Rich, educated not necessarily less active in religion

  • March 19, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - A good education and a good job are no barrier to believing in a personal God, according to a University of Toronto sociologist.

But the American-born professor also warns that a close association between conservative, reactionary politics and religion is driving better educated Americans away from church, what Scott Schieman calls “the Sarah Palin effect.”

Schieman took a deeper look at what Americans mean when they say they believe in God, and sorted the answers out according to education and income. Like many sociologists, Schieman found the higher the income and the better the education, the less likely a person is to believe God shapes their lives, and that among well-educated, high-income Americans church attendance, praying and reading the Bible are generally less prevalent.

That’s not news, Schieman told The Catholic Register. Sociologists have been noting the close relationship between secularization and high socio-economic status for a generation.

The surprise was that among well-educated and high-income people who do attend church, pray and read the Bible, belief in a personal God — one who is a real and active force in their lives — is unaffected.

“It goes against the idea of education as a threat to belief,” said Schieman.

Schieman’s paper, published in the March issue of Sociology of Religion, finds it isn’t education or high income that makes people less likely to believe that God is relevant. The determining factor is regular involvement in religious activities.

“The findings challenge the view that socio-economic status is uniformly associated with lower levels of beliefs about God’s engagement and causal relevance,” writes Schieman. “Instead, the results suggest more similarities between low and high socio-economic status individuals, but only when these groups share similarly high levels of religious involvement.”

“I find it hopeful to find empirical research that there are plenty of well educated, well-off people who are also faithful and spiritual,” said Jesuit Father Peter Bisson. Bisson has a PhD in theology and taught religious studies at the University of Regina’s Campion College before joining the senior leadership of the Jesuits in English Canada.

That there are fewer well-educated, high earners actively involved in religion isn’t a surprise in a culture that encourages intellectual, social and emotional development but is sometimes phobic about the spiritual side of life, according to Bisson.

“Quite often our faith development doesn’t keep up with our intellectual, emotional and social development,” he said. “If that’s the case, I can well understand that as someone grows intellectually and learns critical thinking, if their faith development doesn’t keep up with that — a 12-year-old faith in a 20-year-old person — well I can understand that a person might not be able to deal with that.”

Keeping young people active in church beyond the date of their confirmation requires models of an increasingly mature faith, said Bisson.

In the United States, where Schieman gathered his data, that notion of a mature faith is often obscured by angry, populist, conservative politicians who claim religion and a personal God as part of their political platform, said Schieman. He found many Americans who claim no religious affiliation also believe in God.

“When you dig a bit deeper, a lot of those people were turned off actually by the association between politics and religion on the conservative side — the Sarah Palin effect,” he said.

Gregory Baum, McGill University professor emeritus of religious studies, was critical of Schieman’s research and methods.

“I don’t have enormous sympathy for this kind of expirical research,” the former peritus or theological expert at the Second Vatican Council wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. Baum is one of the pioneers in the use of sociology to understand religion.

Religion is rarely a handicap in achieving high socio-economic status, said Baum.

“People who practise their religion and read religious texts very frequently, often climb on the social scale,” he said.

The problem with Schieman’s analysis of survey data about religion is that the historical and cultural context he uses is too narrow, according to Baum.

“Religion is a mysterious reality, about which one must speak in paradoxical terms,” he said. “Like the biblical prayer ‘I believe, but deliver me from my unbelief.’ People who hold that God is active in their lives are not likely to say that God controls their lives. While God is omnipotent, we have to make our own decisions and are held responsible for them.”

Among the nuggets of information about Americans and God that Schieman digs up are:

Eight in 10 Americans say they depend on God to guide them in making decisions;

Seven in 10 Americans say that when things happen, either good or bad, it’s part of God’s plan;

Six out of every 10 believe God has determined the course of their lives;

One-third of Americans agree with the statement, “There’s no sense in planning a lot because ultimately my fate is in God’s hands.”

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