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

But other scholars contend that these educational attainments, and the regard that Muslims had for intellectual inquiry in realms outside religion, were gradually attenuated by a complex mix of social and political events over several centuries. These events included foreign invasions, first by the Mongols, who destroyed the House of Wisdom in 1258, and then by Christians, who pushed Muslims out of Spain in 1492. Some scholars argue that the educational decline began earlier, in the 11th and 12th centuries, and was rooted in institutional changes. In particular, contends Harvard University Associate Professor of Economics Eric Chaney, the decline was caused by an increase in the political power of religious leaders who prioritized Islamic religious learning over scientific education.33 Their growing influence helped bring about a crucial shift in the Islamic approach to learning: It became dominated by the idea that divine revelation is superior to other types of knowledge, and that religious education should consist of learning only what Islamic scholars had said and written in the past.34

In the view of some historians, this shift severely constricted intellectual inquiry in the Muslim world as the natural sciences, critical questioning and art were downplayed.35 Education became primarily the study of established, traditional religious and legal canons. This change also tightened religious scholars’ control over the education of Muslims in Africa and the Middle East – a hold that was not broken until colonial governments and Christian missionaries introduced Western-style educational institutions.36

Some scholars argue that the decline in secular learning and the narrowing of intellectual inquiry among Muslims have been exaggerated, or did not take place. Columbia University history professor George Saliba writes: “In particular, the decline of Islamic science, which was supposed to have been caused by the religious environment … does not seem to have taken place in reality. On the contrary, if we only look at the surviving scientific documents, we can clearly delineate a very flourishing activity in almost every scientific discipline” after the 12th century.37

Nowadays, Islamic religious leaders and religious schools still have great influence on education in some Muslim-majority countries, but they compete with government and private schools offering secular topics.


In the view of some scholars, the 16th-century Protestant Reformation was a driving force for public education in Europe. Protestant reformers promoted literacy because of their contention that everyone needed to read the Bible, which they viewed as the essential authority on doctrinal matters. Driven by this theological conviction, religious leaders urged the building of schools and the translation of the Bible into local languages – and Reformation leader Martin Luther set the example by translating the Bible into German.

Some scholars, however, argue that the “Second Reformation” of the German Pietist movement in the 17th and 18th centuries was even more influential in promoting literacy. Historians Richard L. Gawthrop of Franklin College and the late Gerald Strauss of Indiana University note that in addition to stressing the need for personal Bible reading, the Pietists persuaded German authorities to mandate Bible reading as “the chief instrument of religious instruction in primary schools, [which was] a powerful impetus to the spread of mass literacy.”38

In more recent times, religion was a prime motivator in establishing U.S. schools run by faith groups – including Quakers, Protestants and Catholics – that educated generations of immigrant families.39

Historically, however, Christianity and science often have come into conflict with each other, as illustrated by the 17th century clash between astronomer Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the condemnation by prominent religious leaders of Charles Darwin’s 1859 theory of human evolution. The Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 further highlighted the rift between science and some branches of Christianity over the theory of evolution, a contentious relationship that endures even today.40

In sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, scholars describe how religious missionaries during colonial times were the prime movers in constructing educational facilities and influencing local attitudes toward education. These missionary activities, the scholars conclude, have had a long-lasting positive impact on access to schooling and educational attainment levels in the region.

Research by Baylor University sociologist Robert D. Woodberry, for instance, suggests that Protestant missionaries in Africa “had a unique role in spreading mass education” because of the importance they placed on ordinary people’s ability to read scripture. As a result, they established schools to promote literacy wherever they went and translated the Bible into indigenous languages.41

Harvard University economics professor Nathan Nunn, who contends that education was “the main reward used by missionaries to lure Africans into the Christian sphere,” says that in addition to establishing schools, “missionaries may have altered people’s views about the importance of education.”42

Woodberry and Nunn conclude, however, that Protestant and Catholic missionaries had differing results. Except where they were in direct competition with Protestant missionaries, Catholic missionaries concentrated on educating African elites rather than the masses, Woodberry observes. And Nunn notes that Protestant missionaries placed greater stress than Catholics on educating women. As a result, Protestants had more long-term impact on the education of sub-Saharan African women.43


Scholars of Buddhism note that Siddhartha Gautama, the religion’s founder, often is called “teacher” because of his emphasis on “the miracle of instruction.” He considered learning essential for attaining the Buddhist goal of enlightenment.44

“In many ways, Buddhism is particularly dedicated to education because unlike many other religions it contends that a human being can attain his or her own enlightenment (‘salvation’) without divine intervention,” writes Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago.

