Religion and Education – What has actually been shown?

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Every once in a while I either read or hear an atheist tell people, as though to make atheism sound like a more intellectually plausible position, that there is a measurable connection between education and atheism. In short, the message is that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist, or at least the less likely you are to be a religious person of any sort. You may have heard Richard Dawkins say at one of his public speaking events that this is a fact that studies have shown.

Here’s a sample of such publicity that I’ve grabbed at random:

Dawkins also mentions that of 42 studies carried out since 1927, all but four found an inverse connection between religion and intelligence — that is, the higher the intelligence and education, the less likely people are to be religious. Of scientists, a very low percent are religious.

Very often, what a person is confident that “studies show” will depend very much on what a person is looking for in a study, perhaps even on what they want the studies to show. Here’s a good example: In 2007 a study was conducted wherein 728 students from Oxford University were interviewed about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). 49.6 percent of these students said that they had no religious affiliation, while 57.3 percent of them were prepared to say that they were either “atheist” or “agnostic.” Most polls put only around 5 percent of all Britons in this category.

OK, let’s stop reading the data there. Pretend that’s the whole story. How do you suspect someone like Dawkins will interpret this fact? Why, it naturally reinforces the claim that educated people are more likely to be atheists, and by extension, that atheism gains some credibility from this fact. Right?

When I hear such studies cited, I wonder how much information is being left out, perhaps accidentally, but probably not. For example, I failed to mention in reference to the Oxford students that postgraduate students – those who had successfully completed their undergrad courses and were now pursuing higher degrees – were noticeably more religious than undergrads. Does this mean that atheism is more for people who have just discovered higher education and who prematurely think they know it all, but when they learn a bit more they calm down and reconsider theism? Or perhaps it means atheists are over-represented among those whose results are not good enough to move on to postgraduate study. I have no idea, but for some reason you never hear facts like this cited by the atheists who make the appeal to education.

You likewise don’t hear that it’s not just atheism that shows a correlation with education. For example, a World Values Survey from 2005 showed something interesting:

What is more, the survey shows a far stronger correlation between education and certain “irrational” beliefs: for example, only 29.6 per cent of those without even an elementary education believe in telepathy, compared with 51.8 per cent of people with degree-level education.

To be consistent, what’s good for atheism must surely be good for telepathy.

To be consistent, what’s good for atheism must surely be good for telepathy. Or maybe the truth is that people with a tertiary education are creative enough to come up with defences for strange and perhaps silly beliefs, such as belief in telepathy (or atheism).

Although they don’t state it quite like this, check out the longer piece on this in New Scientist. Also at that page, have a look at the conclusions of David Voas, who notes that the supposed atheism-education connection “has not only weakened but reversed.”

Is this an argument against the truth of atheism? No. It is a response to one type of sociological argument against religious belief. It isn’t even a necessary response, since if there are reasons to believe something, then it makes no difference that educated people have believed otherwise. But it’s a useful response nonetheless.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Rob R March 23, 2010, 6:18 am

    When I have more time, I’ll look at that new scientist article as I’d like to see how this data conflicts the typical greater education=less religiousity claim.

    When I have been confronted with this before, I suggested that far from making a product of ignorance, I had alternate interpretations. One was that our western education with some to much emphasis on skepticism challenges our intuitions that less educated people would take for granted. But while we ought to scrutinize intuitions, that we have these intuitions contributes to a broader case for spirituality.

    From a Christian point of view, that more education leads to less religiosity would be consistent with the view that the dominant philosophy of the world that is ultimately at odds with God. That one learns to be skeptical of his religious intuitions doesn’t mean he will not gain sophisticated credulities (for example, such as the idea that skepticism is always more intellectually responsible than trust/faith)

    Another suggestion I made is to emphasize that at least Christianity is a religion for all of humanity, including the uneducated and yet, particularly the humble. Knowledge puffs up after all and can make one conceited, and pride even from education can blind people.

    I have cited one good counterexample from Doctors, a class of people often smarter than even scientist who are generally more religious than typical. A general practitioner once told me that general practitioners were generally the smartest doctors but also the most religious (you could cite bias but he said this was based on a study). Contrast that with psychiatrists who are the least religious and the most suicidal (not that I’m correlating suicide to intelligence… and the data on doctor suicides isn’t exactly great since suicide is rare even amongst a very small group and small groups make for mediocre statistics).

  • Rob R March 23, 2010, 7:26 am

    If the correlation holds (ignoring your challenges to it) I’d also question whether it held in non-western cultures. China of course is influenced by Marxism so I don’t think it would clearly count, and there is the heavy compulsion to atheism there, but I have doubts that such a correlation holds in Japan or India. It might not hold in Islamic countries, but that’d be scued for the opposite reason of China with a near compulsory requirement to be Muslim.

  • Mike Crowl March 23, 2010, 7:10 pm

    Religion and Eduction? OR are you trying to show that you’re not educated enough to spell the word? LOL

  • Glenn March 23, 2010, 8:52 pm

    Let’s pretend we didn’t see that…. *reaches for correction fluid*

  • Paul from Canterbury Atheists March 30, 2010, 3:10 pm

    Statistially the more atheistic a population is the more likely the crime-level in that country will be amongst the lowest anywhere on the planet and the country is likely to be first world.

    Contrastingly the more religious a country is the more likely it is to be both crime-ridden and third-world.

    Yes, there are exceptions to the rule one – U.S for example – and rule two Vietnam springs to mind – but by-in-large the less believers you have in a country the more it makes-it a more prosperous and safer place.

    That’s irrefutable and thanks for highlighting it.

    All the best.

    Paul.

    More along these lines:

    http://canterburyatheists. blogspot.com/2009/06/atheist-countries-top-global-peace.html

    http://canterburyatheists. blogspot.com/2009/02/holidays-in-theist-hell-holes-join-our.html

  • Glenn March 30, 2010, 5:01 pm

    Paul, why did you say “thanks for highlighting it”? Did I even mention it? I do find that from time to time your quips are more than a little dishonest. Ironic, given your claims about religion and immorality.

    I also wonder why you made a few comments but didn’t say anything at all – not even in passing – about the actual subject of this blog entry. Do you find it distasteful?

    Since you’ve clearly looked carefully at the matter Paul, let’s hope that you could answer some really brief questions:

    Do you think that non-religious people comprise the same set as the set of those who positively identify as atheists?

    You’ve referred to both prosperity and crime. In the careful study that you’re (no doubt) referring to, what was the correlation between prosperity/economically developed nations and crime? In other words – are you absolutely certain that you’re analysing the right parameters?

    Also, aren’t you at all concerned by the naivety of the comparisons here? For example, does it not strike you as absolutely obvious that you’re get a better comparison by comparing, say Shintoists in Japan with atheists in Japan? Or Reformed Christians in America with unbelievers in America? Or Catholics in Sweden with atheists in Sweden?

    Thanks in advance for the answers!

    No honest sociological study is just going to compare religious people (of all religions, no less) in one part of the world with atheists in a different part thereof. I can’t help but wonder how important honesty really was in this study you have in mind… Say, there was a study, right?

  • Matt March 31, 2010, 7:50 pm

    One question I would ask is what is the requisite field that the respondents to the survey are educated in. Suppose, I found that majority of legal scholars did not believe in quantum mechanics, or majority of physicists did not agree with a particular interpretation of a given statute, this would tell us nothing at all because legal scholars have no expertise in physics and have limited knowledge in the field. Similarly physicists have no training in legal interpretation.

    The question then of whether educated people believe X is of little relevance more interesting is whether people who educated in the particular field that studies X believes in X.

    What’s interesting is that when you engage in this kind of study the results are quite interesting. A recent poll in Philosophy for example found that majority of those who specialize in disciplines other than Philosophy of religion are atheists. However the vast majority of those who do specialize in philosophy of religion are theists.

    In other words, atheism tends to dominate in fields other than the one that actually studies the arguments for and against the existence of God. When you look at the field that actually studies whether God exists or whether its rational to believe in God most do believe.

  • Paul from Canterbury Atheists April 1, 2010, 2:36 pm

    I let the facts speak for themselves Glenn…

    The Top Atheistic Countries (% of population) are…

    Sweden
    Vietnam
    Denmark
    Norway
    Czech Republic
    Finland
    France
    South Korea
    Estonia
    Georgia
    Russia

    The Top Theistic/Superstitious Countries (% of population) happen to be….

    Egypt
    Bangladesh
    Sri Lanka
    Congo
    Indonesia
    Sierra Leone
    Malawi
    Senegal
    Dijbouti
    Morocco
    U.A.Emirates

    Which of the B-list would you prefer you kids to live-in or make a trip to?

    Why not Congo where you and the family could avoid all those evil secular atheists back here in N.Z and get to embrace a population that embraces religion?

    I’m happy for you to provide a breakdown of where the criminal fraternities in countries like Sweden come from i.e. atheists versus the varying religious elements. My info on that country shows the Muslim crime element is the highest.

    The only study I’ve seen on this subject (within a subject) which was done in The U.S proved (a.) the highest percentage of religious adherents from any given community could be located in your local prison (b.) someone who is Christian is more likely to get divorced than an atheist.

    But on a country versus country basis the facts are plan as the nose on your face.

    Theists are largely poorer and more criminally minded.

    Have a great Easter there Glenn.

    Cheers.

    Paul.

  • Glenn April 1, 2010, 9:40 pm

    Paul, I note again (but I just can’t see why) that you don’t want to say anything – anything at all – about the subject of this blog post. Do you have nothing to say about it? But if not, why are you commenting at all? If I didn’t know better I’d say you were trolling me and trying very, very hard to distract people from the information in this blog post. Why, Paul?

    And as I once again note, you only let some of the facts speak, and you leave out the kind of facts that could significantly affect what the rest of the facts are actually saying.

    You are (again) are not able to explain what the correlation was between prosperity/economically developed nations crime – even though this is one of the very points I raised.

    You are also (again) are not able to account for the obvious and crippling flaw in the nature of the comparison between nations, and you show no interest in the suggestion that I offered for how a reliable result could have been obtained. It’s not up to me to “do the breakdown,” is it? You’re the one drawing the inference, so you’re the one who has to do the groundwork before you get to draw the inference, surely. It’s hardly respectable to make an announcement based on some obviously incomplete research and then say “I know, it doesn’t follow, but hey, you fill in the blanks yourself, and then you’ll see I’m right.”

    Why don’t you want to take factors like these into account? Do you think they would make the inference more or less reliable? If so, why? All you did in your last comment is to re-assert what you said earlier. What I’d really like you to do is to be more critical, and put honest pressure on yourself to resist bias confirmation.

    Get back to me if you do fill in these gaps some time, I’d be interested in the result.

    Cheers – you enjoy your Easter too Paul. You have a couple of things to think about!

    Glenn

  • AgeOfReasonXXI December 11, 2010, 11:25 am

    “To be consistent, what’s good for atheism must surely be good for telepathy”
    that’s pathetic. you can quible all you want about how those studies are somehow flawed, or that educated people are more gullible than uneducated people (which is doubly pathetic, Christian), but the fact remains: the majority of the people with higher education do not believe that an illiterate carpenter was raized from the dead (the reason, of course, being that, unlike you, they are concerned about whether they’re perceived as having committed an intellectual suicide or not). reflect on this: 93%(!) of the top scientists in the U.S. are non-believers!do you think they also believe in telepathy, faith-head?

  • Nathan December 11, 2010, 1:19 pm

    93%? Source please.

  • Jeremy December 11, 2010, 11:10 pm

    @ AgeOfReasonXXI

    “top scientists” please define?
    “illiterate carpenter”….. Jesus Christ may have been a carpenter [ its a reasonable assumption but we dont really know], as firstborn son in that time he was certainly literate and is in fact recorded as being able to read and write.
    I will leave you to check for yourself but some of your spelling indicates a compromised literacy.

  • AgeOfReasonXXI December 12, 2010, 6:18 am

    ““top scientists” please define?”
    top = most brilliant and most distinguished. that would be those at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
    “93%? Source please.”
    the poll was done in 1998 (and don’t tell me you’re not aware of it), it was published in Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313:
    Personal belief (in God) among scientists at NAS: 1914: 27.7%, 1933: 15%, 1998: 7.0%!
    here’s a link: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html
    but, of course, educated people are more likely to believe in telepathy, right? so this poll surely only shows the gullibility of the best scientists…
    “as firstborn son in that time he was certainly literate and is in fact recorded as being able to read and write.”
    sure, he was also had an excellent scientific education: he knew that all life forms on this planet share a common anscestor, that the Universe is 13.7 billion yrs old, that starts are giant nuclear reactors fussing hydrogen into hellium and other elements, etc., etc. his understanding of reality is unsurpassed to this day…

  • Glenn December 12, 2010, 4:26 pm

    “you can quible all you want about how those studies are somehow flawed,”

    Misrepresentation. I have not faulted the studies I cited. I have faulted the way some people try to use those studies, as I explained in the original blog entry. Not liking my explanation is not the same as pointing out an error in it.

    Why don’t you comment on what I actually said?

  • Jeremy December 12, 2010, 9:54 pm

    US NAS top scientists by self definition then. I am not impressed.
    93% of the US’s top scientists believe the US is the best place in the world to live and work. 93% of the US’s top scientists believe the US NAS is the best.
    What % of US scientists actually belong to the NAS?

  • Jeremy December 12, 2010, 10:12 pm

    @AgeOfReasonXXI
    I see your literacy hasnt improved.
    Not entirely sure what the point you were trying to make is. Last i looked Jesus spent most of his ministry teaching about our relationships with each other and with God. I would be very suprised if evolutionary theory or sub-atomic physics ever came up for discussion. No record of it anyway, so it would all be speculation.
    My point, in case you didnt understand, is that no Christians [educated or otherwise] believe that “an illiterate carpenter was raized from the dead”. If you feel the need to insult us please do it for the right reasons.

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