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Religion By the Numbers

According to a study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Philip Schwadel, the higher one’s level of education is, the broader and more liberal one’s religious beliefs become.

I would like to take credit for this. I would like to think that as students are exposed to my World Religions class or my Religion in America class, they become more open in their thinking about religion in general and their religion in particular. But, according to Schwadel, this trend begins when people enter the 8th grade, so I really can’t take credit at all. It is cool, though.

The study shows that “for each additional year of education past grade 7,” Americans are:

1. 15 percent more likely to attend a worship service in the past week
2. 13 percent more likely to do that worship in a less strict mainline church
3. 14 percent more likely to believe in a Higher Power than a personal god
4. 13 percent less likely to think one religion us true and the others false

I am confused as to how I am to read these numbers. Am I to multiply these percentages by the number of years of schooling one has past the 7th grade? Does this mean that if you make it through high school you are 75 percent more likely to attend a church? Or that if, like me, you have 13 years of post-7th grade education you are 169 percent more likely to think truth is present of more than one religion? How can you be 169 percent anything?

So what does this study show? It shows that some of us (that would be me) haven’t got a clue how to read sociological studies that include numbers. If you can help me out with this, please do.

In the meantime, I am gearing up for my fall classes and the off-chance that I will get a group of students who 1) have made it through the 7th grade; 2) did so on actual merit and not because their teachers cheated on their No Child Left Behind tests, and 3) are 196 percent more likely to believe in an impersonal god.


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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