Buddhism is “also extremely empirical in its approach, suggesting that followers try the experiment of dharma (i.e., Buddha’s Four Noble Truths) for themselves to see if it improves their inner freedom,” Asma notes, adding: “Because the philosophy of Buddhism takes this pragmatic approach favoring education and experiment, Buddhism has little to no formal disagreement with science (as evidenced by the Dalai Lama’s ongoing collaboration with neuroscientists).”

This theoretical openness to scientific knowledge, however, did not always play out at the practical level within Buddhist communities, Asma contends. “Powerful Buddhist monasteries, especially in China and Tibet, frequently resisted modernization (including science) for fear of foreign influence and threats to entrenched Buddhist power structures,” he writes.45

Despite this tension between theory and practice, Buddhism has been a major influence on the educational systems of many places, especially India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Tibet. From around the fifth century onward, Buddhist monasteries emerged as centers of education, not just for monks but also for laymen. Several monasteries became so large and complex that they are considered prototypes of today’s universities. In India, the most famous of these educational centers – Nalanda, in what is now Bihar state – is said to have had 10,000 students from many different countries, and offered courses in what then constituted philosophy, politics, economics, law, agriculture, astronomy, medicine and literature.46

In Thailand, monastic schools located in Buddhist temples were the main source of education for male children for many centuries, though they offered primarily religious education. When the Thai government introduced Western-style, secular education around the beginning of the 20th century, it used monastic schools as the vehicle for reaching the wider population. As of the 1970s, “almost 50 per cent of Thailand’s primary schools [were] still situated in Buddhist monasteries.”47 Similarly, in Japan the Buddhist monastic education tradition was so influential that one 19th-century scholar of Japan wrote that “Buddhism was the teacher under whose instruction the nation grew up.”48


For Hindus, education vanquishes a fundamental source of human suffering, which is ignorance, says Anantanand Rambachan, a professor of religion at St. Olaf College. As a result, education has been highly valued in Hinduism since the religion’s inception in ancient times. Hindu scriptures urge adherents to seek knowledge through dialogue and questioning, and to respect their teachers. “Learning is the foundational stage in the Hindu scheme of what constitutes a good and a meaningful life,” Rambachan says. Since ignorance is regarded as a source of human suffering, he adds, “the solution to the problem of ignorance is knowledge or learning.”

The Hindu esteem for education is reflected in different ways. To start with, the most authoritative Hindu scriptures are the Vedas, a word that comes from the Sanskrit root word vd, which means knowledge, Rambachan says.

University of Florida religion professor Vasudha Narayanan says Hindus regard two types of knowledge as necessary and worthwhile. The first, vidya, is everyday knowledge that equips one to earn a decent and dignified life. The second, jnana, is knowledge or wisdom that brings awareness of the divine. This is achieved by reading and meditating on Hindu scriptures.

Historically, the caste system in India was a huge barrier to the spread of mass literacy and education. Formal education was reserved for elite populations. But in the seventh and eighth centuries, the vernacular language of Tamil began to be used for religious devotion in southern India, which led to greater access to all kinds of knowledge for a wider group of people. “That is when you start having men and women of different castes composing poems of praise for God, poems that are still recited in temple liturgy today,” Narayanan says.

Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, both secular and religious education came to be seen by Hindus as a universal right, and it gradually began to be extended to all members of the faith. Still, today, the vast majority of Hindus (98%) live in developing countries – mainly India, Nepal and Bangladesh – that have struggled to raise educational standards in the face of widespread poverty and expanding populations, which helps explain why Hindus have relatively low educational attainment compared with other major religious groups.


High levels of Jewish educational attainment may be rooted in ancient religious norms, according to some recent scholarship. The Torah encourages parents to educate their children. This prescription was not mandatory, however, until the first century.

Sometime around 65 C.E., Jewish high priest Joshua ben Gamla issued a religious decree that every Jewish father should send his young sons to primary school to learn to read in order to study the Torah. A few years later, in the year 70, the Roman army destroyed the Second Temple following a Jewish revolt. Temple rituals had been a pillar of Jewish religious life. To replace them, Jewish religious leaders emphasized the need for studying the Torah in synagogues. They also gave increased importance to the earlier religious decree on educating sons, making it a compulsory religious duty for all Jewish fathers. Over the next few centuries, a formal school system attached to synagogues was established.

