Theory and Society

, Volume 48, Issue 1, pp 39–65 | Cite as

The great antagonism that never was: unexpected affinities between religion and education in post-secular society

  • David P. BakerEmail author


A persistent sociological thesis posits that the spread of formal education causes an inevitable decline in religion as a social institution and diminishes adherence to religious beliefs in postindustrial society. Now that worldwide advanced education is a central agent in developing and disseminating Western rationality emphasizing science as the ultimate truth claim about a humanly constructed society and the natural world this seems an ever more relevant thesis. Yet in the face of a robust “education revolution,” religion and spirituality endure, and in certain respects thrive, thus creating a sociological paradox: How can both expanding education and mass religion coexist? The solution proposed here is that instead of educational development setting the conditions for the decline and eventual death of religion, the two institutions have been, and continue to be, more compatible and even surprisingly symbiotic than is often assumed. This contributes to a culture of mass education and mass religion that is unique in the history of human society, exemplified by the heavily educated and churched United States. After a brief review of the empirical trends behind the paradox, a new confluence of streams of research on compatible worldviews, overlapping ideologies, and their enactments in educational and religious social movements illustrates the plausibility of an affinity argument and its impact on theory about post-secular society.


Desecularization Education Institutions Post-secular society Religion Secularization theory 



The author thanks Gary Adler, Kevin Burke, Michael Evans, Roger Finke, Paul Froese, John Meyer, John Richardson, Philip Schwadel, Alan Sica, Raf Vanderstraeten, anonymous reviewers, and journal editors for comments on earlier drafts of this article.


  1. Abbott, A. (1988). The system of professions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  2. Ayoub, M. M. (1996). The Islamic tradition. In W. G. Oxtoby (Ed.), World religions: Western traditions (pp. 352–491). Toronto: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bader, C. D., Mencken, F., & Baker, J. (2010). Paranormal America: Ghost encounters, UFO sightings, bigfoot hunts, and other curiosities in religion and culture. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bainbridge, W. S. (1997). The sociology of religious movements. London: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  5. Baker, D. P. (1999). Schooling all the masses: reconsidering the origins of American schooling in the postbellum era. Sociology of Education, 72, 197–215.Google Scholar
  6. Baker, D. P. (2009). The educational transformation of work: towards a new synthesis. Journal of Education and Work, 22, 163–191.Google Scholar
  7. Baker, D. P. (2011). Forward and backward, horizontal and vertical: transformation of occupational credentialing in the schooled society. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility: A Journal of the International Sociological Association, 29, 5–29.Google Scholar
  8. Baker, J. O. (2012). Public perceptions of incompatibility between “science and religion”. Public Understanding of Science.
  9. Baker, D. P. (2014). The schooled society: The educational transformation of global culture. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Baker, D. P., & Lenhardt, G. (2008). The institutional crisis of the German Research University. Higher Education Policy, 21, 49–64.Google Scholar
  11. Baker, D. P., & LeTrendre, G. (2005). National differences, global similarities: World culture and the future of schooling. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Beckford, J. (2003). Social theory and religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Bell, D. (1977). The return of the sacred? The argument on the future of religion. The British Journal of Sociology, 28, 419–449.Google Scholar
  14. Ben-David, J. (1971). The scientist’s role in society. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  15. Bhaskar, R. (2000). From east to west. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Bills, D. B. (1988). Educational credentials and promotions: does schooling do more than get you in the door? Sociology of Education, 61, 52–60.Google Scholar
  17. Bromley, P. (2014). Legitimacy and the contingent diffusion of world culture: diversity and human rights in social science textbooks, divergent cross national patterns (1970–2008). Canadian Journal of Sociology, 39(1), 1–44.Google Scholar
  18. Burke, K. J., & Segall, A. (2015). Teaching as Jesus making: the hidden curriculum of Christ in schooling. Teachers College Record, 117(3), n.3.Google Scholar
  19. Butchart, R. (1987). A new UK definition of high-technology industries. Economic Trends, 400, 82–88.Google Scholar
