That the West is secular and Christendom is dead are accepted facts; why and how this happened has been debated for over a half-century. The conventional answers to this question—the advance of science, biblical criticism, technology—do not stand up to scrutiny. As I detailed on my Substack recently, Mary Eberstadt’s How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization convincingly lays the blame at the feet of the Sexual Revolution.
Earlier this month, National Review published an interesting essay examining an additional culprit: Public education. After debunking various conventional narratives, Cameron Hilditch reaches an interesting conclusion in “How the West lost God”:
In fact, the overwhelming cause of secularization in the West has been government control of education. An important distinction must be made here. It is not the case that educational attainment lowers religiosity. As Lyman Stone noted in his own report on America’s declining religiosity:
Evidence that education reduces religiosity is fairly weak: American religiosity rose considerably from 1800 until the 1970s, despite rapidly rising educational attainment. But the evidence that specifically secular education might reduce religiosity is more compelling. Indeed, statistically, most researchers who have explored long-run change in religiosity find that education-related variables, which I have argued are a proxy for secular education, can explain nearly the totality of change in religiosity.
The notion that secular education “can explain nearly the totality of change in religiosity” is a bold thesis, but it’s supported by Franck and Iannaccone’s research. In their own words, their work “does not show that schooling lowers religiosity.” Rather, it is the particularly secular nature of government schooling in the Western world that accounts for religious decline. Summing up the implications of their research, Franck and Iannaccone write:
Our results fit well with studies that link religious commitment to religious capital accumulated through experience, instruction, and interactions. Where you stand depends largely on where you have been sitting, and with whom. And most youthful sitting occurs in schools. The principal policy lessons should not surprise public choice researchers: schools are instruments of indoctrination, both religious and secular; competing interests battle endlessly over every aspect of education; and no institution wields more power in modern nations than the centralized state.
As they put it more pithily at the conclusion of their study, “greater government funding of schools brings more government control over the content of schooling, and the content of schooling shapes religious commitments.”
The statistical calculations that Franck and Iannaccone make using the data they’ve gathered are staggering. They present a rough counterfactual history of how religious trends would have differed in America if no government money had been spent on education from 1925 to 1990:
Our results predict that average attendance for Children in 1990 would have been about 11.8 percentage points higher and for Parents about 8 percentage points higher. By way of comparison, the actual average drop in attendance from 1925 through 1990 was 11.81 percentage points for Children and 11.79 for Parents.
Franck and Iannaccone concede that “these estimates strike us as too close to be true,” but they reach the same conclusion as did Stone. The estimates “imply that greater public spending accounts for all of the drop in 20th century religiosity across our ten Western democracies.”
If we were more attuned to this research, surely there would be a tectonic shift in how we think about politics and cultural change. It’s become transparently clear that the instruction given to children early in life is hugely determinative of the beliefs they hold as adults. This is not a hasty deduction drawn from a single study. A wealth of evidence has been accumulated by researchers across disciplines testifying to the fact. For anyone whose care for the future of their country extends beyond their own tax rates, this means that every domestic political issue ought to take a backseat to education. The secular turn taken by public education during the last century and the prohibition or desertion of religious instruction in government classrooms has been almost solely responsible for secularization. We have no reason to believe that the government schools will be any less effective at indoctrinating children with a new metaphysic as they’ve been at rooting out the old one.
What we omit to teach children is as important as what we do teach them. By excluding religious instruction from government-funded schools, and by ramping up public spending on these schools year after year and decade after decade, the governments of the West have imbued children with the notion that religion is a kind of weekend hobby, like baseball or going to the movie theater. It’s hardly surprising then, that fewer and fewer of them are taking traditional faiths seriously while more and more of are conversant with the alternative liturgical rites they’re taught in the classroom.
What’s more, as Stone writes, “even as public schools are becoming more rigidly secular, they are claiming a growing share of children’s lives.” He goes on to note:
Accounting for increasing years of schooling, changing attendance among enrolled students, increasing total enrollment as a share of the population age 3 to 17, and changing length of school terms, the average number of days spent in public schools for kids age 3 to 17 has risen from about 20 days a year in 1840 to nearly 150 days a year today.
This leaves religious believers with two options. On the one hand, they could start to build institutions with a view to overturning the existing prohibition on taxpayer funding of explicitly religious schools. The strict laicité-like reading of the establishment clause that underwrites this prohibition is completely ahistorical as far as an originalist reading of the Constitution is concerned, and there’s no textual reason why it should prevail in the long term if resistance is persistent and organized enough. Of course, in a diverse and expansive country that is home to many religions, tailored religious instruction will never make a comeback in the public schools — for practical reasons, to say nothing of the legal challenges that would arise. But there are many countries in the world wherein both secular government schools and religious schools receive state funding, and there’s no reason why this arrangement couldn’t obtain in the U.S.
The other option would be for parents to pull their kids out of public school and either homeschool them or pay for them to attend private religious schools instead. This is the easy way out for affluent parents, to be sure, but it would require creative and generous charity work on their part in order to make such an option available for eager working-class families.
These are the only two realistic routes to a religious renaissance in the United States. Secular schooling is the cause of religious decline in the West, and only actions that address this cause will change its effects.
Civilization is a process as well as a product, and the school is the place wherein the process of civilization is enacted, yielding its final product in the form of grown men and women inducted into the social order of which they’re a part. If control over schooling is ceded to those who are hostile or even just indifferent to religious faith, how could we expect anything other than a drift toward a less religious society? Whether we are urban or rural, childless or fecund, conservative or liberal in our outlook, well-credentialed or not, the crucial question, empirically as well as morally, is this: What will we teach our children to associate with the true, the good, and the beautiful during their earliest and most impressionable years? The fate of our social order depends much more on how we answer this question than we seem to realize.
I would argue that the situation is even worse—I noted that the public education system was poisoning children with gender ideology leading to dramatic and irreversible damage in a recent essay. But again—and I make no apologies for sounding like a broken record here—the conclusion is the same. Parents must take responsibility for the education of their children. If it is left to the state, the outcome, while not inevitable, is likely—an increasingly secular generation. That this is coming to pass is transparently obvious from every data set we possess.