Masters Thesis

A is for Adam: secularization and the decline of religious authority in American public schools

Recent studies show the changing religious landscape of the United States, with a distinct rise in the unaffiliated, also referred to as the “rise of the nones” (Keysar 2014, Pew Research Center 2017). Scholars continue to debate the causes behind this shift, but it is evident that the United States is becoming a more secular nation. Classical theorists predicted that as societies modernized, this process would create a decline in religious affiliation. Mark Chaves reimagined the modernization thesis, and contends that modernization results not necessarily in the decline of religion, but the loss in religious authority over various institutions (Chaves 19940. In support of Chaves’ theory, this thesis performed quantitative analysis to examine the relationship between public schools and religious authority. To do this, I used data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Private School Universe Survey (PSS) to examine the trend in enrollment in religiously affiliated private schools. Findings from the NCES and PSS showed a marked decrease in the enrollment in religiously affiliated private schools. I also used the General Social Survey (GSS) to perform one bivariate analysis and two multivariate analyses that assessed the relationship between the variables GSS year and approval of the 1962 ban on school sponsored prayer. The bivariate analysis showed a significant increase in support for the ban over time. Multivariate analyses showed statistically significant relationships between current religious affiliation, with religiously affiliated respondents less likely to approve of the ban compared to the unaffiliated. When controlling for religion in which respondent raised, those raised with a religion other than Catholic or Protestant were more likely to approve of the ban, compared to nones. These findings support Chaves’ theory of religious decline as it relates to the institution of education.

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