  20. Calhoun, C., Juergensmeyer, M., & VanAntwerpen, J. (2011). Rethinking secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Casanova, J. (1994). Public religions in the modern world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  22. Casanova, J. (2006). Rethinking secularization: a global comparative perspective. Hedgehog Review, 8, 7–22.Google Scholar
  23. Casanova, J. (2011). The secular, secularizations, secularisms. In C. Calhoun, M. Juergensmeyer, & J. VanAntwerpen (Eds.), Rethinking secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Chabbott, C. (1998). Constructing educational consensus: international development professionals and the world conference on education for all. International Journal of Educational Development, 18(3), 207–218.Google Scholar
  25. Chaves, M. (1994). Secularization as declining religious authority. Social Forces, 72, 749–774.Google Scholar
  26. Chaves, M., & Gorski, P. S. (2001). Religious pluralism and religious participation. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 261–281.Google Scholar
  27. Christiano, K. J. (1987). Religious diversity and social change: American cities, 1890–1906. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Cobban, A. B. (1975). The medieval universities: Their development and organization. New York: Harper & Row, Barnes & Noble Import Division.Google Scholar
  29. Colish, M. L. (1997). The stoic tradition. Leiden: EJ Brill.Google Scholar
  30. Collins, R. (1979). The credential society. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  31. Cremin, L. A. (1982). American education. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.Google Scholar
  32. Crockett, A., & Voas, D. (2006). Generations of decline: religious change in 20th-century Britain. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45(4), 567–584.Google Scholar
  33. Denny, F. M. (1993). The structures of Muslim life. In H. B. Earhart (Ed.), Religious traditions of the world: A journey through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan (pp. 635–663). New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  34. Douglas, M. (1982). The effects of modernization on religious change. Daedalus, 1–19.Google Scholar
  35. Drori, G., Meyer, J., Ramirez, F., & Schofer, E. (2003). Science in the modern world polity: Institutionalization and globalization. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Drori, G., Meyer, J., & Hwang, H. (Eds.). (2006). Globalization and organization: World society and organizational change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Durkheim, E. (1938). The birth of the university. Trans. P. Collins (Ed.), In The evolution of educational thoughts (pp. 75–87). Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  38. Eagle, D. (2012). Mega, medium, and mini: Size and the socioeconomic status composition of American Protestant churches. Research in the Sociology of Work, 23, 281–307.Google Scholar
  39. Ecklund, E., Park, J., & Veliz, P. (2008). Secularization and religious change among elite scientists. Social Forces, 86, 1805–1839.Google Scholar
  40. Evans, M. S. (2016). Seeking good debate: Religion, science, and conflict in American public life. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  41. Fiala, R. (2006). Educational ideology and the school curriculum. In A. Benavot & C. Braslavsky (Eds.), School knowledge in comparative and historical perspective (pp. 1–20). Hong Kong: Springer.Google Scholar
  42. Fiala, R., & Lansford, A. (1987). Educational ideology and the world educational revolution, 1950–1970. Comparative Education Review, 31, 315–332.Google Scholar
  43. Finke, R. (2003). The dynamics of religious economies. In Handbook of the sociology of religion (pp. 96–109). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Finke, R., & Iannaccone, L. R. (1993). Supply-side explanations for religious change. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 527, 27–39.Google Scholar
  45. Finke, R., & Stark, R. (1992). The churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and losers in our religious economy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Frank, D., & Gabler, J. (2006). Reconstructing the university: Worldwide changes in academic emphases over the 20th century. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Frank, D. J., & Meyer, J. W. (2007). University expansion and the knowledge society. Theory and Society, 36(4), 287–311.Google Scholar
  48. Frank, D. J., Schofer, E., & Torres, J. C. (1994). Rethinking history: change in the university curriculum, 1910-90. Sociology of Education, 67, 231–242.Google Scholar
  49. Frank, D. J., Wong, S. Y., Meyer, J. W., & Ramirez, F. O. (2000). What counts as history: a cross-national and longitudinal study of university curricula. Comparative Education Review, 44, 29–53.Google Scholar
