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Religious education in school affects students’ lives in the long run

Compulsory religious education in school can have long-run consequences for students’ lives. Since the 1970s, German states at different times ended compulsory religious education in public schools and replaced it with a choice between ethics classes and religious education. This column shows that the reform not only led to reduced religiosity in students’ later life but also eroded traditional attitudes about gender roles and increased labour market participation and earnings.

The ‘proper’ relationship between churches and the state has been a deeply contested matter throughout Western history. This is particularly true for the role of churches in public schools. Most Western school systems have their historical roots with the churches. When states tried to transform church-run schools into non-denominational mass education systems during the 19th century, they faced fierce resistance from the churches (Ramirez and Boli 1987, West and Woessmann 2010). The churches wanted to ensure that schools taught children to become good Christians. Likewise, states used the public-school systems for indoctrination, social cohesion, and socialisation (Lott 1999, Gradstein and Justman 2002, Pritchett and Viarengo 2015).

But does it matter? Can school curricula in fact change students’ religious attitudes and lives in the long run? After all, religious attitudes might be deeply rooted in humans’ personalities and family socialisation.

Religious attitudes are an important component of people’s personalities and values. In the World Values Survey, 82% of participants said they belonged to a religious denomination, 71% said that religion was important in their life, and 57% prayed several times a week (Inglehart et al. 2014). Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a strong surge in prayer globally (Bentzen 2020). 

Studies in the economics of religion show that religiosity has important consequences for individual outcomes and economic development (Iannaccone 1998, Iyer 2016, McCleary and Barro 2019, Becker et al. 2020). Becker and Woessmann (2009, 2013, 2018) and Becker et al. (2017) document various aspects of the role of religion in German economic history.

In a new paper (Arold et al. 2022), we show that being exposed to compulsory religious education in school indeed affects students’ religiosity in adulthood. We also find effects beyond the religious sphere on family and labour-market outcomes, consistent with churches conveying specific family and worldly norms.

A German reform that terminated compulsory religious education

Our analysis exploits the unique German setting where a reform abolished compulsory religious education in a staggered way across states since the 1970s. The 1949 Constitution of West Germany had enshrined religious education as the only regular subject in public schools, so religious education was compulsory in state curricula. Religious education was intense: high-school graduates were exposed to roughly 1,000 hours of religious education over their school career – more than four times the hours of physics classes, for example.

The compulsory nature of religious education was changed in the different German states at different times, from Bavaria in 1972 to North Rhine-Westphalia in 2004. The reform replaced the obligation to attend religious education with the choice between denominational religious education and ‘ethics’ as a non-denominational subject. By competitive pressures, introducing this choice also changed the content of religious classes and likely altered overall social norms towards religion. 

A particularly interesting feature of the reform is that the counterfactual to compulsory religious instruction is not to have no value-oriented instruction, but rather non-denominational value-oriented instruction. As a consequence, the reform allows us to identify the impact of the religious part of instruction, holding the overall exposure to value-oriented instruction constant.

We use the variation across states in the abolishment of compulsory religious education to study effects on adulthood outcomes in two-way fixed effects models. Accounting for fixed effects for each state and birth year, the series of reforms provides plausibly exogenous variation in individuals’ exposure to compulsory religious education that can be exploited in a difference-in-differences setting. Effects are identified from differences in adult outcomes between cohorts within the same state that were and were not subject to compulsory religious education, relative to the differences between the same cohorts in other states that did not reform at the same time.

We use three datasets, each of which allows us to link religious (as well as family and labour-market) outcomes of adults to their state and time of schooling in childhood: the National Educational Panel Study, the German General Social Survey, and the German Socio-Economic Panel. Our merged dataset combines up to 58,000 observations of adults who entered primary school between 1950 and 2004.

