God and education: two thoughts

In A Farewell to Arms, Earnest Hemmingway wrote, “All thinking men are atheists.” While that statement is fictional in more ways than one, a belief persists among many that faith is something people cling to when they don’t know any better. If they were simply smart enough or had a better education, some think, then they’d give it up wholesale. A recent study by the Pew Research Center, however, calls those thoughts into question.

As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, new data shows that “While Americans with college experience are overall less likely to attend services, pray on a regular basis, and say religion is very important to them, that’s not true within many faith groups. In fact, Catholic, Mormon, and Protestant college grads are all more likely to attend church on a weekly basis than their less educated peers.”

Those results are interesting for two primary reasons. First, there was little difference in the belief that God exists among people of any education level among these Christian groups—while Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian religion, it is included in this category for the purposes of the study because it is more similar to Christianity than any of the other Mosaic faiths. That means that while Christians with a high school education are just as likely to believe in God as those with a college degree, the latter are more likely to be actively pursuing their faith as part of a larger community of believers.

Green speculates that part of the reason for that discrepancy could be that Christians who never graduated from college “feel less able to find and connect with a religious community in a broader context of financial strain, family stress, and geographic isolation.” If that’s true, and I’m not sure to what degree it is, then it highlights an important area in which the church is falling short of Christ’s mission to create an atmosphere in which everyone who is interested in coming can feel welcome.

While the demographics of the early church were far more diverse than history often presents, it remains true that many the earliest believers came from the less educated and disenfranchised rungs of the social ladder. If similar groups of people feel unwelcome in our churches today, then we’ve clearly strayed from God’s plan, though the same would be true if the well-educated and/or wealthy ever felt unwelcome as well.

The more interesting conclusion of the Pew Research Center study showed that results for Christianity differed a great deal from those of other faiths. Among Muslims, for example, education had little to no effect on the results. Roughly half of all professing Muslims attend services at least once a week while nearly all professed to believe that Allah exists. Among Jews, the results were reversed with a significantly lower percentage of college-educated Jews believing in God (58% to less than 33%) and/or practicing their faith on a consistent basis (25% to 10%).

It would seem that there’s something unique to the Christian faith that actually makes it more appealing when one engages with it on an intellectual level. In the first chapter of Isaiah, God makes it clear that what he wants most from his people is not material offerings but a life lived in interactive obedience to him. “Come now, let us reason together” is still his preferred method of relating to us (Isaiah 1:18). And now we have the added benefit of doing so with the Spirit of God dwelling within our souls, helping us to better engage in those kinds of discussions with the Father.

Granted, it doesn’t take a college education to engage in that sort of relationship, as evidenced by the large percentage of Christians whose formal education stopped after high school but still actively participate in a community of faith and maintain a vibrant relationship with the Lord. Yet there’s something to be said for the fact that the more we become “thinking people,” the more we crave that consistent interaction with God. Education alone does not guarantee a strong walk with the Lord, but it does seem to help among Christians in a way that it doesn’t with the other Abrahamic faiths.

As Galileo once quipped, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” We serve a Lord who wants more from us than blind faith and the kind of religion that, if true, atheists would be right to mock. So when that faith gets challenging and we struggle to answer certain questions, take God up on his offer to reason together and work through them. Our faith will only grow the more we understand it. Has that been your experience today?