Religiosity Was The Only Thing That Declined

In a surprise only to the disingenuous and rabidly religious, a University of Munich study published (PDF) in the Centre for Economic Studies (CESifo) reports that the lack of religion in schools only makes people less religious.  And in fact, it makes them more moral.

From the National Secular Society of the UK:

RE promotes religiosity but not morality, German study finds

Religious education promotes religiosity but not broadly shared moral and political values, research suggests.

Researchers at the University of Munich’s Institute for Economic Research have found German states’ decisions to replace compulsory religious education (RE) in the 1970s with optional ethics classes significantly reduced pupils’ religiosity in adulthood.

The researchers’ findings were published in a recent study, Can schools change religious attitudes? which found students with the option to attend non-denominational ethics classes rather than RE were less likely to describe themselves as ‘religious’ (49% verses 52%) or ‘very religious’ (9% verses 11%) as adults.

[. . .]

The paper also found the non-denominational ethics option led to a decrease in conservative gender and family attitudes, particularly around beliefs that men are more suited for certain jobs, and a decrease in prejudice towards unmarried couples.

It also found no significant impact on pupils’ “ethical-value outcomes including reciprocity, trust, risk preference, volunteering, and life satisfaction” or “political-value outcomes such as political interest, satisfaction with democracy, or left-right voting patterns”.

So, being raised without religion encouraged social and personal responsibility, more respect and equality for women, and more respect and equality for LGBTQIA people.  And young people’s sense of morality improved.  Whodathunkit?

Here’s an excerpt from the PDF linked at the top.  Emphasis after the title is mine:

Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education


We study whether compulsory religious education in schools affects students’ religiosity as adults. We exploit the staggered termination of compulsory religious education across German states in models with state and cohort fixed effects. Using three different datasets, we find that abolishing compulsory religious education significantly reduced religiosity of affected students in adulthood.  It also reduced the religious actions of personal prayer, church-going, and church membership.  Beyond religious attitudes, the reform led to more equalized gender roles, fewer marriages and children, and higher labor-market participation and earnings. The reform did not affect ethical and political values or non-religious school outcomes.

[. . .]

8. Conclusions

Our study investigates whether compulsory religious

education affects people’s religiosity in the long run. We argue that the different timing of reforms that abandoned compulsory religious education across German states provides plausibly exogenous variation in individuals’ exposure to compulsory religious education. Students could now choose to attend non-denominational ethics classes rather than religious education, which likely also changed overall social norms towards religion and, by competitive pressures, the content of religious classes. We find that, conditional on state and birth-year fixed effects, the termination of compulsory religious education led to a significant reduction in the religiosity of affected students in adulthood. The reform reduced the share of people reporting to be religious by about 3 percentage points (compared to an average incidence of 52 percent) and of those reporting to be very religious by 2 percentage points (average 11 percent). Similar standardized reductions are found in three measures of religious actions – prayer, church-going, and religious affiliation.

We do not find that the reform affected ethical values and behavior such as reciprocity, trust, volunteering, and life satisfaction, nor political values and behavior such as interest in politics, satisfaction with democracy, or voting. It appears that the counterfactual of attending non-denominational ethics classes was equivalent to attending religious-education classes in terms of these outcomes, speaking against concerns in the policy debate at the time that abolishing compulsory religious education may deteriorate students’ ethical orientation.

Beyond the religious sphere, the reform also affected family and economic outcomes.  Affected students express less conservative gender and family norms later in life. This finding provides insights for the literature on gender norms which shows that these norms are important determinants for lifetime outcomes (e.g., Kleven et al. (2019); Jayachandran (2021)). Yet, it is not well understood where these norms come from. Our results provide evidence that changes in school curricula can impact gender norms, implying that they are malleable in public settings outside the family. The abolishment of compulsory religious education also affected actual family outcomes – lower incidence of marriage and number of children – as well as labor-market outcomes – higher employment and earnings. Thus, the reform also had economically relevant repercussions.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … students with the option to attend non-denominational ethics classes …

    Quite possibly the students who chose that option already had those tendencies, to that (fairly minor) degree.

  2. Allison says

    Religion in Germany is handled rather differently from in the USA (and probably than in the UK or Canada), and that should be considered when interpreting the results.

    I lived there from 1978 to 1981, and at least at that time, membership in a religion was done by registering your religion with the state, who would collect “church tax” which would go to the church you belonged to (Catholic or Lutheran.) This registration also determined which religious instruction your children would get in the (state-run) schools. You could register as “not religious” instead of Catholic or Lutheran, in which case your children would get “ethics” class instead of Catholic or Lutheran religion classes. I don’t know for sure, but I had the impression that registering as “not religious” was the only way for your children to get out of the religion classes.

    I heard from some children that other children noticed who was getting “ethics” classes, and this could make one’s life in school more difficult.

  3. avalus says

    German here. First what Allison said is true, but you can also change your RE class in school, regardless of registered religion, some pupils just want to share that class with thier friend. Also I think (I am away from scholl now for 15 years…) there are not also islamic classes. At least there should be.

    I bet ethics makes people more moral, allthough, catholic RE got me away from religion like … something really repellent. Ethics was nice.

    In general, religions have lost much of the influence it had before. The christian conservative party gets less christian each election. (but no less conservative, sadly)

  4. Allison says

    One other thing I remember from my time in Germany: at least among the people I knew, there wasn’t the level of respect for the churches that there often is here in the USA. Although I did not personally have much contact with the established churches (Catholic and Lutheran), I got the impression that people thought they acted like another branch of the government, and were no more moral or concerned with how their members felt about them than any other government agency.

    I think that a large part of their problem was that they were being paid by the government and so didn’t need to worry about how their members thought of them (or even whether they attended church.) Here in the USA, churches are supported by voluntary contributions, mostly by people who are involved with their local parish, so if they don’t attract people, they go out of business.

    Avalus: does this agree with your experience?

    BTW, the USA media are really terrible about reporting on what goes on outside the USA, so I don’t know if there have been scandals in Germany about clergy sexually abusing children like there are in the USA. I do recall hearing the suspicion that the reason Ratzinger resigned as Pope was that he was somehow involved in the cover-ups, and Ratzinger (who I always called “Rattenfänger”) was bishop in Freising when I lived there. So I wonder if there was stuff like that going on in his diocese when he was there.

  5. says

    I am a bit confused, though, with it saying “The reform did not affect ethical and political values or non-religious school outcomes,” but also “Affected students express less conservative gender and family norms later in life.” So…it did affect political values??? Or is it trying to say that no other values were affected beyond those specifically mentioned?

  6. avalus says

    @Allison: Church is mostly for the elderly in my experience. I only go inside them if ever for the art and architecture and I don’t have religious friends. So I can’t really say. I do know, that we are slowly running out of priests, as you have to learn priesthoofd here, ans it seems not too popular.

    There have been sex scandals for decades, mostly catholic but some lutherian and lots of scandals trying to cover up for scandals.