The reform reduced students’ religiosity in adulthood

Our results show that schools can affect religious outcomes later in life. We find that abolishing compulsory religious education significantly decreased the religiosity of affected students in adulthood. As indicated in Figure 1, individuals who entered school after the reform report significantly lower levels of religiosity. On average, the reform reduced the share of people reporting to be religious by about 3 percentage points (compared to an average incidence of 52%) and of those reporting to be very religious by 2 percentage points (average 11%). 

Figure 1 The effect of abolishing compulsory religious education on religiosity


Source: Arold et al. (2022).

The figure also shows that reforming states did not have significantly different trends in religiosity in the years prior to reform compared to non-reforming states. This finding is consistent with the identifying assumption that the exact timing of the reform in the different states is as good as random.

We find reductions not just in general religiosity, but also in specific religious actions: the personal act of prayer, the public act of going to church, and the formal act of church membership (which is costly in Germany, connected to paying church taxes). The effects on religiosity and personal prayer appear gradually over time. Effects are mostly restricted to predominantly Catholic rather than Protestant counties.

Effects beyond religiosity

Historically, the churches promoted traditional religious family role models, advocating gender-specific roles within families and marriage before cohabitation. Correspondingly, we find that the reform led to more equitable and less conservative attitudes towards gender roles and family norms later in life. For example, abolishing compulsory religious education reduced the likelihood by 8% of a standard deviation that a person thinks that men are better suited for certain professions than women. 

Recent studies suggest that gender norms are important determinants for lifetime outcomes (Kleven et al. 2019, Jayachandran 2021), but it is not well understood where these norms come from. Our results show that changes in school curricula can affect gender norms, implying that such norms are malleable in public settings outside the family.

Abolishing compulsory religious education also affected actual family outcomes. It reduced the probability that a person would be married by 1.5 percentage points and decreased the number of children by 0.1 children per respondent.

The reform may also have affected economic behaviour and outcomes. The bible quotes Jesus as saying “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24-27, Luke 18:24-27). The decrease in religiosity may have promoted a materialistic orientation. Reducing the time spent in various religious activities may have induced a substitution effect towards economic activities (Barro and McCleary 2003, Gruber and Hungerman 2008). Reducing the time to raise (fewer) children may have changed decisions about family and career planning. Changes in gender norms may have opened up better labour-market opportunities for women. In addition, leaving the church reduces the tax rate on labour income in Germany, increasing incentives to work.

Our results show that the reform indeed led to increases in labour-market participation (+1.5 percentage points), working hours (+0.6 hours per week), and earnings (+5.3%). Overall, the results suggest that the reform affected people’s lives well beyond the religious sphere.

By contrast, there is no evidence that the reform affected ethical values and behaviour such as reciprocity, trust, volunteering, and life satisfaction, nor political values and behaviour such as political interest and leaning, voting, and satisfaction with democracy. In terms of these outcomes, it appears that the counterfactual of attending non-denominational ethics classes was equivalent to attending religious-education classes. This speaks against concerns in the policy debate at the time that abolishing compulsory religious education may cause students’ ethical orientation to deteriorate.

The reform is also unrelated to placebo outcomes such as years of schooling, type of school degree, or age of first employment. Consequently, the identifying variation is unlikely to capture alternative sources such as other contemporaneous educational reforms – which is corroborated by the fact that results do not change when conditioning on a range of other educational reforms. Results are also robust when restricting the sample to individuals who attend school in neighbouring counties across state borders and including county-pair fixed effects, so that the identifying variation is restricted to close geographic areas.

Schools exert lifetime influences

In sum, we find that students who were subject to compulsory religious education in school do indeed show higher religiosity when they are adults. The school reform also affected their family and economic outcomes.

There is ample evidence that the quality of teachers and institutional features of school systems have important effects on students’ academic achievement and later labour-market success (Hanushek 1986, Chetty et al. 2014, Woessmann 2016). Our results indicate that the content of the school curriculum exerts a lifetime influence on students, even on inner attitudes and values such as religiosity. What you learn in school is for life, indeed.


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