Church and school

Churchgoing is associated with teenagers getting higher grades, according to a study cited in Ecumenical News International and discussed in the Times. On first consideration, this seems a bit counter-intuitive, given the preponderance of non-believers in the higher academic world and all those flattering studies that suggest that atheists are generally more intelligent and educated than believers.

The findings suggest that it’s whether the student actually attends church rather than whether s/he has any religious belief that has an impact.

The study suggested four reasons church-going teens tend to have more success at school.
One of these is that they have regular contact with adults from various generations, who serve as role models. Another reason is that the young people’s parents are more likely to communicate with their friends’ parents. Other factors at play are that teenagers who attend church develop friendships there with peers who have similar norms and values, and they are also more likely to take part in extracurricular activities. (from the ENI site)

I haven’t seen the data, only the reports, so I’m not challenging their figures or even their suggested explanations.

But there are some alternative ways of looking at this evidence.

Most crucially, it seems to me to be confusing correlation with causation.

i.e. On average, kids who go to church get better grades. Even, if it’s true, this doesn’t imply either one causes the other.

At an individual level, isn’t it likely that teenagers with a greater tendency to conform are more willing to do what their parents want – both in terms of doing their schoolwork and church attendance? So the good grades and the willingness to go to church might both just be manifestations of a general willingness to please adults.

Like brushing their teeth at bedtime. Which may also turn out to be positively correlated with good school attendance and good grades.

The implications that church-attenders are more involved in the community would seem to apply mostly to people who live in cohesive “communities” in which – especially in countries such as the USA – church attendance is pretty much the norm. Questions I would like to ask would be about the localities that the researchers looked at. Villages, towns, cities, slums, suburbs? Incomes? Family stability?

I can think of quite a few questions about this study. But the one that really nags at me is the use of the concept of “good grades.” Good grades are not necessarily indicators of real learning, or even of an academic capacity.

The research might suggest that many schools encourage conformity, rather than independent thought, and penalise those kids who show a troublesome desire to think for themselves (by refusing to go to church, for example.) Hence, more church-non-attenders drop out or put minimal effort into their schoolwork.