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In 1949, post-war Germany decided to mandate religious education in public schools. Over 58,000 adults received this religious education for a total of about 1,000 hours — “about four times as much as for physics.”

But that started ending in different West German states beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the early 2000s. In those areas, students were given the option of taking those religious education classes or an alternative that focused on ethics from a secular perspective.

That scenario also created the opportunity to answer vital questions: What happens when you stop forcing religion on children through the school system? Will society be worse off with less religion? What are the differences between kids who went through the religion classes and those who didn’t?

Those are tough questions to answer because there are so many variables in play, especially in a country going through so much political and cultural change, but here was a natural experiment just waiting to be mined for information.

People have finally done that digging.

In a working paper by Benjamin W. Arold, Ludger Woessmann, and Larissa Zierow of Ludwigs-Maximilians University’s Center for Economic Studies and the ifo Institute, the researchers have found some stunning conclusions.

  1. Students who took the secular ethics class were less religious as adults.
  2. Students who took the secular ethics class were no less ethical than their counterparts in the religious education classes — at least when measured by volunteering hours or ethical attitudes.
  3. There was an overall decrease in “conservative gender and family attitudes.”
  4. There was a decrease in people thinking men were “better suited for certain professions” than women.
  5. There was a decrease in the number of people who believed marriage was a requirement if a couple was cohabitating.
  6. There was a small reduction among the secular ethics crowd in the percentage getting married (58.5% compared to 60%) and the number of kids they had (1.31 kids compared to 1.4 on average).
  7. There was an increase in the labor market, with the secular ethics side working more hours per week, on average, and earning more.

Overall, the results suggest that the reform impacted people’s lives well beyond the religious sphere… 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 nondenominational 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.

None of this research suggests the religious education classes were a problem, per se, only that the non-religious ethics classes weren’t apocalyptic by any means. The sky didn’t fall. Students became less religious, but no less ethical when it came to the usual ways we measure that in a society. And on some of the changes when it comes to marriage and children, it’s not like the decrease is necessarily a bad thing. You don’t win points for having more children.

Again, this is only one way to measure the results and there are other variables in play. But as Europe becomes less religious in general, and critics complain about how that’ll lead to problems in the future, the paper reminds us that a society without God isn’t a society going down the wrong path.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.