Religion – wrongfully suspected. Social origin is the real obstacle to education. By MARCEL HELBIG

Translated by Carola Leyendecker and Christine Crawford.

During the 1960s, Hansgert Preisert and Ralf Dahrendorf blamed the fictional "Catholic working-class country girl" from the west German educational system for many incidents. They also heavily discriminated against 'her' with regards to social class, gender, rural ancestry and confession.1 Nevertheless, analysis wasn't able to show any connection whatsoever between 'her', the incidents and discrimination. Did being a Catholic actually have a negative impact or were Catholics just often found amongst the workforce in rural areas? Preisert assumed the latter: Catholics displayed lower academic results in southern federal states (the only regions where they were discriminated against), because they were part of disproportionately low social classes or because they tended to live in the countryside more often. However, other authors saw Catholicism as an obstacle to education itself.

Thorsten Schneider and I based a new study on Preisert's idea: We are able to show that the discrimination against Catholics at that time, can be fully ascribed to their low social origin. The "Catholic working-class country girl" was first and foremost a working-class girl from the country.

Protestant cities were wealthy cities
Why is it, that Catholics were rarely part of higher social classes during the start of the federal republic, and even less so throughout the 19th century and into the start of the 20th century? Why was it so unusual that they went to academic high schools or universities? Max Weber stated that the origin of this kind of disparity can be traced back to the 16th century.2 Particularly highly developed areas and wealthy cities had turned to Protestantism. As Preisert explains this is the reason why still at the beginning of the 20th century Protestants hold the largest share of capital holdings, as well as enjoying well paid and high level jobs.

Last, but not least, the widely-read book "Das Kapital im 21. Jahrhundert" by Thomas Piketty, states that a historically unique extent of social disparity and an exorbitant concentration on funding exists. It was almost impossible to jump from one social class to another by gaining higher qualifications, For example, Catholics in Preußen, were not allowed to undertake any jobs within the civil services until 1918.

At that time, it was only really children of the protestant elite who could be found at higher academic schools or universities. This was not due to the fact they actively took part in confession, but actually down to their social position. In other words, Protestants handed down their academic ability to the next generations over decades, if not centuries. Furthermore, a larger number of Catholic students dedicated themselves to theological studies. Approximately 42 percent of Catholic high school graduates in Baden began ministerial studies between 1891 and 1893. Thereby almost half of Catholic high school graduates were not to expect legitimate descendants, that could have guaranteed a sophisticated parental education tradition, Preisert states.3

During the crisis and war within the first half of the 20th century, a resolution of these disparities began and resulted in a social assimilation of children attending Christian confession groups. Even in 1970, Catholic children in Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg still came from socially unfavourable family situations, compared to Protestant children. This was why Catholic children still seldom attended academic high schools. However, it was their social status, not confession that was the deciding factor this time. On the other hand, in 1970, Catholic children in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg and Berlin (strongly coined by Protestantism) had greater academic success than Protestant children. Here, the few Catholic children came from socially better placed families. In both cases, confession was only a secondary attribute to academic success. Social origin was crucial, but is it so today?

Children of no religious belief have a higher social standard
When comparing different religious or confessional groups in western Germany, it is clear that children from families who do not attend confession, are more likely to attend academic high schools than children from Protestant or Catholic families (academic results are about 8% higher). Results are even higher in Muslim families (33%). However, once again: These differences are socially based and not due to religion. If one compares Protestants, Catholics and Muslims with an equal level of education, job status, income and number of children, there will be no noticeable differences in the educational establishments attended. Nowadays, children from families who do not attend confession, have a slightly higher social standard than children from Catholic and Protestant families.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that highly educated people are more likely to stop attending church than lower educated people. However, children brought up in Catholic or Protestant families who do not attend confession, tend to benefit from a much better social situation, than children brought up in Muslim families. We can prove this by looking at a number of Western European countries. Muslim children in the 8th grade, demonstrate lower academic ability in in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.4 In equal social situations (measured by their parents' education and job status), there are no differences in ability displayed by Muslim children, in almost every one of these countries.5

So, it is true for Muslims as well as Christians: Their practised religion as well as moral concepts or ideologies linked to it, have almost no influence on the course of children's education.

So, it is true for Muslims as well as Christians: Their practised religion as well as moral concepts or ideologies linked to it, have almost no influence on the course of children's education. More importantly, is that some religious communities do not have as much access to social networks, cultural education or economic goods as others. This disparity is solidified by the high social selectivity of the education system over generations: During the 18th century, the number of secondary schools in Protestant regions was higher than in Catholic regions. Overall, Catholics were placed lower with regards to region (school location), culture (parents' education) and economic situations than Protestants, until World War I.

Disadvantage of Muslim children
Educational disadvantage of Muslim children in Germany and Western Europe, has socio-historical reasons too. Beginning with the recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey in 1961, Muslims immigrated in larger numbers. They came from particularly under-privileged population classes in their home countries and took unskilled industry jobs.

Even if the Muslim community did not really differ from Germany's social population structure in the periods of immigration that followed, Muslim children still come from lower social classes today. Last, but not least, this is a result of the highly and socially selective German school system. Children of Turkish immigrants are believed to make up the largest Muslim group in Germany. They are three times less likely to attend an academic high school straight after finishing elementary school than children from a non-Turkish immigration background. Nevertheless, when comparing children whose parents have an equal level of education, no differences can be found between these two groups.6 Turkish children seem to follow the same academic route as their parents' generation.

Social features can explain the differences between religious and ethnic groups. However, this is not a particularly pleasing result. Catholics from the 19th century or Muslims from the 20th century, are not at all lacking or underprivileged, when we link their lack of education to their social origin. These groups highlight the lack of education within specific population classes, more than social science based research. They illustrate the unequal education opportunities in Germany. Discrimination against Catholics lasted at least 200 years, until it finally disappeared during the huge social revolution of the 20th century. Muslim children will continue to have a hard time within the German school and education system, for as long as social origin determines education and academic success. Will they be able to catch up faster than the Catholics did back in the 16th century? The German school system does not offer much hope.

Further reading: Piketty, Thomas: Das Kapital im 21. Jahrhundert, Munich 2014.

[1] Cf. Peisert, Hansgert: Soziale Lage und Bildungschancen in Deutschland, Munich 1967.
[2] Cf. Weber, Max: Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, in: Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (ed.): Neue Folge des Archivs für Soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik, Vol. 20/21, Tübingen 1904/05.
[3] Cf. Preisert 1967, p. 83.
[4] Helbig, Marcel; Schneider, Thorsten: Auf der Suche nach dem katholischen Arbeitermädchen vom Lande. Religion und Bildungserfolg im regionalen und historischen und internationalen Vergleich, Wiesbaden 2014.
[5] Only in Norway and Belgium is the disadvantage due to religion unnoticed in social contexts. For further discussion of these exceptional cases cf. Helbig/Schneider 2014.
[6] This is shown by own calculations using data from the 2008 micro-census.


Write a comment

First Name: *
Email: *
Your Comment: *



  1. Sociology Capital and Religion

  2. Officer Training Studying versus practical experience

  3. Parliamentary Elections Strongest Parties in European Countries

  4. Who is an idiot?

  5. Population Growth and Population Decrease