Beth Green, program director for Cardus Education, walks Convivium’s Peter Stockland through a new study showing why school matters as much as home and church in building a bedrock foundation for religious faith
Beth Green: What it shows is that there is a relationship between the institutions of school, family and church. I think of it as three legs of a stool. You need all three legs to support the stool. Often we talk most about the health of society in terms of a contribution of faith generically. We don't talk about the institutions that hold up things that we know are good for the health of our society. What this report shows is that you need all three legs of the stool. You need education, you need the church, and you need family.
Convivium: It seems very consistent with data that Angus Reid also produced going back to the early days the Faith in Canada 150 initiative showing that if people are raised in a faith, and given exposure for faith from an early age, they may wander away from that faith, they may turn their backs on it, but at some point there's a probability they'll come back. If they are not raised under those conditions, it's almost an impossibility that they will enter into a life of faith. Your summary of this new CRSI report seems to suggest that's true not only within the family, but extends into schooling as well.
Beth Green: It shows that the other places where formation happens are important. Certainly what this report is doing is standing on the bedrock of some pretty firm tradition in sociology of religion work that talks about how faith is passed on, and shows that these formative practices and habits are really important. We sometimes confuse the transmission of faith with just information.
Actually how we learn, and how we're formed is far more complex than that, and far more significant than chapters of doctrine or information about religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs are the routine practices and habits in which you are raised. Family and school and worshiping community in a church, all of those things interact and work together. This is a report about what those pathways look like for people after they have left school. So if a school sets particular direction what are the pathways that continue to reinforce the formation that happened when you were at school?
C: We had a debate a number of years ago, and I think the outcome of it carries on to this day, distinguishing between inherent characteristics and things like religion that are supposedly malleable, that you can pick up and put down in different forms as you go through your life. Religion was not regarded as an inherent characteristic in the same way as, say, race or sex. But it seems to me what’s being suggested here is that in fact, the way you're raised in a faith, the approach to it actually lends credibility to the idea that it's an inherent characteristic, or it's the equivalent of an inherent characteristic rather than something infinitely malleable, just another consumer choice.
BG: To pick up on some of the assumptions behind that theory that religion is something you pick up and drop, that’s really influenced by treating religion like a commodity. It's been very influenced by rational choice theory and the academic literature or just kind of consumer capitalism, rather than it actually being something that is innate to being human, and making sense of meaning in the world around us.
The idea that it's a choice and a kind of decision that you make in your head, rather than something that is part of how you make sense of who you are that's innate to being a person, that's a really recent idea, a kind of Enlightenment idea. It divides us up into there being a difference between who I am, and values and virtues that are innate. That's a huge problem. It’s not how we've actually understood the world for centuries. It feels like a piece of wisdom that we are missing and that we would do well to recapture.
C: I think of the analogy with language. There are obviously some kids who learn multiple languages very early on and they are fluent in all of them. But a certain age, if you haven't learned a second language you will always speak with something of an accent, or the grammar won't be quite as perfect as it could be. So there is the possibility to choose between languages, but language itself is much more than just another choice.
BG: I like that analogy a lot in terms of how you practice it and test it and move in and out of love with it. The learning process is always like that.
C: There were some differences between the U.S. and Canadian findings. What were they, and what do they speak to? For example, in the U.S., attending a Protestant Christian school makes it less likely you’ll switch religious faiths as an adult. In Canada, is that not so much the case?
BG: In both the U.S. and Canada, attending a Protestant Christian school makes it less likely that you will switch religious affiliation as a young adult. The difference between the U.S. and Canada lies in the influence of some of the pathways after high school. In the U.S. your family and marriage strongly influence sticking with the same religious affiliation, attendance at college and university less so. In Canada, the school effects are stronger but the pathways of marriage and attendance at a Christian post-secondary institution aren’t particularly influential, attending a Protestant evangelical school remains the more significant factor.
C: Another thing that I found really interesting is, going back a little bit to what you were saying earlier, that we tend to think of faith as a series of practices or things that we do one day a week and then off we go and do something else. One of the things that Christian schools and post-secondary institutions do is encourage the practice of prayer, personal prayer. So, again, to that analogy with the language, it really is a distillation of a means of communications too, isn't it? Not only what you communicate, but with whom you communicate?
BG: I'm interested as well that the finding has been consistent across all our national surveys, right from 2011, when we did the Cardus Education Survey and collected this data for the first time. It's interesting because there's a reawakening of a lot of interest in the rhythms of reflection and meditation. It's seen as kind of a counter cultural practice to our very intensive, stressful, driven lives.
