Why the Spread of Public Education is Unlikely to Yield a Secular World

David Baker

This piece is based on recent research published in Theory and Society. The full article is gated, but you can read the abstract here.
When newly arrived international graduate students want to experience American culture beyond their invariably hyped-up Hollywood image, I always suggest attending both a local school board meeting and a religious service at any of the many local places of worship. To this day, enduring religion and public education reveal some of the cornerstones of American culture.
This begs the question: How can the U.S. be both so educated and so religious at the same time? Why does explaining America from this paradox enlighten? After all, education promotes science and social science, equality of cultures including their many religions, and general humanist and liberal ideas to kids from the get-go—all the ingredients needed for people to be secular. Theology and God as an explanation for human progress would seemingly have no place in today’s society.
But even with all of this transformative education, religion does not die. If he were still among us, Mark Twain might quip like he did about his own premature obituary, “the death of religion is greatly exaggerated.” Survey after survey finds that most Americans—often as high as 90 percent—claim to believe in a God, and currently 20 to 40 percent of Americans attend weekly religious services. They pray, worship, and gain positive insights from their churches. Old denominations decline, but new sects sprout up, and some become successful. Complexly organized, large independent churches (some with tens of thousands of worshipers) now provide for the daily spiritual needs of millions of mainstream Americans.
The usual answer to the paradox is: The U.S. is just unique, an anomaly, end of story. But that doesn’t really cut it. In fact, the U.S. is not alone, but it’s likely on the leading edge of a new societal arrangement that is spreading globally. A post-secular society—where secularization (a fancy sociological term for religious belief and authority leaving society) is greatly enabled through mass education, science, and secular governments—lives with enduring mass religion, albeit sometimes in great conflict. More and more societies are blending secular features with religious ones; a purely secular society is not emerging, and mostly religious societies are being secularized. Education and religion are meeting more in the middle than expected
Even in the most liberal, fully educated societies in the world, such as Iceland, where attendance at state-sanctioned church services is very low, 80 percent believe in life after death, the human soul, and a supernatural being; only 2 percent say they are “convinced atheists.” Contemporary religious revivals, such as among the world’s Muslims and organizationally sophisticated American and Latin American mega-churches, attest to the endurance of public religion.
“God is dead,” the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche boldly claimed about 150 years ago, and just about every major social theorist since agreed: Religion would inevitably become extinct. But as a prediction, it is spectacularly incorrect, even as post-secondary education is booming worldwide. So, attendance at both the local school board meetings and religious services is perhaps more our future than a truly secular world.

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