Religious Education Has Benefits Secular Ed Lacks

Published January 1, 2017

Having students think about religion increases their political tolerance and ability to delay gratification, new research suggests.

The study’s conclusions call into question choice programs that tend to favor public charter schools over private schools.

The study, titled “Losing My Religion? The Impact of Spiritual Cues on Noncognitive Skills,” published in October 2016, concluded, “Although difficult to disentangle its impacts from confounding variables, research suggests that religiosity is a positive predictor of educational outcomes. … We find that religious cues increase students’ self-regulatory capacities, a predictor of educational attainment, and boost political tolerance. These findings provide preliminary evidence to suggest that religious-based education provides benefits that their secularized equivalents cannot fully emulate.”

Rice University researcher Daniel H. Bowen and University of Arkansas researcher Albert Cheng, the study’s authors, randomly assigned 180 secondary students at a public boarding school to an experimental task with religious, secularized, or neutral cues.

“With our study, we attempted to simulate a regular occurrence that takes place in religious schools: the presence of subtle religious cues,” Bowen told School Reform News. “Since students were randomly assigned to this religious cue treatment, regardless of personal religious beliefs or family background, our findings suggest that the benefits that religiously educated students experience can likely be attributed in some part to these religious schools.”

Encouraging ‘Grit and Diligence’

Cheng says test scores aren’t necessarily better at religious schools, but religious schools’ students are excelling in other areas.

“These kids aren’t smarter per se, but something is going on in these schools,” Cheng said. “It’s a possibility that these religious private schools aren’t teaching more content knowledge or teaching it better, but [they are] affecting kids in these other important dimensions: non-cognitive outcomes like grit and diligence. We wanted to see whether we could isolate the impacts that these unique types of schools might have.”

Bowen says the study is different from similar studies conducted in the past.

“Our study is unique in that we experimentally manipulated, through priming, high school students’ exposures to religious cues to examine their impacts on their willingness to delay gratification and exhibit political tolerance,” Bowen said. “While many studies have been conducted in this area before, it was the first, to our knowledge, to have examined the impacts on secondary school students. Additionally, other studies in this field typically base conclusions on correlations between educational outcomes, religiosity, character building, and delayed gratification. We administered our study in a laboratory to assess a causal relationship.” 

Religious Schools ‘Support Good Behavior’

Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, says religious schools provide benefits well beyond the teaching of facts and figures.

“Religious schools provide a comprehensive framework and worldview in which one’s life and behavior can be grounded,” McTighe said. “They reinforce the moral fabric of society, support good behavior, and inspire students to respect others. They develop character and instill an understanding that [while] on this Earth, we have been given this life for a reason.

“The experiment seems to reinforce the common-sense notion that replacing religious schools with charter schools carries consequences,” McTighe said. “Religious schools can establish a particular type of culture and identity that charter schools cannot. The faith and religious teachings that inform those schools, and that help students tackle central questions about life’s meaning and purpose, are simply off-limits in charter schools.”  

Continuing the Research

Bowen says there’s more research to be done on this subject.

“An inherent limitation to conducting studies in the lab is that although we can be more confident in our conclusion that religious cues cause improvements in students’ abilities to defer gratification and exhibit tolerance, we’re less certain that these results can be extrapolated to other settings,” Bowen said. “Additional studies are needed to determine the generalizability of our findings.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.


Daniel H. Bowen and Albert Cheng, “Losing My Religion? The Impact of Spiritual Cues on Noncognitive Skills,” Journal of Catholic Education, October 2016: