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Negative Effects of Religious Practice

Throughout the literature, some findings indicate certain religious attitudes and practices can detract from educational achievement.

1. Motivations for Religious Practice

Researchers cite two types of motivation for religious practice: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for religious practice seem to result in two very different types of outcomes.

Intrinsic motivation is related to moral standards, conscientiousness, discipline, responsibility, and consistency. Those who are intrinsically motivated (intrinsics) are likely to be more sensitive to others and more understanding of their own emotions. They tend to have a greater sense of responsibility, are more self-motivated, and have greater internal control.

By contrast, extrinsic motivation relies on secular benefits such as those derived from religious affiliation and is often linked to self-indulgence, indolence, and a lack of dependability. Such individuals (extrinsics) are more likely to be dogmatic, authoritarian, and less responsible. They also tend to have less internal control and are less self-directed. Furthermore, numerous findings link extrinsic religious motivation to similar, self-centered behaviors. For example, studies documenting racial prejudice among church members found that those who are the most racially prejudiced either attend religious services infrequently or are extrinsically motivated and practice religion simply as a means for fulfilling their own ends (e.g., membership in a social group) rather than for prayer and worship.

In general, extrinsics have more anxiety about life’s ups and downs than intrinsics do. Intrinsics’ religious beliefs and practices are more integrated and consistent. For instance, they are more likely to attend public religious services and pray privately. By contrast, those who pray only privately and do not attend public religious services tend to have a higher level of general anxiety, a characteristic typical of extrinsics. One set of findings on anxiety about death showed that extrinsics fared worse than intrinsic believers, but also worse than those who do not profess religious belief. All of these findings confirm the conclusion in 1968 of Gordon Allport, then professor of psychology at Harvard University: “I feel equally sure that mental health is facilitated by an intrinsic, but not an extrinsic, religious orientation.”

Despite some findings indicating the occasional negative outcomes, the vast majority of research studies cite the positive effects of religious practice. Typically, findings of negative effects are linked to specific circumstances related to particular forms of religious practice, most of which could be described as “malpractice” of religion

2. Fundamentalism and Biblical Inerrancy

Kraig Beyerlein, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, details the effects of different religious affiliation and found that Jews, by far, attain the most education.

Within conservative Protestantism, according to Beyerlein’s study, there are varied outcomes. Fundamentalists have, in general, the lowest educational attainment. Evangelicals are twice as likely to earn a college degree as fundamentalists and three times as likely as Pentecostals.

Alfred Darnell, Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis, and Darren Sherkat, Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University, found that belief in Biblical inerrancy has a significant negative effect on educational attainment overall, while also limiting the college preparatory courses taken in high school. From their twenty-year longitudinal panel study, they also learned that educational aspirations and college completion are significantly lower for fundamentalists. However, non-fundamentalist children of fundamentalist parents do better than their fundamentalist siblings. Other researchers showed similar results leading to similar conclusions.

Part of the fundamentalist reluctance to encourage the pursuit of higher levels of education may lie in religious leaders’ experience that increased education frequently weakens religious belief and practice. This experience is confirmed by social science: Sherkat and Ellison found that educational attainment increased the likelihood of breaking ties with religious organizations. Those individuals who exceed the educational attainment of their religious peers were likely to leave their faith or switch denominations. Additionally, Sherkat and Ellison found that higher education lowered the likelihood of holding onto traditional religious beliefs. Another study confirmed that higher levels of education tend to erode the strength of religious convictions.

On the basis of utility theory, C. Simon Fan, Professor of Economics at Lingnan University, found that individuals with higher education and income (measures of human capital) tend to have little need for the social capital that religion confers; thus, their utility for religion is zero or negative (i.e., their opportunity cost for religious activity equals or exceeds the social capital benefit of religious participation). Therefore, according to Fan, as human capital increases, participation in religion should decrease, at least for those whose practice is based on utility motivations.

3. Religion and Sexual Behavior

Although frequent religious attendance is highly correlated with less sexual activity among those who are not married, some religiously observant individuals do become sexually active. These individuals tend to use contraception less and thus do not have the protection of abstinence or barriers to prevent pregnancy or infection. Among adolescent males from divorced families, there are indications of a positive correlation between frequent church attendance and an increased number of sexual partners. This relationship, however, does not appear among female adolescents from divorced families.