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

  • Keith Parsons

    Interesting post. Zuckerman strongly opposes what I call biological belief theories (BBTs) that propose explanations of religiosity in terms of neurology and evolutionary biology. Recent proposers of BBTs incluce Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, David Sloan Wilson, and Daniel Dennett. Zuckerman argues that if there were strong biological propensities towards religiosity, we would not see such vast cultural differences in rates of belief. For instance, in Ireland 95% believe in God, whereas in France only slightly more than 50% do. Zuckerman thinks that these differences show that religiosity is a culturally-determined phenomenon, not grounded in human biology to any significant extent.

    I read these numbers differently. If France–home of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert), and the nation above all others influenced by the forces of militant secularism–still has half of its people believing in God, this makes me suspect that something deeper is going on. Also, just because people no longer believe in the theistic God doesn’t mean that they have not opted for other kinds of religious or quasi-religious supernaturalism.

  • truthmattes

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • truthmattes

    I have a BA degree, my husband, a BS and is he is also Fellow in the Society of Acturaries, the equivalent of a PHD. You’ll excuse us then for ruining your theory that only the unintelligent are “Bible Believers”! “Heaven helps us all!” The more we study the world and the Bible the more we believe it. My research is what led me to this site. I was researching a topic (unintellligent me!) when I came across some ‘intelligent’ responses refuting an article that Jim Lippard wrote. I wanted to read his article, too. There is insecurity about those trying defend their lack of belief with proud claims of intellectual superiority. Think about that!

  • Jim Lippard

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Jim Lippard

    truthmattes: If you wouldn’t mind, please post the references to the intelligent refutations of an article I wrote here or at my blog where you’ve also commented.

    BTW, I don’t think membership in the SOA is equivalent to a Ph.D. It looks like a professional society with rather rigorous admissions requirements (passing multiple exams and meeting education requirements), but a Ph.D. typically requires 4-6 years of course work, passing a set of preliminary or comprehensive exams, and writing and defending a dissertation (usually a book-length work). The SOA admissions sound like they may be approximately equivalent to comp exams–something perhaps equivalent to passing the exams for a chartered financial analyst. It looks like it might be more demanding than a master’s, but less than a Ph.D.

  • Bradley Bowen

    The key question is: Does education promote strong-sense critical thinking?

    Strong-sense critical thinking implies more than just the ability to present clear and logical arguments for cherished beliefs and prejudices. It requires that one be able to think fairmindedly about, and from, multiple and opposing viewpoints, even viewpoints that one has strong feelings against.

    If education really promoted strong-sense critical thinking, then I believe it would reduce the extent of religious and superstitious belief. At the least it would reduce the number of uncritical and dogmatic religious believers, making it much easier to engage in serious and thoughtful discussion with believers.

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