These developments signaled “a profound transformation” of Judaism, according to economic historians Maristella Botticini of Bocconi University and Zvi Eckstein of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Judaism became, they write, “a religion whose main norm required every Jewish man to read and to study the Torah in Hebrew and to send his sons from the age of 6 or 7 to primary school or synagogue to learn to do so. … Throughout the first millennium, no people other than the Jews had a norm requiring fathers to educate their sons.”49

This religious obligation meant that male Jews, to a greater degree than their contemporaries, were literate, which gave them an advantage in commerce and trade. Jewish scholarship was enhanced in the early Middle Ages, beginning in the late sixth century, by the emergence of Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita in what is now Iraq. In the late Middle Ages, centers of Jewish learning, including the study of science and medicine, emerged in what is today northern Spain and southern France.

Until the early 19th century, however, most education of Jewish boys was primarily religious. That began to change with the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement initiated by East and Central European Jews.

This intellectual movement sought to blend secular humanism with the Jewish faith and to encourage openness to secular scholarship among Jews. It revived Hebrew as a language of poetry and literature, which reflected the reformers’ appreciation of their Jewish religious heritage. At the same time, they were strong proponents of reforming Jewish education by including secular subjects, such as European literature and the natural sciences. This educational project often brought the reformists into conflict with more orthodox Jewish religious leaders.50

Contemporary religious norms and doctrines, including teachings on gender

Scholars also have explored how religions’ cultural norms and doctrines may affect educational attainment by determining which subjects are taught in schools, how much emphasis is placed on religious knowledge versus secular education, and if there is gender parity in educational attainment.51

There has been considerable research on ways in which religious teachings on gender roles may be linked to women’s educational attainment. Some scholars have noted that from the Reformation onward, Protestant groups encouraged educating women, with effects that still resonate today. “Martin Luther urged each town to have a girls’ school so that girls would learn to read the Gospel, evoking a surge of building girls’ schools in Protestant areas,” write economic professors Sascha O. Becker, of the University of Warwick, and Ludger Woessmann, of the University of Munich. Looking at 1970 data for European countries, the two conclude that countries with higher shares of Protestants were “clearly associated” with greater parity between men and women in years of education.52

Woodberry and Nunn, experts on missionary activity in sub-Saharan Africa, both highlight the Protestant missionaries’ insistence that girls and women be educated. In the missionaries’ view, “everyone needed access to ‘God’s word’ – not just elites,” writes Woodberry. “Therefore, everyone needed to read, including women and the poor.”53

By contrast, cultural and religious norms in Muslim societies often hinder women’s education. Lake Forest College political scientist Fatima Z. Rahman examines how family laws in Muslim-majority countries can affect women’s higher education. She finds that when a country’s family laws closely conform to a strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, the share of women in higher education is smaller. This is not the case when family laws are based on more general Islamic precepts. The stricter laws “impose a limit on physical mobility which is typically required for pursuing higher education or a career,” Rahman concludes.54 There are signs that this could be changing, however, as women make gains in higher education in some conservative Muslim countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council – including Saudi Arabia.

Some academic studies have probed ways a particular religion’s attitude toward secular knowledge – whether it is seen as a necessity for spiritual growth or as a distraction from achieving personal salvation – can affect the pursuit of formal education. In this regard, sociologists Darren E. Sherkat, of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Alfred Darnell, a visiting lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, find that “fundamentalist beliefs and conservative Protestant affiliation both have significant and substantial negative influences on educational attainment.” Young followers of fundamentalist religious leaders, they add, “will likely limit their educational pursuits.” They suggest that Christians who regard the Bible as inerrant – that is, as the error-free word of God – are less likely to enroll in college preparatory classes and “have significantly lower educational aspirations than other respondents.”55

While Darnell and Sherkat focus their research on Christians in the United States, their observations about how religious attitudes toward secular knowledge may affect attainment offer possible insights into attainment patterns seen in other religions and other parts of the world.

Some scholars, however, hypothesize that higher levels of religious observance and engagement produce greater educational attainment. They posit that religious involvement enhances an individual’s social capital in the form of family and peer networks, which promote educational success. University of Texas sociologists Chandra Muller and Christopher G. Ellison, in a study of U.S. teenagers, find that there is “a positive influence of religious involvement on several key academic outcomes,” such as obtaining a high school diploma.56 Similarly, in her study of women raised as conservative Protestants, University of Illinois economics professor Evelyn L. Lehrer observes that those who frequently attended religious services during adolescence completed one more year of schooling than their less observant peers.57

Strong social capital also is proposed by Paul Burstein, a sociologist at the University of Washington, as a topic needing further research to explain the high educational attainment of Jews. Research focused on the social capital approach, Burstein argues, provides “a framework for showing how Jewish religious beliefs and practices, and the organizations created to sustain them, help Jews acquire skills and resources useful in the pursuit of secular education and economic success.”58

Burstein argues that previous studies looking at “beliefs or behaviors that are specifically Jewish,” or at Jewish “marginality” – either from traditional Judaism or Western society in general – have not offered complete explanations for Jewish educational success.

