Does More Education Lead to Less Religion?

According to a new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Daniel M. Hungerman, an economist at Notre Dame who studies religion, the answer is yes. At least in his Canadian data set:

For over a century, social scientists have debated how educational attainment impacts religious belief.  In this paper, I use Canadian compulsory schooling laws to identify the relationship between completed schooling and later religiosity.  I find that higher levels of education lead to lower levels of religious participation later in life. An additional year of education leads to a 4-percentage-point decline in the likelihood that an individual identifies with any religious tradition; the estimates suggest that increases in schooling can explain most of the large rise in non-affiliation in Canada in recent decades.

A key paragraph:

The estimates suggest that, all else equal, one extra year of schooling leads to a 4 percentage-point increase in the likelihood that an individual reports having no religious affiliation at all; a reasonably large effect. Results broken down by religious tradition are somewhat imprecise, but suggest that most of the rise in non-affiliation is driven by a decline in Christian-but-not-Catholic participation. The effects of the laws are not driven by any particular Canadian province. The results suggest that gains in educational attainment can explain over half of the striking rise in non-affiliation seen in Canada during the past half century. These findings provide compelling evidence that education leads to secularization, a result that stands in contrast with most prior research.

Photo: iStockphoto

Among the other papers Hungerman has written or co-authored are “Does Church Attendance Cause People to Vote?” and “Does Religious Proscription Cause People to Act Differently?” It is good to see someone trying to answer important questions like these through empirical means rather than falling back on stereotypical explanations.

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  1. James says:

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    • Guestspeaker says:

      James et al,

      These studies apply econometric techniques – it’s a way of simulating experimental settings from observational data, and it can be pretty powerful at getting at causality (this is the Freakonomics blog after all). Therefore, the tired adage “correlation is not causation” is a strange argument to present here!

      I’m also guessing that the author uses changes or differences in compulsory education to help get at causality – compulsory education is “exogenous” in it is imposed from the outside, setting up a kind of natural experiment between cohorts.

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  2. Sridutt says:

    Yes it does. I guess thats because learning how the world works makes you think in terms of scientific proof, and also gives you a sens of your own worth. Religion, on the other hand, is a mode of thinking that needs faith more and proof less, and also is designed to make you stay within prescribed norms of behavior or thought or other related things.

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    • Laura Lee says:

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      • David says:

        Understanding the symbology of religious mythology doesn’t make one religious. I’d say lots of non-theistic people can understand that symbology, science-centric education or otherwise.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    Higher native smarts correlates with higher education which causes (or helps cause) lower religiosity. Well, Duh….

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  4. Sam says:

    Check out “Higher Education as Moral Community: Institutional Influences on Religious Participation During College” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by one of my sociology professors. He just presented his research to us for the Sociology Club at my school about a month ago and it appears that his research shows a similar result. It appears that there are more secularist at the most elite schools. This article also provides data on the religious practices of those who attend religiously-affiliated institutions. My professor got his PhD from Notre Dame, so perhaps the studies are related.

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  5. Scott Templeman says:

    May be overlooking that athiests, not having a faith-based belief structure to fall on, would be more inclined to study sciences and human studies in greater detail. I am also curious about the data set- he mentions Canada’s compulsory schooling laws in his abstract. Does the data include students who went to private (religious) schools? Does he segment by the type of religion (different religions are more science friendly than others)? He looks at athiesm and agnosticism as the symptoms of increased schooling, does he explore if this may be a product of the current conditions? If theologians and academics have been at each other’s throats for decades, if one was subsidized heavily would we not see an increase the kind of sentiments they would teach?

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  6. Andrew says:

    What does this say about divinity school Ph.D’s?

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  7. Dan says:

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    • KT says:

      I’m curious where you get your data that professors are more likely to be atheist or agnostic and likewise the data that supports their evangelising of students. Any pointers?

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      • Christopher Heward says:

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    • laura says:

      The way Catholicism is structured would make Catholics the exception to the rule of more education results in less religious affiliations. Now if only Catholics would be less sexist.

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    • Joey Joeboots says:

      I know plenty of devout Catholics who don’t even believe in God.

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    • Guestspeaker says:

      Dan Dan Dan…

      These studies deal with averages and trends. If your personal anecdote doesn’t match the findings, it just means that your parents happen to fall into one side of the trend.

      e.g. something like 20% of the general population is non-religious, but around 50-60% of PhDs are non-religious.

      And professors at elite colleges certainly don’t try to “convince” their students of atheism. I’ve attended some good schools and never once did the topic of religion or belief come up… only how to critically evaluate evidence against statements of what’s “true” given by others.

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    • pawnman says:

      So, you’re willing to discount the thousands of data points the study has because you have two data points from your parents that dispute his findings? The author doesn’t state that everyone who gets a higher education is atheist, he says that they are more likely to be atheist…how many of your parents’ colleagues are atheist? How does that compare to, say, the folks at the local manufacturing plant?

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  8. herman melvillain says:

    Isn’t that sort of like saying more alcohal leads to more intoxication?

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