Do private schools make people religious?

Surely question 15 [on the ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition’] is just looking ahead a little – with an ever increasing proportion of the country’s children being funneled into Christian schools (as applauded by Andrew) Australia may yet become a Christian nation.

commenter Russell today.

With my CIS colleague Jennifer Buckingham I am working on a paper which looks at differences between people who went to government and non-government schools. I have a fair bit more work to do for my part of the project, which is examining surveys that ask respondents what kind of school they attended and then seeing if I can find any interesting differences between them. But some initial results from the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes might be of interest.

One pattern that does seem reasonably consistent is those who went to non-Catholic private schools are closer to people who went to government schools than those who went to Catholic schools (suggesting the difference may be Catholic/Protestant rather than public/private; an hypothesis I will need to explore).

This starts with the basic question of whether the respondent has a religion. 69% of people who went to government schools and 71% who went to non-Catholic private schools say they have a religion, compared to 86% of those who went to a Catholic school.

37% of government school and 38% of private non-Catholic school attendees say they have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in churches or religious institutions, compared to 54% of those who went to a Catholic school (the question is ambiguous; the respondents may have confidence in their own church but not churches generally).

On attending church, 12% of government school and 17% of private non-Catholic school graduates attend weekly or more, well short of the 25% of those who went to Catholic schools. Of those who never attend, the proportions are 40%, 32%, and 18%.

For actually belonging to a church or religious organisation, the numbers are slightly higher than weekly attendance for all groups: 15%, 19% and 28%. But interestingly, attending a private school seems to make little difference to dropping out: 28% of both government school and non-Catholic private school say they used to belong to a church or religious organisation, and 32% of those who went to Catholic schools. I had thought that attending a religious school might be aversion therapy that would put people off church, but if true at all it only seems true for Catholics. But it does seem that parents who send their kids to private schools because of their ’emphasis on religion’ may not always be getting their money’s worth.

From the work I have done so far, attitudes on most issues don’t seem to vary significantly down the public/private divide. This conclusion may change as I do more research. One question is worth reporting here. It asks whether politicians should make decisions that reflect Christian values. 43% of Catholics agreed with this proposition; but 38% of the other two groups. But what these people mean by ‘Christian values’ is as vague as it is in the citizenship test.

Overall, it seems rather unlikely that the rise of private schools will have much impact on the future religious beliefs of Australians. And to the extent there is any concern, it would favour dropping the current objections to and prohibitions of for-profit schools. For secular parents, it would let them escape the public school system without exposing their kids to religious indoctrination.

19 thoughts on “Do private schools make people religious?

  1. “For secular parents, it would let them escape the public school system without exposing their kids to religious indoctrination.”

    The obvious retort is that religious indoctrination should be kept out of the public school system.


  2. “Do private schools make people religious?” we’ve gone off-topic, my fault – I should have typed ” a nation of Christian values” rather than “a Christian nation.” Meaning the school might leave with you some of its values, though not with the whole religious thing.

    I bet you find it hard to measure, or even get some agreement on what values these schools actually teach, let alone their lingering effects. Were Brian Burke, Kevin Rudd, Damien Eldridge and I similarly affected by the Marist Brothers’ teachings – probably not.

    As I remember, the main values or habits taught there were obedience and conformity. Along with hypocrisy, actually, since it didn’t really natter what you believed as long as you seemed to listen to sermons, learnt the Catechism, did the Stations of the Cross, and prayed for vocations.

    Reflecting the local community and spirit of the times, the other great virtue was ‘respectability’. No, you couldn’t go home after sport in your sports clothes, only in the school uniform (including hat) and not with one sock any lower than the other. We were minutely inspected – sideburns could be down half-way the length of your ear – no more! etc. Civilisation was a life-long battle against sex, and the slovenliness of the lower classes.

    In the end I guess the schools were just reinforcing the values of the people who sent their children to them. There probably aren’t surveys to show the difference over time, but as Jack S. suggests on the other thread – it would be interesting to see if there was a big break between the institutions’ religious values, and those of the congregations, between 1965-1975. I suspect in the Catholic Church there was and is still persists.


  3. I know it’s only anecdotal evidence, but I went to a private high school jointly run by the Anglican and Uniting churches. As they agreed on almost no points of doctrine, there were often two school pastors and almost no religious education.

    Secularists worried about indoctrination should encourage schools to be jointly run by churches with different doctrines: Catholics + Lutherans, Anglicans + Uniting, AoG + Adventists, Mormons + Anyone. Boy that’d be fun.