  50. Froese, P. (2008). The plot to kill god: Findings from the soviet experiment in secularization. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  51. Froese, P. (2011). Fact, value, god, and reality: How Wittgenstein’s ethics clarifies the fact-value distinction and, in the process, perhaps subverts a scientific holy war. ARDA Guiding Paper Series. State College, PA.Google Scholar
  52. Froese, P., & Bader, C. (2010). Americas four gods: What we say about god--and what that says about us. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Fuller, B., & Rubinson, R. (Eds.). (1992). The political construction of education: The state, school expansion, and economic change. New York: Praeger Publishers.Google Scholar
  54. Gauchet, M. (1997). The disenchantment of the world: A political history of religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Geiger, R. (1993). Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since world war II. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Giddens, A. (1971). The ‘Individual’ in the writings of Emile Durkheim. European Journal of Sociology, 12, 210–234.Google Scholar
  57. Gorski, P. (2003). Historicizing the secularization debate: A program for research. In M. Dillon (Ed.), Cambridge handbook for the sociology of religion (pp. 110–122). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Gorski, P., & Altinordu, A. (2008). After secularization? Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 55–85.Google Scholar
  59. Graham, S., & Donaldson, J. (1996). Assessing personal growth for adults enrolled in higher education. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 44, 7–22.Google Scholar
  60. Grammich, C., Hadaway, K., Houseal, R., Jones, D., Krindatch, A., Stanley, R., & R. Taylor. (2012). 2010 U.S. religion census: Religious congregations & membership study. Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.Google Scholar
  61. Grant, E. (1996). The foundations of modern science in the middle ages: Their religious, institutional, and intellectual contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Grant, E. (2010). The nature of natural philosophy in the late middle ages. Washington, DC: Catholic University of American Press.Google Scholar
  63. Greeley, A. M. (1995). Sociology and Religion: A Collection of Readings. New York: Harpercollins College Division.Google Scholar
  64. Grim, B., & Finke, R. (2010). The price of freedom denied: Religious persecution and conflict in the twenty-first century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Habermas, J. (2009). Europe: The faltering project. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  66. Hadaway, C., & Marler, P. L. (2005). How many Americans attend worship each week? An alternative approach to measurement. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 44, 307–322.Google Scholar
  67. Harris, S. (2010). The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  68. Hawking, S. W., Mlodinow, L., & West, S. (2010). The grand design: New answers to the ultimate questions of life. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  69. Hedley, B., & Cantor, G. (1998). Reconstructing nature: The engagement of science and religion. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  70. Hout, M. (1988). More universalism, less structural mobility: The American occupational structure in the 1980s. The American Journal of Sociology, 93, 1358–1400.Google Scholar
  71. Hout, M., & Fischer, C. (2002). Why more Americans have no religious preference: Politics and generations. American Sociological Review, 67, 165–190.Google Scholar
  72. Howard, T. (2006). Protestant theology and the making of the modern German University. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.Google Scholar
  73. Huff, T. E. (1993). Science and civilizations east and west. Society, 31, 77–79.Google Scholar
  74. Iannaccone, L. R. (1990). Religious practice: A human capital approach. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 297–314.Google Scholar
  75. Iannaccone, L. R. (1998). Introduction to the economics of religion. Journal of Economic Literature, 36, 1465–1495.Google Scholar
  76. Inkeles, A., & Smith, D. (1974). Becoming modern: individual change in six developing countries. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Jacoby, S. (2004). Freethinkers: A history of American secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books.Google Scholar
  78. Jeffrey, D. (1996). People of the Book: Christian identity and literary culture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  79. Jenkins, P. (2007). The next Christendom: The coming global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Kagan, J. (1974). On the uses of the university. Daedalus, 103, 278–281.Google Scholar
  81. Kerr, C. (1987). A critical age in the university world: accumulated heritage versus modern imperatives. European Journal of Education, 22, 183–193.Google Scholar
