Why Do Atheism Rates Correlate With Education Levels?

Why Do Atheism Rates Correlate With Education Levels? October 9, 2009

Carlo Strenger argues the case that the statistical correlation between increased education and increased rates of atheism is not a coincidence or a matter of conformity for the sake of status among intellectuals:

Nick Spencer shows that there is indeed a correlation between educational level and atheism. In the US this phenomenon is far more pronounced: a recent Pew survey shows that among scientists in the US only one-third believe in God, as opposed to 83% in the general population.

For some reasons it seems to be anathema to say that there might be an intrinsic reason for the correlation between educational level and the rejection of religion: atheism takes training, and is more difficult. We accept that in medicine, physics and mathematics, but, for reasons of political correctness, it is very much considered a faux pas to say the old 19th-century thing: it takes education to develop a worldview based on science. It would be even more outrageous to say that the reasons for choosing atheism over religion might actually be valid, as the so-called new atheists have dared to claim. It seems that it has become something of a class-thing (not necessarily socio-economic, but of belonging to the politically-correct elite) to bash Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens.

Cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner has shown that there is an essential difference between the unschooled mind which picks up certain things without formal training and the mature, schooled mind. The unschooled mind acquires sensorimotor and interpersonal skills, language – and stories. The human mind is naturally inclined to think in anthropomorphic terms. A child is more prone to explain the behaviour of dots on a computer screen through intentions and beliefs than through the workings of a computer programme.

Religions primarily function through stories that are easily remembered, because they’re counterintuitive. We more easily remember stories about people going to heaven, resurrecting the dead and splitting the waters of the sea, because these events (called “miracles” in religious parlance) run against what we know about the world. Hence religions are easily taught from age 3 onwards, and, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out angrily, it is very difficult for humans to let go of stories that have been inculcated by the authority figures we depend on as children.

Complex theories like classical physics (let alone relativity and quantum physics) and evolutionary theory can only be taught once the mind achieves the ability to abstract thought (what Piaget called “formal operations”), ie in adolescence. Understanding these theories requires training, and they are always at a disadvantage vis-a-vis anthropomorphic stories used by most religions.

Throw in the emotional reasons to want to believe in religious teachings (most prominently to believe that we will survive our deaths) and you have the deck stacked against scientific reasoning and in favor of religious sorts.  Strenger claims this is an “evolutionary advantage” of religion.  I have to chew on that last bit.

I also apparently need to think about how to incorporate more counter-intuitive stories in my lectures for explaining the finer and more abstract points of philosophy.

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