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A Source of Secularisation

Increased education led to the reduced role of churches in society, new research from German history shows.

The loss of the importance of the church in people’s everyday lives and in society in general was one of the most fundamental societal changes in Western Europe in the past centuries. Why did it happen? Eminent scholars such as Sigmund Freud, David Hume, and Karl Marx proposed education as a leading cause of this development. “…in the long run nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction which religion offers to both is all too palpable,” Freud argued. Urbanisation, technological progress, higher incomes and increased education have all been contemplated. Yet, despite hot academic and societal debates, empirical evidence on the forces that lead to this seismic social change is scarce.

My new research with colleagues Markus Nagler and Ludger Woessmann provides new evidence that education indeed played an important role in the decline of religiosity in a crucial period of rapid secularisation in Western Europe, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Our work stems from historical records in German counties from 1890 to 1930, a period of time in which church attendance declined by nearly a third. Our work analyses city-specific increases in school attendance and decreases in church attendance by using unique data: enrollment records from upper secondary schools, and Protestant church records regarding participation in Holy Communion. The church records, established by the clergy mainly to analyse the “decay” in religiosity in Germany, are exceptionally detailed, including counts of the number of wafers used in celebrating this sacrament.

“Detailed historical records from Germany record the decay in religiosity as measured by the number of wafers used for Holy Communion in Protestant churches”

Our research examines changes in religiosity over time, taking into account education but also other factors that might be influential, among them, age, gender, income, migration and population growth. Our findings show that enrollment increases in advanced schools were related to decreases in church attendance. Moreover, increases in school enrollment predict subsequent decreases in church attendance, while the reverse is not true. That is, decreases in church attendance do not predict subsequent increases in school enrolment. The direction of causality is therefore from education to church attendance and not vice versa. Furthermore, changes in income and urbanisation do not appear to be significantly related to secularisation.

Our work with historical data allowed us to address a problem that has surfaced in a number of cross-sectional studies that have found a positive correlation between education and religiosity. That is, many studies have found that religious beliefs and religious activities increase with education levels. Indeed, in any given year, our study also finds a positive association between education and religiosity. But the cross-sectional approach may give spurious evidence of causation. For example, it is easy to imagine that more orderly people are more inclined to go both to church and to school, and that more conservative people put particular emphasis on religious rituals and on educational achievement. A positive effect between education and religiosity could also be explained by advantages well-educated people have in the kind of abstract thinking characteristic of religion or because educated people see the benefits of social networking in church. As these examples would give rise to a positive correlation between education and church attendance that does not necessarily stem from a causal effect of education. Our work overcomes these potential biases by examining the relationship between education and religion over time – and a time of tremendous change. When we concentrate only on changes in education and in religiosity over time, the results turn around and suggest powerfully that enrollment increases in advanced schools were related to decreases in church attendance.

The results do not imply that advanced scientific knowledge is incompatible with belief in God or that education is generally hostile to religious participation. They simply show that, in this historical setting, increased advanced schooling was related to declining church attendance, an indication of secularisation, understood as the loss of influence of the organised church. Education may well have led people who believe in God to break with the institution of the church, without weakening their belief in God. It is also possible that, for example, people who did not have a strong belief in God in the first place were led by education to abandon their custom of attending church. Still, the results show that increases in education were closely related to people’s reduced active involvement with the institutionalised church and its rituals, one of the most seismic changes in social history since the 19th century.


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