  82. Koyré, A. (2013). The astronomical revolution: Copernicus-Kepler-Borelli. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  83. Larson, E. J. (1997). Summer for the gods: The scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  84. Le Goff, J., Cochrane, L. G., & Scholz, B. W. (1993). Medieval Callings. History: Reviews of New Books, 21, 165–166.Google Scholar
  85. Lee, J. J. (2002). Religion and college attendance: change among students. The Review of Higher Education, 25, 369–384.Google Scholar
  86. Lee, S., & Sinitiere, P. (2009). Holy mavericks: Evangelical innovators and the spiritual marketplace. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Marsden, G., & Longfield, B. (1992). The secularization of the academy. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  88. Martin, D. (1991). The secularization issue: Prospect and retrospect. British Journal of Sociology, 42, 465–474.Google Scholar
  89. Massengill, R. P. (2008). Educational attainment and cohort change among conservative Protestants, 1972–2004. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47, 545–562.Google Scholar
  90. Mayrl, D., & Uecker, J. (2011). Higher education and religious liberalization among young adults. Social Forces, 90(1), 181–208.Google Scholar
  91. McCarthy, J., & Zald, M. (1977). Resource mobilization and social movements: a partial theory. American Journal of Sociology, 82, 1212–1241.Google Scholar
  92. McFarland, M., Wright, D., & Weakliem, M. (2011). Educational attainment and religiosity: exploring variations by religious tradition. Sociology of Religion, 72/2, 166–188.Google Scholar
  93. Melton, G. (1998). Encyclopedia of American Religions (6th ed.). Detroit: Gale Research.Google Scholar
  94. Merton, R. (1970). Science, technology & society in seventeenth century England. New York: Howard Fertig Publisher.Google Scholar
  95. Meyer, J. (1977). The effects of education as an institution. American Journal of Sociology, 83, 55–77.Google Scholar
  96. Meyer, J. (2000). Reflections on education as transcendence. In L. Cuban & D. Shipps (Eds.), Reconstructing the common good in education (pp. 206–222). Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  97. Meyer, J., Tyack, D., Nagel, J., & Gordon, A. (1979). Public education as nation-building in America: enrollments and bureaucratization in the American states, 1870-1930. American Journal of Sociology, 85, 591–613.Google Scholar
  98. Meyer, J., Ramirez, F., Frank, D., & Schofer, E. (2008). Higher education as an institution. In P. Gumport (Ed.), Sociology of higher education: Contributions and their contexts (pp. 187–221). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  99. Niebuhr, R. (1937). Beyond tragedy: Essays on the Christian interpretation of history. New York: Scribner.Google Scholar
  100. Noll, M. A. (1983). Eerdmans’ handbook to Christianity in America. Eerdmans Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  101. Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religious organizations worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  102. Only a Teacher. (2004). Video on the impact of teachers on American public education. Princeton: Films for the Humanities and Sciences.Google Scholar
  103. Parsons, T. (1971). Higher education as a theoretical focus. In H. Turk & R. L. Simpson (Eds.), Institutions and social exchange: The sociologies of Talcott Parsons and George C. Homans (pp. 233–252). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill.Google Scholar
  104. Parsons, T., & Platt, G. (1973). The American University. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  105. Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  106. Powell, J., Baker, D., & Fernandez, F. (Eds.). (2017). The century of science: The global triumph of the research university. Bingley: Emerald Publishing.Google Scholar
  107. Presser, S., & Chaves, M. (2007). Is religious service attendance declining? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 46, 417–423.Google Scholar
  108. Ramirez, F., & Boli, J. (1987). The political construction of mass schooling: European origins and worldwide institutionalization. Sociology of Education, 60, 2–17.Google Scholar
  109. Riddle, P. (1993). Political authority and university formation in Europe, 1200–1800. Sociological Perspectives, 36, 45–62.Google Scholar
  110. Rubenstein, R. (2003). Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews rediscovered ancient wisdom and illuminated the middle ages. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Google Scholar
  111. Rüegg, W., & de Ridder-Symoens, H. (1992). A history of the University in Europe: Universities in the middle ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  112. Russell, B. (1997). Religion and science. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  113. Sattler, G. R., & Francke, A. H. (1982). God’s glory, neighbor’s good: A brief introduction to the life and writings of august Hermann Francke. Chicago: Covenant Press.Google Scholar
  114. Schaub, M., Henck, A., & Baker, D. P. (2017). The globalized “whole child”: cultural understandings of children and childhood in multilateral aid development policy, 1946–2010. Comparative Education Review, 61(2), 298–326.Google Scholar
