Religion and education, two of humankind’s most ancient endeavors, have long had a close relationship. Historians and social scientists have written about this relationship and about how the two may influence each other.
This chapter presents a broad overview of scholarly research into the ways religion can affect educational achievement. It is not an exhaustive survey of the academic literature, but instead a brief summary of some explanations proposed to account for attainment differences among religious groups. Religion is certainly not the only reason for this variance; many other factors may play an equal or greater role, including economic, geographic, cultural factors and political conditions within a country or region.
The chapter begins with an historical look at ways in which scholars suggest that various religions have influenced education, especially the spread of literacy among laypeople. This section also explores how historical patterns sometimes help explain contemporary patterns in educational attainment. Next, this chapter considers hypotheses about how the cultural norms and doctrines of a religious group may affect educational attainment. It concludes with a look at some leading theories for the stark differences in educational attainment between Christians and Muslims living in sub-Saharan Africa.
Looking to the past
Contemporary access to schooling – a solid pathway to educational attainment – depends on a country’s educational infrastructure. In many instances, the foundations of that infrastructure are based on facilities originally built by religious leaders and organizations to promote learning and spread the faith.
In India, the most learned men (and sometimes women) of ancient times were residents of Buddhist and Hindu monasteries. In the Middle East and Europe, Christian monks built libraries and, in the days before printing presses, preserved important earlier writings produced in Latin, Greek and Arabic. In many cases, these religious monasteries evolved into universities.
Other universities, particularly in the United States and Europe, were built by Christian denominations to educate their clergy and lay followers. Most of these institutions have since become secular in orientation, but their presence may help explain why populations in the U.S. and Europe are highly educated.
Apart from their roles in creating educational infrastructure, religious groups were foundational in fostering societal attitudes toward education.
There is considerable debate among scholars over the degree to which Islam has encouraged or discouraged secular education over the centuries. Some experts note that the first word of the Quran as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad is “Iqra!” which means “Read!” or “Recite!”; they say Muslims are urged to pursue knowledge in order to better understand God’s revealed word. Early Muslims made innovative intellectual contributions in such fields as mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, medicine and poetry. They established schools, often at mosques, known as katatib and madrasas.31 Islamic rulers built libraries and educational complexes, such as Baghdad’s House of Wisdom and Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, to nurture advanced scholarship. Under Muslim rule, southern Spain was a center of higher learning, producing such figures as the renowned Muslim philosopher Averroes.32