldwide enrolled in secondary education; four decades later, the rate had climbed to 73 percent. In developing nations, the increases have been substantial: In sub-Saharan Africa, enrollment rates have grown from 13 percent to 41 percent. In Pakistan, the average adult has had five years of schooling, up from a little over one year in 1960, and in Nigeria the same numbers are 7.5 years, up from 2.4. (The average American adult has 13 years.) If Mocan and Pogorelova’s results held worldwide, this massive rise in education would suggest a cratering in global religious practice.
The available evidence tells a different story. According to the latest wave of World Values Surveys, 24 out of 42 countries have seen an increasing proportion of people who say religion is important in life. Four have seen the percentage unchanged, and 14 countries have seen it decline. In the countries where it’s declining, the starting points are radically different. The U.S. dropped from 56 percent in the 1990s to 40 percent now, whereas in Iraq, the proportion has dropped to 85 percent, down from 94 percent in the late ’90s. Overall, though, the world is becoming more godly, at least according to this measure of religious adherence.
People also report they’re going to church, mosque, or synagogue more often. Of the 42 countries that took part in the latest World Values Survey round and at least one previous round, the proportion of people who claim to attend religious services once a week or more has climbed in 22, stayed the same in 2, and declined in 18.
Of course, there are considerable sensitivities to reporting about your religious attitudes and behaviors in many parts of the world. Where it is the norm to say you go to church every week, you are likely to say you go to church every week, even if you haven’t been in a month of Sundays. So survey results are fallible. But they do suggest there remains a huge variation across countries regarding both religious attitudes and practice, one that is not systematically closing even as education rates climb dramatically and schooling levels converge across countries.
Why does Europe look different from the developing world when it comes to the link between education and belief? It might be that education only matters after a certain point—maybe you need to go all the way through secondary school to come out a skeptic, and most emerging markets haven’t reached that point yet. A simpler explanation might be that most children in Africa and Asia aren’t learning potentially threatening theories like evolution at school. In fact, many kids aren’t learning anything much at all in school—including basic literacy. It’s hard to fully understand the effect of education on faith if schools aren’t providing much of an education to begin with.