Yet within the whole history and practice of Christianity, making those kind of spaces and living within the rhythms of them has been part of our faith. You think about the Hours of the Office, the times you do prayer alone, and how you engage corporately, it echoes back to something that's actually needed for a broader wellness, and wholeness in your personhood. You have to have institutions that actually provide space for that, and prioritize it, or it doesn't happen.
Our data doesn't actually drill down into the practice in schools, but what I would hypothesize is that schools are making space for this. Otherwise it wouldn't happen within the course of the school day. We are, in our data, isolating a school effect, so it's not just because your family does this and your church does this, that you're inclined to pray. It's a school effect.
What this report shows is that on top of the school effect, the kind of college and university you attend, after you leave school, the characteristics of marriage and family too, all reinforce the direction that you've been formed in, that you've been trained in.
C: So those practices respond to a human need. What's been given priority over, say, the last generation or so are meditative or prayerful practices – Eastern traditions, New Age fads - that are more fashionable than Christian practices, maybe for a lack of understanding, maybe just because that's the way fashion works. But in fact, they are an attempt to answer that particular need.
BG: Because you've still got to answer the question, who am I? Right? And what am I for? Those questions are answered at the level of practice too. I'd be interested to know, because I'm sure it matters, to whom you're praying. That is a different practice than to just generically sit there meditating. We'd need to do some work around that, but the practices of prayer and devotion are in part an answer to those questions, and in Christian school you are given a story. You're given a context in which to practice that, a reason why this matters and a reason why this answers the question of who you are and what this is for.
C: Not to stretch this analogy to the breaking point, but if you speak a particular language, you need to be in the environment where it's spoken. Otherwise things go kind of sideways. Where do we take this now? We have this data. We've done this report. What's your next step with it? Who will you put it in front of?
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BG: We're interested in actually putting it in front of churches, helping congregations to think about the three legs of the stool. In some Christian denominations, there is a greater tradition of thinking about school as part of formation. In some denominations, there hasn't been that focus. I think this report would suggest that as you look at how the lives of young adults are being formed, paying some attention to schooling and the practices of schooling is important, but also those post-high school graduation education choices are important as well.
Also, the role of family and marriage is important to understand within these pathways. When somebody comes through the front door in your church, they have been formed by these multiple pathways, and supporting them in their spiritual and religious maturity and growth means having some awareness at the denominational and congregational level, about specifics of what people learn about the practice of prayer, the involvement in community and leadership within the church. To know that there's a relationship, and to see how it works out through these pathways, is actually important for churches and for congregations.
C: I suppose it dovetails too, doesn't it, with the Angus Reid work that we did right before Christmas on, in fact the surprisingly strong support for publicly funded religious education. Here's what Canadians can actually expect as an outcome of their support for religious education.
BG: Yes. Sixty three per cent of Canadians support some level of funding for religious schools, which confirms my hunch about that people see in their communities, at the local level, the importance of this relationship between religious schooling, the strength and resilience of family life and congregational or involvement in a worship community. People kind of have a hunch that this is good not just for them but for the health of their community life and it strengthens community at that level. We see that in the data.
C: These findings were relative to evangelical Christian and Protestant secondary and post-secondary institutions. Do you have confidence the general findings can be extrapolated to the Catholic system, and to other forms of faith-based instruction?
BG: Yes, because there is other research that's looked at that. The three-legged stool image that I use actually comes from a very significant study of Catholic education done actually in the U.S., though not Canada, about the significance of the fact of the faith formation. It kicked off all this interest in the theories of how communities of practice and communities of faith work like this.
So, we would be able to point to other already published work that talks about very, very similar effects, where you have a unified community of practice. It’s not even just religious schooling. A lot of the literature around school effectiveness and school improvement points to the fact that where you have unity around a shared set of practices and ideas, it gives people a clearer sense of what they're all in together, and they're building something. It actually supports a whole load of other important educational outcomes: measures of attainment, and developing character and pro-social behaviours. It's completely consistent with other published research that would show those findings for Catholic schools and faith-based schools.
C: So, with this study in hand, what’s next for Cardus Education?
BG: This year, we're adding to the Cardus Education Survey. We're going to look at the effect of the kind of college and university you attend on these kinds of outcomes. I'm just doing that for the U.S. to get started. It's the first time we've collected that data, and this report shows that's really worthwhile because post-secondary education's a really important pathway for explaining the continued effect from Christian schools. We'll be able to actually comment on that properly with data.
C: We’ll keep our eyes open for that next.
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