  4. Great study; it’s just a pity that the causal factors are so hard to tease out. What you guys really need is an experiment that randomly assigns kids to schools. With the available data, it’s hard to see how you can answer Russell’s question.

    Also, you should be careful of assuming that the effect of the average religious school is the same as that of the marginal religious school. The current objections are over schools that are far more doctrinaire (eg. radical Muslim/Christian) than the typical outfit that produces lapsed Catholics.


  5. “lapsed Catholics” – never did like that phrase so was pleased to read of someone who described himself as an alumnus of the Catholic Church – has a sort of ‘have moved on’ appropriately flippant connotation.

    Last night on the radio there was an interview with someone conducting a National Church Life Survey
    who said that the pre-war generation was still going to church (like my mother, 86) but the baby boomer generation was missing. She described us as “resentful” of the Church, and suggested that younger people today may be more receptive to the Chruch’s teaching/values because they don’t have that resentment.


  6. “How do we teach greater resentment” – I think the law of resentment tells us that the degree of resentment equals the force that is compelling us to do something. So you expect greater resentment when you have a Pope John-Paul 2 or Maggie Thatcher oppressing you. Benedict seems to be trying the wolf-in-sheeps-clothing tactic – they don’t want to alienate another generation…..


  7. Andrew – Though the people we are critiquing dislike private schools generally, not just the ‘marginal’ private school. And I would expect that as the private school system expands it is more likely still to produce graduates with attitudes near the norm, as people with religious parents are already disproportionately likely to go to religious schools.

    On a quick check of the 2005 AuSSA, of people with school age kids and who are actively involved in a religious organisation 48% send their kids to government schools, compared to 72% of those who have never belonged to a religious organisation.


  8. Andrew, I guess we must be thinking of different arguments. While some people are trying to re-run the debates of the 1960s, I think there is also a more sensible critique that worries about government funding going to religious schools that breed intolerance.


  9. Andrew – I agree that you raise an argument that is less ridiculous than the standard critique of private schools. But I’m not sure that it will be widely made, as the ‘progressive’ supporters of public education have conflicting ideological/political agendas, with Muslims having acquired victim status.


  10. Well, I’m in favour of harsh regimentation and relentless indotrination in religious schools. You’ve got to give young people something to rebel against, and such a regime will ensure that religions have lots of alumni in Russell’s sense.

    As dsquared once said*, religious teaching in schools teaches kids a really important lesson – that adults can sprout the most godawful shite.

    *BTW, has anyone seen any comments by my favourite blogosphere commentator lately?


  11. Andrew Norton wrote:
    But I’m not sure that it will be widely made, as the ‘progressive’ supporters of public education have conflicting ideological/political agendas, with Muslims having acquired victim status.
    Well, spell them out. What exactly are those agendas and where is your evidence for Muslims having acquired victim status? Andrew Leigh raised the same criticism of your analysis that I did weeks ago: the old catholic/protestant divide has all but disappeared and attempts to revive it by the right will amount to nothing. The real issue at stake here is that increased federal funding of private schools may lead to further relative cuts in the far more important area of public schooling, where the majority of kids are being educated. That is a scandal – it erodes the very foundation of democracy in a modern nation.


  12. David – The conflict is between saying Islamic schools could foster intolerance etc and therefore should not be funded and complaining that Muslims are ‘demonised’ by the Howard government, tabloid newspapers etc.

    And who mentioned reviving the Catholic/Protestant social divide? I think your imagination is running wild again…


  13. Andrew Norton wrote:
    (suggesting the difference may be Catholic/Protestant rather than public/private; an hypothesis I will need to explore).
    Ring a bell?


  14. David – That is pointing out a sociological difference, not a social divide. It’s not even a big difference. People who went to Catholic schools are slightly more religious than people who went to other schools.


  15. Er… you are aware that a great many private, non-Catholic schools are effectively non-religious, aren’t you? You describe the possibility of a Catholic/Protestant divide, but I suggest that you would be far more likely to see a divide between ‘doctrinal’ religious schools (Catholic, Jewish, for instance) and ‘non-doctrinal’ private schools which are essentially secular.


  16. Paul – Nominally Protestant schools particularly enrol students from many religious backgrounds, and don’t enforce religious observance. Even those that are doctrinal aren’t necessarily that heavy with the religion. The one I attended, for example, largely kept the religion to the morning assembly and one period of Bible studies per week.

    Unfortunately it isn’t possible in the dataset I am using to isolate which school respondents went to.


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