A religious upbringing may fuel academic success. Here’s how

New research explores the link between ‘intense’ religiosity and high school GPAs

For highly religious teens, being faithful involves more than praying often and attending church. It also entails being a good person and honoring God in all that you do.

“If you believe that God is watching you and evaluating whether you go to heaven, you’re going to try to be a conscientious, cooperative kid in all domains of your life,” said Ilana Horwitz, author of the new book, “God, Grades and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success.”

That effort helps explain why these teens stand out from their peers on more than just faith-related metrics. Horwitz’s research shows that “intense religiosity” can lead to better academic outcomes, too.

Intensely religious teens “have the kind of disposition that schools reward,” she said.

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In a series of analyses, Horwitz has shown what this reward looks like in practice. She’s found that young people who pray and attend church regularly, see religion as very important and believe in God with absolute certainty are more likely than average to earn higher GPAs in high school and complete more college education.

As Horwitz noted, these results likely stem from teachers’ affinity for respectful, conscientious students. If you’re religiously motivated to play by the rules, you have an advantage over other, more rebellious kids.

However, the same faith-related traits that can fuel success in the classroom may lead to problems for intensely religious teens later in life. Highly selective colleges, for example, generally reward risk-takers, as well as students who prioritize more than getting straight A’s, said Horwitz, who is an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Tulane University.

“Conformity could come at a cost,” she said.

Is it faith or some other factor?

Horwitz is not the first researcher to conclude that the impacts of a religious upbringing go beyond the realm of faith. Previous studies have shown that religious young adults are more likely than their unchurched peers to avoid risky behaviors and report good mental health, among other positive effects.

“Frequent religious service attendance is related to a variety of health outcomes, including great psychological well-being, high life satisfaction and character strengths such as a sense of mission in life,” said Ying Chen, an empirical research scientist for Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, referring to a study she published in 2018.

But skepticism persists about the validity of these findings, despite the wide variety of studies that have been done. Scholars question whether outcomes like academic success truly stem from faith-related factors or whether they, instead, stem from some related variable that hasn’t been addressed.

“It could be the case that a kid who is really religious is more likely to have parents who sit and do homework with them and be really involved in their school,” Horwitz said.

In her new research, Horwitz was able to investigate that specific possibility by comparing siblings’ performances in school. She showed that, on average, intensely religious teens earn higher GPAs in high school than their less religious brothers or sisters, thereby backing up her previous findings about the link between academic success and faith.

One variable that she hasn’t yet figured out how to test is personality, which may influence both religious and academic outcomes. It’s possible that kids who are naturally predisposed to rule-following and respecting authority may be more likely than their peers to be intensely religious, Horwitz said.

“One of the primary reasons why these intensely religious kids do well academically is that they’re conscientious, cooperative and really good at rule-following. Those traits may be the part of their personality” that’s deepening their connection to faith, she said.

Potential downsides

As Horwitz promotes her new book, she’s trying to help non-academics understand nuances like these. She’s also trying to prevent parents across the country from scrambling to apply her findings to their family life.

“It’s very easy for someone to pick this up and think I’m encouraging people to become more religious,” she said.

In reality, she’s more interested in critically examining the types of behaviors that school systems reward. A child who is conscientious and respectful may easily earn straight A’s, but that doesn’t mean they’ll thrive in the real world, Horwitz said.

“You could be really good at ‘doing school’ and knowing how to navigate routines and regulations and rules but that may not prepare you to function in life,” she said.

In other words, there may be downsides to being well-positioned for academic success and, relatedly, downsides to being deeply engaged with religion from a young age.

For example, Horwitz found that many intensely religious young people gravitate toward less selective colleges, often because they want to stay close to home and the familiar comforts of their current routines.

“They are very comfortable in the life they have and nervous about college because they have heard that college is a place where religious beliefs will be questioned and professors are liberal. They seek social homogeneity,” Horwitz said.

The bottom line is that the traits and habits shown to be associated with intense religiosity will serve young people well in some areas of life and not as well in others, she added.

“The answer to whether religion is good or bad for you depends on what dimension of life you’re considering,” Horwitz said.