Who’s religious? Well, what’s religious?

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August 12th, 2011

Omaha, NE – As our society becomes more educated, are we becoming more secular? It was once believed the more educated a person became, the less religious he/she was likely to be. A new study shows that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, it really depends on how you define religious.

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Whether it’s at a mosque, a synagogue or church service, a Hindu temple or Buddhist prayer hall, there is evidence all around us of the religious among us. But are regular church- temple- or synagogue-goers the truly religious or the only religious people?

“Sometimes this is where language limits us,” said Beth Katz, the Executive Director of Project Interfaith. “We have to be very careful about making assumptions about what a person believes, and how they practice, or how the role of faith and spirituality may play in their life simply based on the term they use to identify themselves.”

Katz said she’s seen a greater number of people, particularly younger, who don’t identify with a denomination but still define themselves as “spiritual” and consider their religious beliefs important in their lives.

Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Philip Schwadel, is the author of a new study, which will be published in the journal Review of Religious Research. He said studying the effect of education on religion shows the complexity of defining it. For one thing, contrary to a popular misconception, education has a positive association with church attendance.

“So, if we define being religious as attending church, mosque or synagogue, then more highly educated people are more religious,” said Schwadel. “On the other hand, years of education has a strong negative effect on saying the Bible is the literal word of God. So if we define being religious as being the Bible is the literal word of God, then highly educated people are less religious.”

Schwadel said the relationship between education and religion has changed over the years, but that’s not surprising. The people who are going to college now are a far more diverse crowd than the average 15 percent of the population who attended college in the 1950s. He added the study has got him thinking about what we mean when we think about religious people.

“The effects of various individual and organizational and even neighborhood or regional characteristics on people’s religious beliefs and activities vary considerably,” said Schwadel. “Whether we’re going to say this person because of their education, their income, where they live in the country, how they’re brought up, is more or less religious than someone else is going to vary considerably depending on what we mean by more or less religious.”

Beth Katz said the looser, and changing, definitions of religious identity, at least among young people, are coinciding with a greater tolerance of religious diversity.

“That’s in part because young people have grown up with greater levels of religious diversity present in front of them in the media, and in their communities, and in schools,” said Katz. “So where it may be more exotic for someone who is older to meet someone who is of a different faith, what we find a lot of times is for young people is that it’s not so much that it’s exotic, it’s very common rather for them to maybe have met someone who is of a different faith or certainly be more exposed to someone who identifies religiously in a different way than they do.”

Katz said that exposure to different faiths and the different definitions of faith, should help us, no matter how we define ourselves, to get along.

One Response

  1. Patricia says:

    I found this most interesting, Thank you.

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