  115. Scheitle, C., & Finke, R. (2012). Places of faith: A road trip across America’s religious landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  116. Schlesinger, L., & Mellado, J. (1991). Willow Creek community church. Cambridge: Harvard Business School.Google Scholar
  117. Schofer, E., & Meyer, J. (2005). The worldwide expansion of higher education in the twentieth century. American Sociological Review, 70, 898–920.Google Scholar
  118. Schwadel, P. (2011). The effects of education on Americans’ religious practices, beliefs, and affiliations. Review of Religious Research, 53(2), 161–182.Google Scholar
  119. Schwadel, P. (2014). Birth cohort changes in the association between college education and religious non-affiliation. Social Forces, 93(2), 719–746.Google Scholar
  120. Shermer, M. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York: Owl Books, Henry Holt and Company.Google Scholar
  121. Shils, E. (1958). The concentration and dispersion of charisma: their bearing on economic policy in underdeveloped countries. World Politics: A Quarterly Journal of International Relations, 1–19.Google Scholar
  122. Silberstein, R., Kosmin, B. A., & Ritterband, P. (1987). Giving to Jewish philanthropic causes: A preliminary reconnaissance. Council of Jewish Federations; North American Jewish Data Bank.Google Scholar
  123. Smith, T. L. (1957). Revivalism and social reform in mid-19th. Century of America. New York: Abingdon Press.Google Scholar
  124. Smith, C. (2003a). The secular revolution: Power, interests, and conflict in the secularization of American public life. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  125. Smith, T. (2003b). Who values the GED? An examination of the paradox underlying the demand for the general educational development credential. Teachers College Record, 105, 375–415.Google Scholar
  126. Stark, R. (2003). For the glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  127. Stark, R. (2005). The victory of reason: How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. New York: Random House Inc..Google Scholar
  128. Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. S. (2000). A theory of religion. New York: Lang.Google Scholar
  129. Stark, R., & Finke, R. (2000). Acts of faith: Explaining the human side of religion. Berkeley: Universutt of California Press.Google Scholar
  130. Stinchcombe, A., & March, J. (1965). Handbook of organizations. Chicago: Rand McNally.Google Scholar
  131. Swatos, W., Jr. (1984). The relevance of religion: iceland and secularization theory. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 23, 32–43.Google Scholar
  132. Swatos, W. H., & Wellman, J. K. (1999). The power of religious publics: staking claims in American society. Santa Barbara: Praeger.Google Scholar
  133. Thomas, G. (1989). Revivalism and cultural change : Christianity, nation building, and the market in the nineteenth-century United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  134. Tuveson, E. (1968). Redeemer nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  135. Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  136. Tyler, A. (1944). Freedom’s ferment: Phases of American social history to 1860. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  137. U.S. Department of Education (2008). National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Educational Statistics. Edited by U. S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: U.S Government Printing.Google Scholar
  138. van den Daele, W. (1977). The social construction of science. In E. Mendelsohn, P. Weingart, & R. Whitley (Eds.), The social production of scientific knowledge. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  139. Vanderstraeten, R. (2012). Talcott Parsons and the enigma of secularization. European Journal of Social Theory, 16(1), 69–84.Google Scholar
  140. Voas, D., & Crockett, A. (2002). Religious pluralism and participation: why previous research is wrong. American Sociological Review, 67, 212–230.Google Scholar
  141. Warner, R. (1993). Work in progress toward a new paradigm for the sociological study of religion in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 98, 1044–1093.Google Scholar
  142. Weiler, K. (1998). Country Schoolwomen: Teaching in rural California 1850–1950. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  143. Wiseman, A., Astiz, M. F., Fabrega, R., & Baker, D. (2011). Making citizens of the world: the political socialization of youth in formal mass education systems. Compare: A Comparative Journal of International Education, 41(5), 561–577.Google Scholar
  144. Woodberry, R. D. (2012). The missionary roots of liberal democracy. American Political Science Review, 106(02), 244–274.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Education Policy Studies DepartmentPenn State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations