Does education have any effect on religious belief?

I’ve been reading Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God. It’s a very interesting book, and I’ll write a short review at some point. But one paragraph of statistics he cited caught my attention:

Sociological studies have consistently shown that the more educated a person is, the less likely he or she is to accept supernatural religious beliefs. For example, a recent Harris poll found that of Americans with no college education, 86 percent believed in the resurrection of Jesus, 77 percent believed in the Virgin Birth, and 74 percent believed in the existence of hell. But belief in such things was noticeably lower among those highly educated Americans possessing postgraduate degrees, of which 64 percent believed in the resurrection of Jesus, 60 percent in the Virgin Birth, and 53 percent in the existence of hell. A recent Gallup poll found that of Americans with no college education, 44 percent consider the Bible to be the actual word of God to be taken literally, but of Americans with graduate degrees, only 11 percent maintained this view of the Bible.

I interpret these numbers to mean that education has practically no causal effect in encouraging skepticism about the supernatural.

That maybe an odd thing for me to say, because these polls, taken at face value, seem to support the more common view among nonbelievers: that education in modern knowledge causes supernatural beliefs to lose plausibility. But I don’t think that these polls support such a claim.

First, there is the perennial correlation-causation problem. That is, education may itself correlate with a different variable that is causally much more significant in reducing intensity of belief. One candidate is wealth and income, or, more broadly, having a more secure position in life. It is well-known that security reduces motivation to look for supernatural sources of help. The poor and those who may seem well-off but are one slip-up away from job loss or health catastrophe are more likely to be religious than those sitting comfortably. Education may lead to a drop in religiosity indirectly, through its effect in promoting better job prospects and higher security in life.

Second, such polls do not account for self-selection. Those of us involved in higher education often observe this. Of our science undergraduates who go onto graduate school, a smaller proportion are religious compared to those who do not go onto a postgraduate degree. But this has very little to do with education changing anyone’s mind. The more secular students who decide to go for a Ph.D. were already more secular when they walked in the door. The more religious students who decided an undergraduate degree was enough already had more conservative, family-church-and-community ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives. At all levels of education, secondary through postgraduate, I expect self-selection effects are very important, probably more so than any causal effect of education.

Third, the polls above measure only conventional supernatural beliefs. There are may supernatural beliefs in the US that correlate positively with education. They just happen to be those that are more paranormal and associated with Eastern religions in character. My conservative Christian students happen to be more suspicious of UFOs and parapsychology and more accepting of creationism; my less Christian-identifying students tend the opposite way. I don’t suppose this effect is huge, but it does muddy the waters. There is a certain amount of shuffling around of supernatural beliefs that is missed by the polls.

And so on and so forth. In the end, if there is a direct causal effect of education promoting nonbelief, I think it is likely to be small. I certainly don’t expect it to have more than marginal significance. After all, look at even the bare poll numbers. 60% of Americans with graduate degrees are reporting belief in the Virgin Birth, with similar numbers for traditional Christian supernatural beliefs. These numbers are huge, even if slightly smaller than the numbers for those without college. You take a belief like the Virgin Birth, which by the standards of modern knowledge is as crazy as belief in witchcraft, add an extra ten years of highly sophisticated training, and all you get is a drop from 77% acceptance to 60%? This would suggest that secular education is remarkably ineffective in promoting a more secular overall view of the world.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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