How religious belief can help and hinder academic success


God, Grades and Graduation: The Surprising Impact of Religion on Academic Achievement by Ilana M Horwitz is published by Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0197534144.

Much of what Ilana Horwitz writes in her study of the impact of religion on school and college performance in the United States should come as no surprise – and would likely hold true in other countries.

Children who come from religious families and “adhere” to religious restrictions themselves tend to outperform their non-religious (or even ir-)religious peers from similar socio-economic groups.

This is especially true for students from lower socioeconomic groups who, lacking what Horwitz calls “religious safeguards,” are, especially in the West, more likely to be directed to an “exit ramp.” along the road to higher education through alcohol, drugs, crime and, for women, unplanned pregnancy.

Belief in God forms a safeguard.

Horwitz’s discussion of the “hidden agenda” of religious devotion, which adds three additional “Rs” – “rules, routines and regulations” – to the traditional “reading, “writing and “rithmetic” is not new: as she herself notes, sociologists like Emile Durkheim have long noted that this behavior modification is one of the primary functions of the school system.

Delayed gratification

Because they absorbed this second program, “respecters,” the term Horwitz uses to refer to both K-12 students and college students, are better able to practice “delayed gratification.” which, at its most basic level, means finishing that story document before meeting friends.

The numbers are startling. Overall, 45 out of 100 residents who responded to the National Youth and Religion Survey earned their bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% of non-residents, meaning residents are 40% more likely to earn their first degree.

Disaggregated by race, the numbers are even more striking: 53% to 38% for whites and 26% to 19% for blacks (Hispanics are even at around 20%). Forty percent of female members obtain their diploma compared to 33% of non-member women. Most worshipers belong to evangelical churches.

Readers whose knowledge of the United States comes primarily from Hollywood, TV shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or the antics of hip-hop artists will be surprised to learn that only 21% of respectful teens report drinking. of alcohol and that percent reporting marijuana is a dying 7%. In contrast, the figures are 44% and 16%, respectively, for disrespectful adolescent males.

One of the dangers of including interviews with respectful men and women is that Hortwitz’s respondents will tell her what they think she expects to hear; it is especially possible, she notes, among the faithful.

However, she not only found that respondents like Alex were consistent in their responses that confirmed their faith, but, more strikingly, told him that even though he had never seen the Bible forbid sex before marriage, “My parents always told me that’s how the Bible teaches. So I trust them.”

A series of other such declarations of faith by parents and elders – and what they teach in word and deed – results in observers being willing to take positions quite apart from beliefs and behaviors traditions of their lay peers.

The church as social capital

One of the reasons why children from working and poor families are less likely to go to college or university is that their families have much less “social capital.”

Besides the financial ability to provide their children with museum visits, extra lessons like piano lessons, and the growth that comes from travel, parents who are part of the professional class have “strong social ties with people who also have abundant resources”.

This “social capital” provides parents with a source of advice on parenting, choosing a college or university, and other assets that are not available to families from rectified means.

Gone, writes Horwitz, is the web formed in factories, for example, by people who have worked in the same place for generations.

“Since the early 2000s…an overwhelming number of working-class men began dying of opioids, alcohol poisoning and suicide,” what economists have called “deaths of despair.” (We can add to these deaths a huge disproportionate share of the nearly one million deaths from COVID-19 in the United States as well as hundreds of thousands more deaths over the same period.)

For respectful teenagers, the church replaces the loss of extended family. To a large extent, this isolates students from the despair experienced by other working-class families. It provides students with trustworthy adults to talk to about higher education issues and plans.


Congregants’ faith in God or, perhaps, more accurately, their focus on their life in their church, results in “undermatching,” the phenomenon of going to a college that is less selective than your grades alone. would have predicted.

Sometimes this decision is based on the feeling that the more selective schools will be more liberal and secular; there are few top colleges or universities that are strictly religious.

This problem is especially prevalent among women. One told Horwitz that even going to the local public university was at odds with her worldview: “The school is pretty liberal and the classes [were] a kind of fear for me.

A Mormon told Horwitz that despite her academic prowess, her dream was to marry at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and be a wife and mother; she expected her husband to be the breadwinner, the “patriarch of the house” and among “the holders of the priesthood,” which I must admit made my secular ears prick up.

Another promising woman, this one from an upper-middle-class family, dropped out of her four-year education to become a missionary, then went to community college to become a respiratory therapist: “She’s not hungry to climb up the social ladder and is happy with her God-centered life.


The outliers in these statistics are Jewish women. Unlike their Mormon or Evangelical relatives, religious or even Orthodox Jewish women attend the schools their grades predict. A Jewish teenager told Horwitz she wanted to be a lawyer, “someone people remember in history.” Although important, motherhood is secondary.

Interestingly, Horwitz shows that reported plans by 13-year-old Jewish girls to study, say, business or law, remain relatively stable seven years later. Jewish girls – and their parents – prioritize the best possible school, such as an Ivy League school.

In high school, these girls are positioning themselves for the admissions challenge by “getting involved in demanding extracurricular activities like Model UN.”

What explains the difference? Horwitz, herself a Jewish scholar, writes that “Jewish daughters’ fathers seem to embrace gender egalitarianism, encouraging their daughters to pursue careers instead of prioritizing having a family as respectful women do.”

The difference between the Evangelical and Mormon churches and Judaism is also important. Observant Jewish girls may be observant – and as such regulate their daily behaviors according to the dictates of their religious community which has a clearly defined notion of shame.

But Judaism is different from other religions because, notes a young woman named Jessica, it “allows you to question yourself all the time, to study, analyze and reflect constantly”. As the old joke goes, Jews love to argue.

An interesting sequel

The National Youth and Religion Study and other studies used by Horwitz in God, Grades, and Graduation only allow for some disaggregation and granularity. It would be fascinating for her to turn next and examine Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina, the three states she points to in the introduction when explaining how the United States is a much more overtly religious than any Western European country.

These three states have college and university attendance rates of 23%, 25%, and 29%, respectively — well below the rate of New York at 38% and Massachusetts at 45%, two of the most secular states in the world. country.

Comments are closed.