Ever since Karl Marx had famously declared that “religion is the opiate of the [uneducated] masses,” secularists have been nodding approval. The secularist claims that as a population becomes more educated, the less they will fall for religion.
However, Mary Eberstadt, Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. has brought forth a competing explanation. She claims that the waning of Christianity is not the result of more education but of less family. She assembles an impressive collection of studies to demonstrate that church-goers are not primarily made up of the uneducated:
- British historian Hugh McLeod concluded that “the poorest districts of [1870-1914 England] thus tended to have the lowest rates of [church] attendance, [and] those with large upper-middle-class and upper-class populations the highest.”
- Historian Callum Brown also concluded that, “the [English] working class were irreligious, and that the middle classes were the churchgoing bastions of civil morality.”
- Putnam and Campbell concluded that, “This trend is clearly contrary to any idea that religion is nowadays providing solace to the disinherited and dispossessed, or that higher education subverts religion.”
- Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox concluded that “Americans with college degrees are more likely than those with high school diplomas alone to attend church on Sunday. Moreover, the statistical likelihood of attending church varies inversely with the social ladder from bottom to top.”
Meanwhile, Eberstadt claims that:
- Social science has roundly established that vibrant families and vibrant religion go hand in hand. Conversely, not living in a family means that a given individual is less likely to be found in church.
Likewise, Wilcox concluded:
- The recent history of American religion illuminates what amounts to a sociological law: The fortunes of American religion rise with the fortunes of the intact, married family. (Christian Research Journal, Vol. 36, #03, 22).
However, Eberstadt’s conclusions seem to defy a massive amount of anecdotal evidence coming from evangelists and missionaries who have concluded that it is the downtrodden who are most receptive to the Gospel. Besides, Scripture also seems to agree:
- Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
It therefore would seem that we should find the least accomplished and educated in our churches. Is there any way to reconcile Eberstadt’s findings with these other considerations?
I think that there is. Initially, the church is comprised of the downtrodden - society’s rejects. However, they don’t remain rejects. By the next generation, their children are entering college.
This is what we find when we examine the older, mainline churches. Their members have become accomplished and educated. Meanwhile, their satisfied and well-fed children fail to see the relevance of God to well-being and have been leaving the mainline churches in droves.
In contrast, the newer churches – and these are more Bible-centered – appeal to the less accomplished. However, it is in these churches that the drug addict, alcoholic, and wife-beater can best find healing.