While this chapter looks at the impact of religion on education, there are also theories on education’s impact on religion – perhaps most notably, that high educational attainment could potentially lead to a shedding of religious identity. If this is true, one might expect higher percentages of religiously unaffiliated people in parts of the world with high educational attainment. A sidebar in Chapter 3 explores data relating to this question, finding mixed results.59

The puzzle of sub-Saharan Africa’s attainment gap

As noted earlier in this report, the difference between Christian and Muslim educational attainment in sub-Saharan Africa is among the largest intraregional gaps in the world. The region’s rapid projected population growth – both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to double in number by 2050 – suggests that determining the reasons for the attainment gap will only grow in importance.60

Some scholars suggest that the source of the Christian-Muslim attainment gap is rooted in the location of Christian missionary activity during colonial times. Missionary-built educational facilities were often located in what became heavily Christian areas rather than predominantly Muslim locales.61 For example, while school establishment was widespread as a result of missionary activity in many regions under British colonial rule, in northern Nigeria, which is now overwhelmingly Muslim, British colonial administrators discouraged missionary activity, including development of missionary schools. Historic differences between colonial policy and missionary activity in northern and southern Nigeria are likely an important factor in the present-day Christian-Muslim education gap in Nigeria.62

Some Muslims, in any case, feared that missionary schools would attempt to convert their children to Christianity.63

As a result, Christians gained an educational edge over Muslims that lasted decades. Writes Nunn: “The presence of Christian missionaries, particularly Protestant missionaries, has been shown to be strongly correlated with increased educational attainment and the effects appear to persist for many generations.”64

In his study of Christian versus Muslim primary school enrollment, Holger Daun, an expert in educational policy at Stockholm University, argues that religion counts as much as economic factors in determining attainment. He finds no definitive explanation for the gap, but posits that one factor may be that religious schools set up by local Islamic leaders are viewed as an alternative to government schools. Some of the Islamic schools follow the curricula of state schools, while others teach only religious subjects.65

Melina Platas, an assistant professor of political science at New York University-Abu Dhabi, argues that the Christian-Muslim attainment gap, particularly in Muslim-majority areas, is only partly explained by poverty and access to schools. Surveys she conducted in Malawi found that Muslims and Christians express similar demands for formal education and do not perceive a trade-off between religious and formal schooling that would affect educational attainment.66

She offers two alternative explanations for further research. One, she writes, is that parents with low levels of education are less able to help their children attend and succeed in school “even if they have similar expectations for the economic returns of schooling as more educated parents.” This intergenerational pattern may be stronger in Muslim-majority areas, where many parents have low educational attainment.

Platas suggests that a second possible explanation, particularly for Muslim-majority areas, is that some Muslims may believe that secular government schools are Christian-oriented. As during the colonial period, therefore, they may fear that attending these schools poses a threat to their religious identity and to the practice of their faith.67

Sociologist Nicolette D. Manglos-Weber of Kansas State University offers a similar insight based on her research in 17 sub-Saharan African countries, finding that “religious identity shapes the odds of completing primary school.”

“At both national and local levels,” she writes, “there is an association between Christian groups and the state, which potentially discourages those of other religions from seeing state-sponsored schools as legitimate.”

As a result, Muslims may not favor state-sponsored schooling for their children to the same degree that Christians do, preferring instead to send them to Islamic religious schools. Muslim participation is even lower in countries that have mandatory teaching of religion in government primary schools, Manglos-Weber adds. She characterizes the perceived lack of legitimacy as a “legacy of the historical links between Christian missionization and the colonial project.”68

A major challenge for African nations is that their populations have been rapidly expanding even as their governments struggle to allocate resources for universal education. In Ivory Coast, for example, anthropologist Robert Launay contends that an economic boom following independence favored those who had been educated in the colonial era and convinced many Muslim parents of the economic benefits of state schooling. However, he laments, “As the economy contracted, the population continued to expand, so that it would have been necessary to continue an aggressive policy of building schools and hiring teachers simply to maintain the quality of universal state education. … [I]n the face of mounting debts, Côte d’Ivoire was obliged by the international community to embark on a policy of structural adjustment, and in particular to rein in government spending. Under such constraints, expanding the education system was out of the question.”69

In sum, scholars are still exploring the reasons behind differences in educational attainment between Muslims and Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. The gaps appear to be partly a result of historical developments, especially Christian missionary activity and colonial policy. A host of contemporary economic, social, cultural and religious factors may also play a role.